Missing the Woods for the Trees

by vaughn_admin  //  

July 14, 2016

In light of recent attacks against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq by the jihadist group ISIS, as well as ongoing attacks against Christian minorities in other regions,  Cornerstone  has asked respondents to discuss global Christian persecution. Contributors focus on the patterns of persecution and the attitudes informing these human rights violations. 

By: Mariz Tadros


Can’t see the woods for the trees? Religious Pluralism and Islamist Political Movements Worldwide

Mounting evidence of the genocide of the Christian and Yazidi minorities in Iraq has stirred debate once again as to the nature of the assault and the motives behind its perpetrators. If one were to exclusively view the annihilation of Christian, Yazidi, Sabean, and other religious minorities in Iraq as a case of the collapse of state power, and therefore a domestic problem, then one need not worry about any spill-over effects beyond national boundaries. This is the conclusion that some analysts have reached, arguing that by taking over parts of Iraq, ISIS has reached its final post : “For the movement what this amounts to is the final act in an ambitious process of state-building. Having established Sharia courts and provincial governors, all that was left was to declare a head of state.” Undoubtedly, ISIS was able to conquer lands due to the disintegration of state power. This disintegration was due in large part to the American occupation, which reconfigured power in a manner that instituted sectarian politics and paved the way for the political and military ascendancy of ISIS. 

However, the movement is neither in someone else’s backyard nor is its black flag going to fly strictly on Iraqi territory. The black flag belonging to Al-Qaeda has been flown not only in Iraq and Syria, but in places such as on an estate site in East London  and by Muslim Brotherhood supporters at protests held at al Azhar University in Egypt

It is important to stress that ISIS is part and parcel of a global network of Islamist political actors who may have different leaders and organizational structures, but whose ideological stance towards the rights of non-Muslim minorities bears strong resemblance. As ideology becomes diffused across various militant Islamist networks, increasingly religious minorities in contexts where there are threats of such organizations gaining ground will have much to fear. 

It is true that ideology is bent and stretched according to the political contingencies of the leadership at a particular political moment. In the case of Iraq, the assault on minorities was also driven by political pragmatism . No doubt, there is a need to account for the historic and political specificity of each context in which religious minorities face encroachment, and this is key to developing a nuanced, measured analysis. However, to stop at the political and historical specificity of the fall of religious minorities in Iraq can make us miss the woods (universal pattern of encroachment on non-Muslim minorities by political Islamist movements) for the trees (specific incidents of assault in Iraq). The negation of the role of ideology and diffuse networks can lead to missed opportunities in examining resemblances and patterns across different country contexts. There are striking commonalities between Boko Haram’s practices of abducting mostly Christian girls and vowing to sell them in the slave market  and the abduction and sale of Yazidi and Christian women by ISIS.

The sexual enslavement of women is a common practice of war, and commercial sex-trafficking networks are characteristic of all kinds of groups that have nothing to do with Islamist militant actors. However, the commonality between Boko Haram’s and ISIS’s kidnapping and sale of women on the slave market is in their targeting of women belonging to non-Muslim religious minorities . There is an ideological base for that: namely, the belief that they are war booty. 

Similarly, there is a striking resemblance in the imposition of jizya  (a heavy poll tax) on religious minorities by Islamist political actors. These taxes are levied in return for minorities being allowed to live in a territory ruled by Islamist leaders. This is the fundamental basis for the dhimmitude  contract, which many more progressive Islamist thinkers have denounced, deeming it inapplicable to modern day citizenship. ISIS imposed jizya  on Christians first in Syria  and then in Iraq . This bears strong resemblance to the informal imposition of jizya  on some Christians in Upper Egypt by non-state militant Islamist actors at the time when political Islam was at the height of its political ascendency in 2012. Once again, it is important to note that in worldwide history, religious/ethnic groups have historically been subject to economic predatory practices by actors that do not have any affinity or link to Islamists. However, what is notable here again is the pattern in which punitive and predatory economic measures are ideologically justified and applied systematically as part and parcel of the nature of the social contract, premised on their ideological interpretations of the sharia. 

Proponents of the contextual specificity argument suggest that “In the globalized environment of today’s jihad, terminology from Islamic political theory is being instrumentalized in a loose, disaggregated manner, drawing on different historical contexts with targets just as eclectic.”  This focus on the differences makes us miss conspicuous commonalities in practices on the ground: women and religious minorities are consistently two primary targets of any Islamist political actors who endorse the strict application of and adherence to sharia or variations thereof. 

It is arguable that when it comes to the governance of non-Muslim minorities, the application of the concept of jihad is not so eclectic. Religious minorities in Dar al-Islam (people living under Islamic rule) do not enjoy full citizenship rights, and their status is differentiated according to their religious identity (people of the Book versus atheists and heathens). There are clear areas where the scope of their status is circumscribed. These tend to be
1. limiting freedom of worship
2. applying the jizya  in its various forms and under different names
3. exclusion from leadership
4. targeting (either through violence or coercion) women belonging to these communities
5. engaging with the religious other as the enemy of Islam
6. subjecting whole communities to a witch hunt via blasphemy laws.

The problem with the application of the “eclectic practice of jihad” argument when it comes to issues of religious pluralism, is that it prevents us from being able to identify patterns and to develop foresight accordingly in order to adopt policies to protect religious minorities when political Islamist movements are increasing in political power.

Mariz Tadros is a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

This piece was originally authored on August 27, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.