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Smoke rises above a damaged building following a US-led coalition airstrike against Islamic State group positions during a military operation to regain control of the eastern suburbs of Ramadi, Iraq, on 15 August. Photo: AP
Smoke rises above a damaged building following a US-led coalition airstrike against Islamic State group positions during a military operation to regain control of the eastern suburbs of Ramadi, Iraq, on 15 August. Photo: AP

Islamic State’s medieval morals

Islamic State's goal isn't primarily about money or sex, but about sending the message that they are creating an Islamic utopia

It’s been 150 years since US law allowed masters to rape enslaved girls and women. Almost all modern Muslim societies banned slavery in the last century. So why is Islamic State turning back the clock, actively embracing and promoting enslavement of Yazidi women, thereby enabling them to be raped under one interpretation of classical Islamic law?

Islamic State’s goal isn’t primarily about money or sex, but about sending the message that they are creating an Islamic utopia, following the practices of the era of the Prophet Muhammad. They want to go back in time, to the days of the earliest Muslims and the Prophet’s companions. The more medieval the practice, the more they like it.

Our horror at this self-conscious neo-medievalism should teach us a lesson about the evolution of our beliefs and what it means to be modern. Begin with the sober acknowledgment that we aren’t light years ahead of Islamic State—more like a century and a half.

Slavery in the US isn’t a distant relic. We’re still dealing with its after-effects, in the form of persistent racial inequality and long-lived symbols of the Confederacy.

And we would do well not to forget that American slavery, particularly in its last half-century before abolition, was one of the most brutal slave systems in recorded human history. In comparison, the history of Islamic slavery is relatively mild.

What we in the US recently sanctioned, we now find repulsive. And, of course, we’re morally correct to reject slavery and rape in the most stringent and absolute moral terms. These human actions—and institutions—are as wrong as anything can be. They and their after-effects must be uprooted, by force when necessary.

The modern project is to try and cleanse ourselves of bad things from the past while keeping what was good about it. This attempt to purify and improve is what defines us as modern people.

At the same time, we don’t reject everything about our past. The US constitution acknowledged and sanctioned slavery created by state laws. But modern Americans don’t reject the constitution. Instead, we recognize that our constitution is good in part because it has been able to evolve beyond its origins.

This is why the idea of a living constitution is so important to a functioning, modern society. An unchanging constitution would include and enshrine the racism and sexism of the founding generation. It’s no coincidence that Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the most eloquent exponent of the living constitution, was a veteran of the Civil War who’d been wounded in battle and lost his closest friend. He’d seen the country reject parts of its constitutional past; he’d seen the price of that rejection; and he emerged committed to keeping the constitution alive—cleansed of those wrongs it had originally included.

As modern people, we’re always gambling that we will make things better when we change them. Sometimes we’re wrong. It would be naive to think that history, including modern history, is a series of gradual improvements. From the excesses of the French and Russian revolutions to the horrors of fascism and totalitarianism, the modern age has given us plenty of examples of modernism gone awry. The fact that something is new and seems good is no guarantee that it is moral, any more than antiquity is proof of morality.

But part of being modern is recognizing an emerging consensus on the wrongness of past practices like slavery. Islamic State is enslaving women to trumpet to the world that it refuses to accept the idea of contemporary progress, an idea that has, in fact, been accepted by the vast majority of Muslims. The only appropriate modern response is horror—and a commitment to do something about it. Bloomberg

Noah Feldman is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University.

Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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