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Heart Of Darkness: The Core Beliefs Justifying IS Brutality

Islamic State militants prepare to throw man from high rooftop as punishment for being gay in Mosul. (file photo)
Islamic State militants prepare to throw man from high rooftop as punishment for being gay in Mosul. (file photo)

When Islamic State (IS) militants threw a man to his death for being gay, the world predictably reacted with shock, outrage, and horror -- and that is all part of the plan.

Like the now-commonplace execution-style beheadings, stonings, crucifixions, and immolations -- the killing of the man in Mosul appeared cruel and unusual, irrational, and arbitrary.

But to IS, severe punishments are key to building a new order. The group justifies even its most extreme penalties by claiming that they are mandated by Shari'a law and are meted out not in an arbitrary fashion but as part of the group's established system of Shari'a courts and judges.

IS said that it threw the man in Mosul from a "high place" because he had committed the crime of "the people of Lot," a euphemism for sodomy. Under Islamic law, according to IS, this is a "Hadd" crime, a term used for a specific set of offenses deemed to be against the rights of God, and which include highway robbery, drinking alcohol, unlawful sexual intercourse, and theft.

IS has given similar justifications for other killings. The militant group reportedly justified the beheading of a man in eastern Syria on the grounds that the victim was a smoker, a practice IS has deemed haram (forbidden) because in Shari'a law it constitutes a slow form of suicide.

The stoning to death of a young woman in Syria's Hama province in October was justified on the grounds that the woman had committed adultery.

Not only does IS carry out such punishments, it makes a deliberate effort to show them off to the world via an extensive propaganda network of professionally produced videos, photographs, and news bulletins.

Creating A 'Caliphate'

Why has IS gone to such lengths not only to display its brutality, but to explain what it says are the Islamic roots of this punishment system?

The reason, says Dr. Joas Wagemakers, an Islamic Studies scholar from Radboud University in the Netherlands, lies in IS's mission to create a "caliphate," an Islamic system of governance ruled by a "caliph," a term denoting the legitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammad.

In June 2014, IS declared that it had "restored the caliphate" and that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was the "caliph" of all Muslims.

"IS's punishments are an important part of its mission of creating a caliphate," says Wagemakers, who adds that Islamist groups often view the application of punishments "as a very important marker of whether or not a state can be called Islamic."

For IS, which wants the world to see it as not only Islamic, but as the embodiment of a specific form of early Islam, the punishments it chooses serve as an important marker of its extremist ideology.

IS sees specific punishments -- particularly crucifixions and beheadings, which have doctrinal and practical precedents in early Islam -- as "part of a pure, early Islam," Wagemakers says.

Charlie Winter, a researcher for the Britain-based counterextremism think tank Quilliam, agreed that Islamic State is "careful to make sure it has a precedent for the means by which it punishes people."

"As long as there is a pretext, no matter how obscure it is, IS can claim that it is implementing what it claims is true Islam," Winter told RFE/RL.

Monopoly On Violence

While IS's desire to display its Islamist credentials lies behind its punishment system, there is another reason why the extremist group wants to publicly demonstrate its ability to impose and mete out punishments in the areas under its control: because IS wants the world to recognize it as a legitimate state, it needs to show that it has a monopoly on violence and legal power.

According to Andrew March and Mara Revkin of Yale University, IS "sees itself as creating a distinctive and authentic legal order for the here and now, one that is based not only on a literal (if selective) reading of early Islamic materials but also on a longstanding theory of statecraft and legal authority."

Clues to IS's desire to demonstrate that it has the attributes of statehood can be found throughout the group's propaganda material.

In a recent issue of IS's English-language magazine Dabiq, British hostage John Cantlie expresses IS's desire to be seen as a state, writing that there is "little reason why [IS] should not be considered a country" and that it is only the United States' pride and prestige that prevent it from being able to "face the Islamic State as a country."

Shock Value

While IS's punishments are brutal, some -- such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Mu'adh al-al-Kasaesbeh and the simultaneous beheading of 18 Syrian soldiers in front of young children -- not only involve exaggerated levels of violence, but appear to have been specially designed, choreographed even.

Such punishments have a clear shock value, and are used to spread fear not only among those living under IS rule, but also in IS's opponents in the West and the Arab world.

The brutal immolation of Jordanian pilot Mu'adh al-Kasaesbeh seems to have been specially designed, or even choreographed, for specific effect.
The brutal immolation of Jordanian pilot Mu'adh al-Kasaesbeh seems to have been specially designed, or even choreographed, for specific effect.

"[IS] clearly use these punishments not just to enforce their view of the law, but also to warn and frighten people," says Wagemakers. "This is particularly the case with regard to burning people alive."

IS's system of brutal punishments ultimately serves the organization's propaganda machine, the Quilliam Foundation's Winter believes.

"High resolution beheadings, executions, crucifixions and stonings...maximize its ability to provoke [global] outrage," Winter says. And they also present those living in the areas IS dominates with a stark option: "abide by IS's code or face its extreme punishments."

Obscure Punishments

IS often presents what it claims are Shari'a justifications for even its most extreme punishments. However, many of these justifications are often very obscure, and have been widely denounced by Muslim scholars and clerics.

Arguably the most shocking of IS's punishment killings was the burning alive of Kasaesbeh in February. IS released a long video showing not only the killing, but also a justification for it.

Senior Muslim clerics from around the world decried the burning alive of Kasaesbeh as an abomination, saying that immolation is forbidden by Islam in all circumstances.

But IS justified the killing by saying it is permissible in Islam to burn an infidel to death.

IS also referred to the concept of "mumathala" or reciprocity, saying that it was permitted under Islam to burn the pilot because U.S.-led coalition air strikes had led to Muslims being burned.

"It is as if IS wants to underline its being Islamic by using punishments that most people find objectionable but that do have roots in Islamic law and practice," Wagemakers said.

Does IS take its religious beliefs seriously, genuinely believing that its extreme punishment methods are part of a wider ethical and moral system mandated by Islamic law? Or is the group merely using Shari'a as a smokescreen for its desire to terrorize the populations under its control into submission?

Wagemakers says that IS truly does believe that its brutal punishments fit into a wider Islamic system.

"It's not so much a moral system, since morality doesn't really apply here," he says. "They're just following their interpretation of the texts."

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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