Yesterday morning began inauspiciously, with me reading of an awful op-ed that attempted to divorce ISIS’s horrific pattern of sexual enslavement from the Islamic faith. Among other defenses, the author, Boston University assistant professor of religion Kecia Ali, pulls out a couple of old chestnuts: that the Qur’an “arose” in a world where slavery was a given, that ISIS’s fundamentalism is “superficial and selective” (unlike those who choose to ignore the pro-slavery, pro-rape passages in the Qur’an?), and that the west, not Islam, is to blame for all of this.
I’d like to dissect that a little bit, but first, let me tell you how the day closed: with the news that ISIS blew up a 2000-year-old religious temple in Palmyra. This news comes less than a week after the news that 81-year-old Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who spent four decades in charge of the Palmyra excavation, was interrogated, tortured, and beheaded by ISIS. Afterward, they strung his body up from a lamppost and placed the head below.
Early reports stated that they were looking for gold, but over the past week, it has come to light that the true agenda of the militants is to “purge paganism” from the world. They believed al-Asaad had secretly buried antiquities. Since they overtook Palmyra in May, it has been reported that ISIS has destroyed several other religious artifacts, including the first-century Lion of al-Lat, believed to be the “consort” of the pre-Islamic Arabian goddess of Mecca. Now, they’ve destroyed a temple to Baalshamin, alternately a god and a title for other gods, including famed Yahweh competitor Ba’al.
These actions beg an obvious question: is this about religion, or isn’t it? Apologists like Kecia Ali would have us believe that the violence perpetuated by ISIS might use scripture as justification, but it is not really religion driving the behavior. If it was, then why don’t all Muslims behave this way? The simplest answer is that social attitudes progress in spite of religion. Ali criticizes the “superficial and selective” interpretation of the Qur’an, but as I love saying of any holy book: all that bad shit is still in there. If you “choose” to interpret the horrible passages as the inerrant word of God, how can anyone tell you that you’re religiously wrong? It’s right there.