Washington Post digs into ISIS 'ideology' -- not theology -- and the lives of women

No matter what else is going on in the world, the Islamic State is still out there attacking cities and seizing territory, constantly striving to create its new version of a heaven on earth, which in this case is called a "caliphate."

By definition, a caliphate is an Islamic state led by a "caliph." So what precisely is a "caliph"?

A typical definition offered by a Western dictionary defines this term as:

* an important Muslim political and religious leader
* a successor of Muhammad as temporal and spiritual head of Islam -- used as a title

So a caliph is both a political and religious leader, quite literally a man who is claiming to be a "successor of Muhammad."

Now, with that in mind let's look at a key passage in a new Washington Post story -- " 'Till Martyrdom Do Us Part" -- about the lives of woman inside the territory controlled by ISIS. This includes women who have volunteered to be part of the Islamic State, as well as those who have been kidnapped. This story is part of an ongoing Post series about life inside the caliphate.

Let me stress that this feature is quite well reported, which is amazing in light of the restraints under which reporters are working when attempting to cover the Islamic State. Much of the attributed information is based on ISIS social media and, I found this amazing, Skype conversations with people living inside the caliphate.

Then there is this summary material that serves as a kind of thesis statement:

In the Islamic State’s ideology, a woman’s place is in the home, tending to her husband and producing children.
“Her creator has ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband,” according to “Women of the Islamic State,” a manifesto issued this year by the al-Khanssaa Brigade, a women’s group inside the Islamic State caliphate.
The manifesto, translated into English by Charlie Winter, senior researcher at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, offers one of the most comprehensive windows to date into the treatment of women by the Islamic State. It says that women should leave their homes only in specific circumstances, including going to study religion or to work in situations where women are strictly segregated. The manifesto rails against Western values.
Women who choose to join the Islamic State, whether they are foreigners or locals who believe in the militants’ ideology, seem to accept or even relish their new role. Some form loving marriages and embrace a system that rejects Western ideals of fashion and beauty. But many local women find the restrictions extreme, backward and terrifying, according to those interviewed.

The key word, of course, is "ideology." Which is strange, since the ISIS material attributes these laws to "her creator."

Is "ideology" the right word for journalists to use in this case? Look that up in a good online dictionary and you will find a definition similar to this one:

* the set of ideas and beliefs of a group or political party. ...
*  a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
* the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program

Now, I have no doubt that ISIS has an ideology. Yet the whole time I was reading this story I kept thinking to myself: What are the precise differences between the role of women inside the Islamic State and those living in, let's say, Saudi Arabia?

That leads to the crucial question: Are these differences, in the eyes of the leaders of these states, based on "ideology" or "theology"? This is especially important when dealing with a state led by someone claiming to be a worldwide "caliph" -- a successor to a prophet who was both a theological and a political leader. 

In the eyes of ISIS leaders, who created their laws that govern the lives of women and the marriages in which, in many cases, they are being forced to live? 

In short, did the Post team use the word "ideology" when it needed to use the word "theology," or some combination of the two terms? Why assume that this is primarily a story about a political philosophy? Are women from around the world traveling to Iraq and Syria to back ISIS because they agree with its politics?

And back to my question about differences between ISIS and Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, or Turkey or other states offering competing visions of Islam. Is it possible to take this subject -- the role and rights of women -- seriously without exploring the THEOLOGICAL differences between ISIS laws and the beliefs of several other forms of mainstream Islam? In fact, this Post piece has almost nothing to say about these life-and-death debates inside Islam, focusing instead on cultural differences between ISIS and the West.

Once again, we have returned to the debate at the heart of that controversial cover story -- a work of analysis, not hard news -- by Graeme Wood that ran in Atlantic Monthly under the headline, "What ISIS Really Wants." For more background, see this earlier GetReligion post.

Here is a key piece of that Wood essay, which flashed back into my mind as I read this excellent, but religion-ghost haunted, Post piece:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.

I would argue that ignoring the theological component of this story also limits the ability of the Post team to understand both the motives of women who choose to back ISIS and the horrors faced by imprisoned women whose views of faith, including Islam, are radically different.

Instead, readers are offered passages such as this one:

There is growing frustration among foreign women who come to the Islamic State not to marry, but to fight, which is forbidden by the militants.
“We’ve seen a number of women who are not that happy with fact they are not allowed to fight and who are quite vocal,” said Peter Neumann, director of the radicalization institute at King’s College.
Neumann said some of the complaints reflect a clash between the Western societies -- mainly Europe -- where these women were raised, and their new home, which is largely modeled on Islamic society from 1,400 years ago.
“They are obviously attracted to a medieval ideology, and at the same time, some of their attitudes are very Western,” Neumann said.

Yes, I know that this is a direct quote from an academic expert in the West. But "ideology" alone? Really?

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