A Philosopher's Blog

Isis & Rape

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 21, 2015

Looked at in the abstract, ISIS seems to be another experiment in the limits of human evil, addressing the question of how bad people can become before they are unable to function as social beings. While ISIS is well known for its theologically justified murder and destruction, it has now become known for its theologically justified slavery and rape.

While I am not a scholar of religion, it is quite evident that scriptural justifications of slavery and rape exist and require little in the way of interpretation. In this, Islamic scripture is similar to the bible—this book also contains rules about the practice of slavery and guidelines regarding the proper practice of rape. Not surprisingly, mainstream religious scholars of Islam and Christianity tend to argue that these aspects of scripture no longer apply or that they can be interpreted in ways that do not warrant slavery or rape. Opponents of these faiths tend to argue that the mainstream scholars are mistaken and that the wicked behavior enjoined in such specific passages express the true principles of the faith.

Disputes over specific passages lead to the broader debate about the true tenets of a faith and what it is to be a true member of that faith. To use a current example, opponents of Islam often claim that Islam is inherently violent and that the terrorists exemplify the true members of Islam. Likewise, some who are hostile to Christianity claim that it is a hateful religion and point to Christian extremists, such as God Hates Fags, as exemplars of true Christianity. This is a rather difficult and controversial matter and one I have addressed in other essays.

A reasonable case can be made that slavery and rape are not in accord with Islam, just as a reasonable case can be made that slavery and rape are not in accord with Christianity. As noted above, it can argued that times have changed, that the texts do not truly justify the practices and so on. However, these passages remain and can be pointed to as theological evidence in favor of the religious legitimacy of these practices. The practice of being selective about scripture is indeed a common one and people routinely focus on passages they like while ignoring passages that they do not like. This selectivity is, not surprisingly, most often used to “justify” prejudice, hatred and misdeeds. Horribly, ISIS does indeed have textual support, however controversial it might be with mainstream Islamic thinkers. That, I think, cannot be disputed.

ISIS members not only claim that slavery and rape are acceptable, they go so far as to claim that rape is pleasing to God. According to Rukmini Callimachi’s article in the New York Times, ISIS rapists pray before raping, rape, and then pray after raping. They are not praying for forgiveness—the rape is part of the religious ritual that is supposed to please God.

The vast majority of monotheists would certainly be horrified by this and would assert that God is not pleased by rape (despite textual support to the contrary). Being in favor of rape is certainly inconsistent with the philosophical conception of God as an all good being. However, there is the general problem of sorting out what God finds pleasing and what He condemns. In the case of human authorities it is generally easy to sort out what pleases them and what they condemn: they act to support and encourage what pleases them and act to discourage, prevent and punish what they condemn. If God exists, He certainly is allowing ISIS to do as it will—He never acts to stop them or even to send a clear sign that He condemns their deeds. But, of course, God seems to share the same policy as Star Fleet’s Prime Directive now: He never interferes or makes His presence known.

The ISIS horror is yet another series of examples in the long standing problem of evil—if God is all powerful, all-knowing and good, then there should be no evil. But, since ISIS is freely doing what it does it would seem to follow that God is lacking in some respect, He does not exist or He, as ISIS claims, is pleased by the rape of children.

Not surprisingly, religion is not particularly helpful here—while scripture and interpretations of scripture can be used to condemn ISIS, scripture can also be used to support them in their wickedness. God, as usual, is not getting involved, so we do not know what He really thinks. So, it would seem to be up human morality to settle this matter.

While there is considerable dispute about morality, the evil of rape and slavery certainly seem to be well-established. It can be noted that moral arguments have been advanced in favor of slavery, usually on the grounds of alleged superiority. However, these moral arguments certainly seem to have been adequately refuted. There are far fewer moral arguments in defense of rape, which is hardly surprising. However, these also seem to have been effectively refuted. In any case, I would contend that the burden of proof rests on those who would claim that slavery or rape are morally acceptable and invite readers to advance such arguments for due consideration.

Moving away from morality, there are also practical matters. ISIS does have a clear reason to embrace its theology of rape: as was argued by Rukmini Callimachi, it is a powerful recruiting tool. ISIS offers men a group in which killing, destruction and rape are not only tolerated but praised as being pleasing to God—the ultimate endorsement. While there are people who do not feel any need to justify their evil, even very wicked people often still want to believe that their terrible crimes are warranted or even laudable. As such, ISIS has considerable attraction to those who wish to do evil.

Accepting this theology of slavery and rape is not without negative consequences for recruiting—while there are many who find it appealing, there are certainly many more who find it appalling. Some ISIS supporters have endeavored to deny that ISIS has embraced this theology of rape and slavery—even they recognize some moral limits. Other supporters have not been dismayed by these revelations and perhaps even approve. Whether this theology of rape and slavery benefits ISIS more than it harms it will depend largely on the moral character of its potential recruits and supporters. I certainly hope that this is a line that many are not willing to cross, thus cutting into ISIS’ potential manpower and financial support. What impact this has on ISIS’ support will certainly reveal much about the character of their supporters—do they have some moral limits?


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11 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 21, 2015 at 8:29 am

    Mike, there is a big difference between Christianity and Islam in how the core texts are regarded. In Islam, the Qur’an is the literal word of god, whereas in Christianity it is not. So when the Qur’an says “So when you meet those who disbelieve, strike necks…” that is Allah speaking to all believers for all time.

    This is far different from the Old Testament which is recounting an even that happened in the past. So, when you read in the Old Testament:

    This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

    This passage is not telling a present day reader to do anything in particular.

    Surely you can see the difference?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 21, 2015 at 9:37 am

      While I am not a religious scholar, there are clearly those who claim that the Bible is the literal word of God and is speaking to believers for all time. To use the obvious example, some people cite Leviticus as the basis for opposing same sex marriage.

      I’m reasonable sure that Christians think that the bible enjoins them to do things rather than just taking it to be a history book.

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 24, 2015 at 11:14 pm

        Mike, In Islamic theology, Allah is the speaker of every word of the Qur’an. This is clearly not the case for the Bible.

        Your thinking on these issues is just shallow syncretism. There are profound differences between Islam and Christianity on many issues, including the issue of the acceptability of violence toward nonbelievers.

        The attraction of Isis and other such groups is that they present themselves as a “pure” form of Islam, and Muslims around the world respond to this.

  2. ronster12012 said, on August 21, 2015 at 8:44 am


    Is there any difference between ISIS and the OT Israelites? Or Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun or countless others? Not much I’d say….

    The real question IMO is where did they come from, who is sponsoring them and for what purpose. Destabilization of the ME is one purpose, removal of obstacles is another. US/NATO/Saudi/Israel want Assad of Syria gone as he is a friend of Iran, enemy of Israel and a rival to Saudi. The Syrian chemical weapons pretext a couple of years ago was supposed to have given the green light for an invasion to accomplish just that, however Big Bad Vlad checkmated that move soooooo………ISIS pops up out of nowhere, doesn’t attack Saudi, doesn’t attack Israel(I read that Israel were supplying medical services to them), US/US/Australia etc very halfheartedly attack them(the Iraqi gov accuse US/UK of supplying ISIS) so what is one to think?

    It’s all theatre……same as the AL Ciada all purpose boogyman….fight with them in the Balkans. against them in Afghanistan, support them in Libya, support them Syria, phase them out, enter new and improved boogyman, head chopping ISIS…yuk!….and they even take slaves…..double yuk! ISIS boo hiss……but look how they are advancing geopolitical objectives lol. They will cease to exist when the need for them no longer exists.

  3. Luke Miner said, on September 1, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    In this post, you speak of the “limits of evil”, “human morality”, and you said: “Being in favor of rape is certainly inconsistent with the philosophical conception of God as an all good being.” This language, and the overall tone of the post, assume that there is such a thing as objective morality. What is your backing for this assumption? How is it that you, personally, can judge these harmful acts as evil?

    • ronster12012 said, on September 2, 2015 at 4:19 am


      Logically, the problem is the assumption that rape is bad. If God is all good but if he is cool with rape then WTF??? The only possible answers are 1/that rape actually is good or 2/ God is not all good…….but if God is not all good then why do people waste Sunday mornings worshipping a semi good being, may as well be a straight up Satanist or 3/ Allah is not God or 4/ there are no Gods and all of this is made up.

      As for slavery, it is nothing unusual and still is practised by many more primitive peoples, ie Africans and Middle Easterners. White people banned it but that doesn’t mean much worldwide.

  4. Luke Miner said, on September 2, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Then I ask you the same question, how is it that you judge that rape is inconsistent with an all good God? Maybe i should ask the same question another way. How is it that you can speak of the conception of a God who is good? What is your criteria for judging the good-ness of rape or of God? This is what I am hoping Dr. LaBossiere will address.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 2, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      In regards to social and political issues, I tend to favor a version of Mill’s greatest happiness principle: actions are right as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to create unhappiness. I temper this with a Lockean style natural right theory, with Mill’s account of liberty used to handle the tyranny of the majority. In some cases, I am inclined to bring in Kant’s arguments about treating rational nature as an end only.

      This all grounds the claim that rape is bad.

      In regards to individual ethics, I go primarily with Aristotle and Confucius. That is, virtue theory. Rape is also bad under virtue theory.

      • Luke Miner said, on September 2, 2015 at 1:37 pm

        I’m not sure I see how “this all grounds the claim that rape is bad”. Don’t you think that some of the rapists gain happiness through rape?

        And aren’t you left with the difficult problem that people define happiness differently? Do you, I, or President Obama get to decide what happiness is? Some ancient hedonists said that long term happiness was better than short term, but the average credit card debt per American suggests that most Americans disagree.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 3, 2015 at 2:49 pm

          The point you make is a classic objection against utilitarianism: it seems that some intuitively bad things could make some people very happy. To use the specific rape example, if raping people created more happiness than unhappiness (weighing the rapists and the raped, as well as others impacted), then the utilitarian calculus would yield rape as good. The usual argument is that as a matter of fact, rape creates far more unhappiness than happiness. Even if the rapist really enjoys raping, the suffering of the victim as well as the impact of the rape upon others (creating fear, anger, and sadness, etc.) would exceed the happiness of the rapist.

          Kant, of course, would regard rape as always wrong-it would violate his categorical imperative.

          Theorists like Mill define and argue for their conception of happiness at length and contend that they, of course, have it right.

          • Luke Miner said, on September 3, 2015 at 6:13 pm

            A standard reply must face the standard objections. It seems, at least to me, that you have only moved the problem one step back. If making other’s happy doesn’t make the rapist happy, why should the rapist not pursue his own good (i.e. his happiness)? If happiness for the greatest number of people is your standard of good (or your’s and Mill’s), does it not seem arbitrary, to say the least, that you should hold him to your standard?

            If Mill has his definition of happiness, Epicurus has his, and you have yours, aren’t we hopelessly lost in a relativism which permits no judgements of good and evil such as those judgements in your post above? Does Mill really presume to define happiness for every human being?

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