National Security & Defense

How ISIS Executes ‘Justice’ — and an Isolated Woman in a City Street

(Photo Illustration: NRO)
What an unpolished YouTube video tells us about the horror of daily life under Islamic State.

A gang of men encircles a woman in territory controlled by Islamic State. Standing on a curb, their ringleader launches his sermon, hands folded on his belly. Above stocky ankles, the hemline of his winter thobe announces his puritanical Islam.

Here, in the center of the city, car horns sound, drivers irritated at the disruption. Motorbikes speed by; in the near distance, a cyclist continues on. Opposite the cleric, in considerably better shape, slouch a militia. Balaclavaed, weapons slung across athletic frames, the soldiers legitimize the cleric; he, they. Magnetized, a ragtag of onlookers coalesces on the scene. A boy peers over a wall, hoping for a glimpse.

All focus is on the matron. Periodically, she appeals to her arbiters, head bowed, hands clasped behind her back. Her red jacket, worn over a black abbaya, stands out. A lone Red Riding Hood, she has stumbled upon a full pack of wolves.

That is the street scene I watched on a YouTube video at the request of my colleague Brian Jenkins at RAND. He asked me to interpret propaganda that Islamic State makes for consumption in the Middle East. I am an observant Muslim woman familiar with Wahhabism, the most puritanical brand of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, where I lived in 1999–2001 and traveled as a medical academic over the next ten years.

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Americans have become all too familiar with polished Islamic State videos made for Western consumption, but this video, which first appeared online in February, captures the banal dealings befalling ordinary Muslims, not high-value hostages, in ISIS-controlled territory. It’s excruciating to watch. Videos such as this one show us something that’s not evident in the sophisticated English-language videos: They reveal the random, brutally improvised nature of ISIS rule.

Returning to the screen, I study the woman’s face. In her — maternal in countenance, clear-complexioned, face and figure past their prime — I see the reflections of the many loving Arab women I have known: My patients, the mothers and grandmothers of my Arab friends, my own relatives, all peer back.

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Around her, pregnant with fascination, the congregation is spellbound. Building to a crescendo, the cleric’s classical Arabic is precise. He has no discernible accent, so his origins are hard to infer. His oratory is honed, metered to the rhythms of a khutbah, an Islamic sermon. He is comfortable at center-stage. The woman again attempts to leave, but men — this time, many men signal her detention. Their domination over her is absolute.

Searching for a sympathetic soul, she sends darting glances from face to face: the armed men, the cleric, his henchmen, the onlookers and back. She understands her captivity. Watching the video, I find myself searching among the men for an advocate, just one, to come to her defense. Instead, I see what she sees: a battery of smartphones at the ready, gloves half removed to operate touch screens, men comparing images, then quickly returning to the spectacle. No savior here, only a sea of Samsungs.

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“May Allah be pleased with you,” she says to the cleric, her manners betraying her as Syrian. “May Allah be pleased with you.” Looking past the character in the religious fable he is busy enacting, he cites the Koran, from sura Ma’ida (5:33):

Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon the earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed, or crucified, or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides, or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world;& and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment.

With this qualification, the cleric announces that the woman’s conduct has been evaluated by a “panel,” which has found her guilty of causing corruption by her “promotion of prostitution.” Ruling that she will therefore receive “just” punishment on this earth, the cleric generously added that the gathered pray that through this judgment she be cleansed of her sin and that in the akhira, or afterlife, she be granted divine forgiveness for her bad deeds.

Islamism, not Islam, mandates the barbarity that is now commonplace across Syria and Iraq.

The sermon ends. Smartphones jostle. An unscripted pause follows. Then the mullah, like a Mafia don, gives the signal. A henchman steps forward, chewing miswak. With a flick of his wrist, he aims the handgun at the vertex of her skull. Unloading a single shot, a volley of Takbirs salutes the execution,

“Allahhu akbar!” the crowd cries. “God is great!”

Knees unlocking, the woman falls like a ragdoll into the dirt. Viscid maroon frames her head, her hijab undisturbed. Smartphones obscure the view. The militia stands politely to one side as the congregation captures another “still life” of Islamic State. The video ends.

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Today such barbarity is commonplace across Syria and Iraq, where executions — crucifixions, beheadings, immolations — are now mainstream. Islamism, not Islam, mandates it so. While Islam eschews justice without mercy and demands evidentiary safeguards against wrongful punishment, Islamism demands cruelty in the place of compassion, condemnation in the absence of trial, and relentlessness of accusation in the face of repentance on the part of the accused.

Unlike the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi clerics who publicly chastised me when I lived in the Kingdom, the ISIS cleric, enforcing an invented sharia, prosecuted the vulnerable not only through admonishment but judgment, verdict, and execution all rolled into one process. In his book An Eye for an Eye: A Global History of Crime and Punishment, Mitchel Roth observes that Saudi Arabia, considered to be the most authoritarian Islamic theocracy in the world, and upholding Islamic law since the Kingdom was established in 1932, enforces sharia selectively.

#related#That is, Saudi Arabia shows restraint. In a recent article in the New York Times, reporter Ben Hubbard unravels the nuances of Saudi justice and documents the restraint exercised in the punishment of capital crimes in the Kingdom today.

Saudi Arabia is governed by Hanbali law, the most rigid of the four schools of Islamic law, but adapts its statutes to changing circumstances. Like Pakistan, my parents’ country, the Kingdom enforces the punishment of hudud crimes, which are deemed unforgivable, but it remains discriminating even so. For example, in over 4,300 cases of theft during the period 1982–83, exactly two offenders were sentenced to amputation — disturbing, perhaps, but hardly on the scale of the violence and casual killing that defines Islamic State.

The execution of the lone Syrian woman in the video that my RAND colleague asked me to view stands for the many other, unknown deaths befalling other unnamed innocents in unknown places under the yoke of ISIS. In her execution, the totalitarian Islamism makes even the harshest Wahhabi theocracy look mild by comparison. The two compete. Both claim origins in versions of Islam. For its part, Islamic State, far from being a divinely ordained caliphate, is a wholly man-made system bereft of law, dismissing repentance, elevating retribution over all other values, and revealing itself as an impostor dishonoring my great faith.

Qanta A. Ahmed — Qanta. A. Ahmed is a British-American Muslim physician, the author of In the Land of Invisible Women, a member the Committee on Countering Contemporary Anti-Semitism through Testimony (Shoah Foundation, University of Southern California), and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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