The BLOG: Faith and Law

ISIS’s war on civilization is motivated by law

That our President has not demonstrated any serious understanding of the threat that ISIS poses to Western civilization is obvious to all but his most partisan supporters, i.e. nearly the entire news media, entertainment industry, and academic establishment — and now even they are beginning to notice his lack of leadership. Yet some on the left remain blinded by partisanship. In The Atlantic, for example, Peter Beinart condescendingly offers a “primer to Marco Rubio” under the headline, “ISIS is Not Waging a War Against Western Civilization.” Amazingly, The Atlantic ran the essay even after the Paris attacks.

Beinart and the President would do well to read this article by Beinart’s Atlantic colleague, Graeme Wood, titled, “What ISIS Really Wants,” published last March. The article is far from perfect. Wood implausibly confuses Sunni legal doctrines with the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and misses other obvious differences between the world’s major religions. But his understanding of ISIS is grounded in research and in the statements and assessments of ISIS members, whom he allows to speak in their own voices.

Taking the claims of ISIS members seriously enables Wood to be clear-eyed about the facts. He states, “The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.”

In particular, ISIS and its loyalists believe that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has already established the long-awaited caliphate and that, as a result, large portions of Islamic jurisprudence that have lain dormant for centuries are now once again binding upon faithful Muslims. This is a game-changing development. It means, among other things, that ISIS believes it has not just legal authority but also a legal mandate to impose enslavement and subjugation on infidels and gruesome death on apostates. They believe that those laws come from God himself, and that faithful obedience to those laws will bring about all that their eschatology promises to faithful Muslims.

This deserves careful examination. To defeat this enemy we need to understand him as motivated by religious adherence to a distinctive legal tradition grounded in a particular text, the Koran. The virtues and freedoms of Western liberal democracies are rooted in a very different tradition grounded in a different text, the Hebrew Bible. Leaders who can’t tell the difference between those traditions, or who can’t see the influence of those traditions on the combatants in this conflict, are missing everything that matters.

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod is a member of the Maine and Massachusetts (inactive) bars and an Associate Professor at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law. He is the author of “Property and Practical Reason” (Cambridge University Press) and dozens of articles in journals in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, many of which can be accessed at his website.