Yazidis, ISIS, and aggressive cosmopolitanism

In our Cities in a Global Society course, one of the fundamental themes is cosmopolitanism. I introduced the idea early in the course with the article by Mary Kaldor. Cosmopolitanism is an ancient, Stoic ideal of universal human identity–of being a ‘citizen of the world.’ I give credit to the dissident ancient Greeks who coined this term, with the qualification that they needed to raise this voice of dissent because the ancient Greek world was notoriously ethnocentric. In fact, the ancient Greeks also coined the term for their typical mindset: xenophobia, the fear/hatred of the foreigner.

But I digress–the reason I raise this issue again is that cosmopolitanism is a strongly-voiced modern ideal, even as modern regimes tend to classify, differentiate, and discriminate between different groups. Cosmopolitanism is seen as a trait of urbane, worldly city-dwellers, who (ideally) feel comfortable hanging out with pretty much anyone from any background (except maybe rural conservatives).


But where have really different peoples actually coexisted for thousands of years? Northern Iraq is one such place. In particular, Nineveh province, with its main city of Mosul. I don’t want to imply that different peoples in this region used to regularly hold hands and sing kumbaya–but they did ‘get along’ together, in the sense that Rodney King meant. Unfortunately, that cosmopolitan toleration-of-difference began to collapse when the 2003 Bush invasion of Iraq triggered sectarian civil war, beginning in the spring of 2004. In February of 2008 the head of the Chaldean Christian Church in Mosul was abducted and killed. And since ISIS took control of the province in June of 2014, the Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and Yazidis have suffered massacres, mass rape, enslavement, and forced displacement as refugees.

Map of northern Iraq
Map of northern Iraq. Source: Assyrian National News Agency

It turns out I was indeed wrong about the Yazidis. They are not Muslims. But they are not Christians, either; their religion is at least 500 years older than Christianity. It seems to be a version of Zoroastrianism from Ancient Persia (Iran), which has evolved over time. Yazidism today includes some aspects of Sufi Islamic mysticism (I had gotten the impression that Yazidism was a variant of Islam from this association with Sufism). But what this means is that in Mosul, peoples who are Sunni (Orthodox) Muslim, Shi’ite (sometimes mystical) Muslim, Chaldean Christian, and even older Yazidis used to coexist up until 2004.


In our class, I then made the argument that ISIS and its brutal policies are distinctly modern–in sharp contrast to the way that the ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban are often portrayed in Western media as ‘anti-modern.’ Here is how the ISIS ideology is characteristically modern:
1). ISIS wants to establish a regime that is socially just, based on their narrow interpretation of the Qur’an and the Traditions (Hadith). I think most Muslims agree that if the principles of Islam were fully implemented by a human government, there would be no famine, no homelessness, and no grotesque inequality. Muslims disagree with ISIS because this ideal goal of social justice is invalidated when massive systematic violence is used as the means to get there.
2). To implement this utopia of social-justice, ISIS needs to form a society (demos) of people who embrace the proper path. ‘Path,’ in Arabic, is sunnah–it is the root of the term for “Sunni” Muslim. However, ISIS is not just Sunni: they Salafist–a movement that arose in the 1960s and is puritanical and intolerant, very much like conservative Christian Evangelical fundamentalists in the United States.
3). Forming the proper society requires purification. Impure people are offered the chance to “join the program”–meaning that they must convert to (an extremely narrow, Salafist interpretation of) Sunni Islam. Or, Unbelievers can live as impure peoples if they pay an extra tax.
4). ISIS proclaims that they are an organized nation-state. ISIS has several names/acronyms in English and in Arabic and Farsi, but they all point to the fact that they are organizing a modern government. In English, one version is ISIS: Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shem (al-Shem is Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan). The other name for this region (in English) is the Levant, which explains the variant-acronym ISIL.
In Arabic, the acronym is DAESH. D=daulat (state); A=al-Islamiyah (Islamic); E=‘Eraq (the Arabic name for Iraq); and SH=al-Shem (the Levant). All these variations on the name point to the organization’s intent to be recognized as an organized government in the modern sense.

Is ‘purification’ characteristically modern? Yes. As violent as Spanish colonization might have been, Catholic missionaries pushed conversion because they were trying to save the souls of the people in the New World. As a result, intermarriage between European, Native American, and African peoples is much more prevalent in Latin America and the Caribbean–even though there was slavery and still is racism in the region. The ‘sword-and-cross’ strategy in Latin America was early-modern, but not yet fully modern; the political-economy was mercantilist, not yet capitalist. Spanish pursuit of gold was economically simplistic compared to the capitalist acquisition of space, ideas, and labor as instruments of wealth-generation and wealth-multiplication. Likewise, the creation of the Spanish Empire allowed ethnic plurality, whereas even Colonial-Era Americans developed strategies of genocide to clear out Native Americans. It is not coincidental that the early English colonists in Massachusetts were called Puritans. Compared to the Spanish Catholics, these puritanical English Protestants had a much more adversarial relationship with Native Americans from the early 1600s onwards.

Andrew Jackson (1830), Heinrich Himmler (1942), and Slobodan Milosevic (1992-1995) all sought to ‘purify’ their nation through discrimination, expulsion, and extermination. The Taliban targeted Shi’ite Hazaras in the late 1990s in Afghanistan. The Western-oriented Ukrainians and the Baltic governments (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) are discriminating against ethnic Russians. As far as I can tell, the list of nation-states that politicize ethnic-religious difference is much longer than the list of states that do not. The ideology of cultural purity is a really convenient strategy for factions trying to gain leadership in democratic-nationalist governments. So the politicization of race and religion may not be inherently necessary  as part of modern democratic politics, but it is extremely common. The Islamic State fits this pattern; it is a convenient ideology to embrace your demographic majority by vilifying the ‘others’ in your territory.

Aggressive Cosmopolitanism

There are a few lessons I want to point out from this analysis. First: we need to hammer out a realistic explanatory model of the rationale of current movements in order to understand them. In academia, this is called theorization. If we don’t have a robust theory of ISIS, it is hard to understand why young Muslim women from Western Europe would want to travel to ISIS-controlled territory to marry ISIS jihadi militants. They are attracted to a regime that promises to implement real social justice through a rigorous implementation of the teachings and lived lessons of the Prophet Muhammad. It is an epic failure to disparage these women as “irrational.” It is intellectually lazy–and potentially fatal–to dismiss their reasoning with a statement like “I just don’t understand why…”

The second lesson I want to pull out is the connectedness–the non-exoticness–of the ISIS ideology. As Americans, in particular, we should be intimately familiar with fundamentalist, intolerant, violent religious movements. The Puritans were so hardline that even the Dutch could not put up with them; that is why they left Amsterdam on the Mayflower. Religious intolerance is part of the American legacy. In the 1980s, the Afghan nationalist insurgency against Soviet occupation was turned into an Islamist jihad through the strong encouragement of the Reagan Administration. Older Afghans have remarked to me that the hard-line intolerance of the Taliban feels alien to them, very unlike the way that Islam was practiced and understood in Afghanistan up to 1980. But to me, that hard-line intolerance is familiar: it reminds me of the Evangelical Christians I encountered in my youth in California. Did our American intelligence operatives teach this attitude of intolerance to the Afghan jihadis in the 1980s? It would be difficult to conclusively prove this, but the question itself is useful in demolishing the illusion that hard-line political-Islamists are somehow other, somehow exotic to domestic life in the United States.

The third lesson builds on the first two: we need to build an agenda of aggressive cosmopolitanism, both locally and globally. That means working hard to understand (theorize) many points of view that we disagree with. I began this essay with the example of civil toleration in Nineveh province, and its collapse under the puritanical (and distinctly modern) ideology of ISIS. I don’t like ISIS’ policies, but I respect them enough to take a little time to theorize their ideology, and to understand that there is some sort of positive ideal of social justice in their agenda that attracts Westerners to their cause.

Understanding an intolerant position does not mean accepting it. Cosmopolitanism does not mean toleration-as-indifference. Nor is cosmopolitanism merely an attitude which we should apply to people ‘over there,’ we need to apply it quite close to our own hearts and homes. Here is a policy of aggressive cosmopolitanism that we can apply right here in America: in-your-face promotion of interracial romance; LGBTQ life and love; and relentless undermining of any religious justification for intolerance. And that means challenging the use of Christianity as an excuse for homophobia.

To challenge this politicized abuse of Christianity as a pretext for hatred, I propose going directly through the central tenets of Christian belief itself. That means respecting and understanding Christian theology on the terms that Christians believe, including the Biblical portrayal of the life of Jesus. In first-century Palestine, boys were generally betrothed as children and married by the time they were about 16. Yet according to Christian doctrine, Jesus did not marry, spent most of his time with men, and was crucified as a bachelor at 33. For Christians, Jesus was fully divine, but also fully human. So…how might we understand Jesus’ relationships?

John the Evangelist was pretty clear in referring to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 20:2). There are three terms for love in Greek: eros, agape, and philia. Eros is explicitly sexual; philia can refer to entirely non-sexual friendship; agape lies between these two, and might be translated as “devoted-to.” The relationship between Jesus and John is referred to as agape (ἀγάπη) in Christian doctrine. Based on the oldest, most reliable versions of the Gospels in their original language, “following in the footsteps of Jesus” means committing to passionate, devoted, loving relationships between adults of the same gender, as much as adults of different genders. Furthermore, a core tenet of Christian doctrine is that this New Testament explicitly overturns the Old Testament–which is why they have the names ‘old’ and ‘new.’ It means that the commandment to “love (agape) thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39) overturns the old-Testament (Leviticus 18:22) statement that homosexuality is an abomination. Interestingly, Jesus does so by universalizing a passage in Leviticus that comes just after the “abominable” passage: Lev 19:18 commands the people of Israel to “love thy neighbor as thyself”.

What this all means is that you can confront homophobes and racists who claim a Christian justification for their views, on the grounds of Christianity itself. If you meet a person who puts the laws of Leviticus  ahead of the teachings of Jesus, they have a right to their opinion as an American. But you stand on extremely solid theological ground when you challenge their claim that they are Christian. It is not just that intolerance, hatred, and condemnation of others is a general violation of Christian belief; but also that homophobia is a specific violation of both the teachings and behavior of Jesus in the Gospels.

In the Holy Qur’an and the Traditions–which describe the lives of the first three generations of Muslims–there are equally strong arguments against the violent intolerance of ISIS. But to make those arguments, we need to do more than respect and study Islam on its own terms: we need the moral leverage of implementing an aggressive cosmopolitan program here, in the United States, to show how a modern democratic people can manage our own tendency towards religiously intolerant politics and policies.

Aggressive cosmopolitanism. It ain’t tame. And it ain’t pure: it’s mulatto, hybrid-vigor, mixed-race, miscegenation. Used to be illegal in 30 states.