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Islamic State and the limits of international ethics

The moral outrage at the actions of Islamic State (IS) is easy to both express and justify. An organisation that engages in immolation, decapitation, crucifixion and brutal corporal punishment; that seemingly deploys children as executioners; that imposes profound restrictions on the life-choices and opportunities of women; and that destroys cultural heritage that predates Islam is despicable. What drives such condemnation is complex and multifaceted, however. For example, for Muslims, the perversion of their faith, the decontextualization of the words and deeds of the Prophet, and the insistence on a singular account of one of the world’s richest traditions of theological jurisprudence are central. For liberals, the denial of fundamental human rights, the rejection of equality, the repression of debate or criticism, and cruelty stand out as determining the immorality of IS’s actions and beliefs. And so on. There are multiple bases for outrage, and those bases may share many traits.

Moral condemnation of the actions and doctrines of IS thus reveals one way in which accounts of ethics that draw their inspiration from very different bases can nevertheless coincide. IS is intolerable in a rich and specific sense of the idea of toleration. It is not the antithesis of something that must be put up with, undesirable though it is, for practical reasons of immutability, whether in the short or long term. Instead, IS is intolerable because it seemingly offers no basis for reciprocity of toleration. IS’s moral condemnation of Shi’ism and Shiites, of Sunni Muslims who do not share its interpretation, of Jews and Judaism, or liberalism can only manifest in violent rejection. This feeds a political response by those threatened by IS that is frequently seen as necessarily violent. Negotiation or rapprochement with IS is, simply, impossible. Self-defence, through the use of force, is not only morally justifiable but a moral imperative. In a political situation a group is governed by a belief system that necessitates the destruction of those who reject that system, the limits of any possible bases for toleration are removed. This is not simply about not ‘putting up’ with such a belief system; it is about recognising that it can offer no basis for reciprocal acceptance of the potential contribution such a system might make to the continual dialogue amongst human communities about how to live. That dialogue must, to be worthwhile, include an account of how to live together that IS appears incapable of entering.

Kurdish protest against ISIS, by Alan Denney. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Kurdish protest against ISIS, by Alan Denney. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

Violent and exclusionary political projects are not unknown – far from it – but those that require for their existence the destruction of others are, thankfully, a comparative political rarity. Those rare exceptions are, necessarily, terrifying because the negation of the possibility of inter-communal dialogue represents such a departure from deep-rooted ideas about the ethical underpinnings of politics, at many levels. The idea of ethical diversity through different ethical traditions and their manifestations in diverse communities is often seen as presenting a serious challenge to the possibility of a universal ethic, or, at least, to the establishment of a political system rooted in an operationalising a meaningful, substantive universal ethic. In international relations, the idea of ethical diversity as partially and imperfectly manifested in sovereignty has long led many to argue that some kind of ‘live and let live’ principle is the best that can be achieved (if ‘you’ don’t interfere in ‘our’ affairs, ‘we’ won’t interfere in ‘yours’ and we will all get along better that way). Such a system is attractive to some, but objectionable to others who fear it reflects a moral relativism that makes it impossible to convincingly deplore inhuman cruelties perpetrated in the name of sovereignty. The universal condemnation of IS belies such a relativist critique, but does highlight the question of what makes such a consensus possible, given the purported absence of the basis for consensus.

What seems telling about these rare exceptions is that their radical intolerance is predicated on accounts of their own community’s value that are exceptionally closed and sclerotic. The community’s narrative of its own value, its place in the world, and the place of others is seen to be unquestionable, and that to seek to question that narrative invites severely repressive consequences. Authority within the community is understood to be typically exceptionally hierarchical and rooted in self-referential claims about authoritative interpretations of fundamental precepts that brook no objection. As a result, any potential bases for entry into the inter-communal debate about how to live together are denied and toleration of the other – where toleration is understood as recognising and valuing the distinct contribution a different perspective may bring – is impossible. In many cases, in relations with other communities, those points of entry may appear biased and irrational, the processes of change they enable apparently glacial in their progress, or their internal decision-making systems illogical or heavily loaded, but where they are present there is a basis for mutual toleration because change is immanent and the potential for living together thus present.

The moral condemnation of IS is valid for many reasons and in many ways, and what unites them all, is a necessary rejection of a perspective on humanity that is so closed and sclerotic as to preclude the very possibility of toleration. A group such as IS is terrifying – morally speaking, as well as politically – because it rejects any possible basis for participating in the process of living well, together.

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