Why We Must Reckon with ISIS’s Clear Genocide of Shia Muslims

This post is a condensed glimpse of a long-form article recently published in Genocide Studies International.

ISIS’s near extermination of Iraq’s Yazidis has gained deserved notoriety, comprising a well-evidenced genocide. ISIS crimes against Shia Muslims, however, not received the same attention. There are pragmatic explanations for this gap in scholarship—ISIS attacks on Shias have largely taken place in Iraq, where monitoring groups do not have the same autonomy and access as in Syria. Moreover, Shias are the governing majority in Iraq, mitigating concerns for the group’s survival.

But ISIS’s stance on the Shia is one of the group’s defining attributes. Unlike al-Qaeda, which focuses on the “far” enemy – the US and Western powers, ISIS prioritizes its “near” enemy – other Muslims deemed “apostate,” particularly the Shia. And in these days of Muslim bans and closing borders, scholarly neglect preserves a broader blindness toward Muslim victims. In this piece, I map out ISIS’s genocide of the Shia and explain why recognition matters.

A Qualifying Targeted Group

Shias comprise a protected religious group under the Genocide Convention. The group self-identifies as Shias, is recognized in scholarship as Shias, and is viewed collectively as Shias by ISIS (who pejoratively refer to Shias as Rafidah or ‘rejecters’), meeting both objective and subjective identity criteria. More pertinently, like the Yazidis, Shias are targets of ISIS violence “as such”, meaning ISIS specifically perpetrates crimes against Shias for their religious beliefs.

Specific Intent

ISIS has been particularly transparent regarding its genocidal ambitions, carefully documenting their rationalization of murder. The organization’s most comprehensive detailing of their viewpoint occurs in issue 13 of the group’s glossy magazine Dabiq, which features four pages cataloguing the particular wrongdoings of the Shia Safavid Dynasty followed by another 14 pages justifying violence against modern day Shias. At core of ISIS criticism of Shia Islam is the status Shias give to the fourth successor to the Prophet Mohammed, Ali and his descendants, specifically the belief that one of Ali’s bloodline will return as a savior figure during the apocalypse. In takfiri thinking, such reverence of an individual threatens the “oneness” of God, making Shias guilty of shirk—most simply translated as polytheism.

But there is an added nuance to the group’s excoriation of Shias: ISIS views Shias as both mushrikun (polytheists) and apostates, for rejecting Islam. This is a key difference between ISIS’s view of the Shia and Yazidis. As Yazidis never were Muslims, they did not turn away from Islam. Thus, they are accused of polytheism but not apostasy. This distinction matters, as a footnote in a Dabiq article rationalizing the enslavement of Yazidi women explains:

The enslavement of the apostate women belonging to apostate groups such as the rāfidah . . . is one that the [jurists] differ over. The majority of the scholars say that their women are not to be enslaved and only ordered to repent because of the hadīth, “Kill whoever changes his religion” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī]. But some of the scholars . . . say they may be enslaved . . .

Essentially, ISIS lacks the ideological assurance it deems necessary for sexual enslavement of Shia women. As long as ISIS jurisprudence remains unsettled on this matter, the majority’s mandate to kill those who have “left” Islam prevails, establishing specific genocidal intent to kill under Article II(a)

Conduct may also evidence intent and ISIS reinforces its propaganda with ideologically consistent war crimes. When detaining individuals, the group conducts “tests” to determine an person’s religious sect and decide whether he lives or dies. Moreover, the group has committed targeted large scale atrocities, like the massacre of Shia (but not Sunni or Christian) inmates in Badoush prison and the conscious striking of Shia villages of Shabaks and Turkmen but not their Sunni compatriots. When contrasted with ISIS’s highly regulated repression of Christians and enslavement of Yazidi women, the group’s summary execution of Shias, and more distinctly, its killing of Shia women and children, shows the group’s rigid adherence to the particulars of its genocidal views. This synchrony in utterance and conduct illustrates the careful calculation behind ISIS attacks on Shias.

Prohibited Conduct                                                           

ISIS’s repeated, calculated violence against Shia Muslims qualifies as genocidal conduct under the Convention. Both in Iraq and globally, ISIS’s main crime against Shia Muslims is murder. Thus, documentation of crimes against Shias is a compilation of massacres. ISIS has killed unarmed detainees en masse, burned women alive, and struck busy epicenters of civilian populations. The global, widely perpetrated, and highly systematic nature of ISIS’s acts qualifies their acts as genocidal.

Implications of Recognition

Acknowledging ISIS’s genocide against Shias is important for both strategic and humanitarian reasons. Tactically speaking, militarized efforts to destroy ISIS’s territory will not stop ISIS’s genocide against the Shia of Iraq and beyond, neither promoting justice nor fostering peace. For while ISIS’s state-like structure is distinctive, the Caliphate is ancillary to ISIS’s violence. As the so-called Islamic State formally loses ground, there is little reason to believe that its violent attacks, especially those targeting the Shia, will diminish. Though ISIS’s enslavement of Yazidi women is intertwined with a formal state structure, their typical attacks on the Shia are much more adaptable to a guerilla terror strategy.

Properly labeling these crimes genocide bears real implications. For asylum seekers and refugees, documentation and analysis of atrocities can prove pivotal. Overloaded asylum officers often resort to hurried web searches to evidence an asylum seeker’s well-founded fear; scholarly consensus and advocacy on this issue can mean the difference between asylum and refoulement. On the policy level, understanding that ISIS differentiates its ideology by targeting Muslims accentuates the inanity (among other descriptors) of a “Muslim Ban.” Such ignorance was most blatantly illustrated in the first Executive Order’s clumsy attempt to bar individuals from Shia majority nations, Iraq and Iran, and Shia-heavy Yemen.

Of course, a broader ambition of this victim-focused acknowledgment and advocacy is empathy. Attacks against Muslims do not stir the same social media solidarity as attacks in Paris, London, San Bernardino. Simplistic, dangerous narratives are closing down borders and threatening United Nations assistance. It is legal scholars’ responsibility to make sure our analysis is not limited to the most popular causes. Recognizing ISIS’s Muslim targets for genocide is a small step toward more a thoughtful, principled public response. During a time when Muslims are so often cast as perpetrators, it is critical to recognize the plight of Muslim victims.


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