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) Continue reading