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Boston academics weigh motives, meaning of Islamic State

The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future held “Interdisciplinary Approaches to the ‘Islamic State,’” a panel Thursday about the Islamic State. PHOTO BY OLEG TEPLYUK/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future held “Interdisciplinary Approaches to the ‘Islamic State,’” a panel Thursday about the Islamic State. PHOTO BY OLEG TEPLYUK/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

As part of a new digital scholarship initiative on Islamic studies, the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University hosted an interdisciplinary panel discussion on the Islamic State on Thursday in the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies. The panel featured representatives from various departments at BU as well as professors from Harvard University, Tufts University, Boston College and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

“A lot of coverage of ISIS has been from a policy, political, strategic angle,” said Michael Pregill, a panelist and the head of a new initiative from the SMSC called Mizan. “What often happens is that what gets lost is this deeper question of what ISIS represents in terms of Islamic society and Muslim identity.”

The panel discussed a wide range of topics having to do with ISIS, such as its justification of slavery, its use of rhetoric, its legitimacy as an empire and its recruitment methods and trends.

Kecia Ali, a professor of religion in the College of Arts and Sciences, analyzed ISIS’ use of slavery, saying that media attention tends to focus only on sexual enslavement and barbaric acts. In a document published online last fall, Ali said, ISIS accepts sexual and physical violence toward slaves while also imagining enslavement as an avenue for eventual conversion. In addition, the document focuses heavily on the manumission of slaves as a way for Muslims to earn “brownie points” to gain entry into heaven.

Adding to the discussion, Jessica Stern, a lecturer in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said ideologies are used as a marketing device. According to Stern, ISIS provides the incentive of sex by promising wives to participants, enslaving girls as young as 9 years old.

“We must start talking about this group as pedophiles,” she said.

Pregill also talked about ISIS’ propaganda techniques, bringing up imagery used by the group’s magazine, Dabiq. Similar to Islamic empires that came thousands of years before it, ISIS uses propaganda to “smear other Muslims as nonbelievers, making them ripe for slaughter and conquering.”

Taking a more cross-cultural perspective, Thomas Barfield, an anthropology professor in CAS, characterized the Islamic State as an “empire of nostalgia,” a state that draws its power, legitimacy and structure from a past empire that is now lost.

“The caliphate draws Muslims into ideas of their own past,” he said. “It is impossible for outsiders to understand the tug this would bring.”

However, Franck Salameh, a professor at BC, made the argument that characterizing ISIS as an empire of nostalgia devalues the staying power of empire and religion.

“ISIS is the norm of Middle Eastern history,” he said. “The secular state is the exception to the rule and doesn’t have staying power.”

Salameh said while places such as Syria, Jordan and Iraq are modern inventions that never achieved legitimacy, ISIS is in line with a time-honored pattern in which Islam is viewed as the pinnacle of human existence.

Finally, Pardee professor Noora Lori talked about the “supply side” of ISIS, from where and how it is gaining recruits. Lori pointed out that ISIS’ membership is more diverse than its leadership, with 20,000 foreign fighters from outside its Syrian and Iraqi recruits.

Lori showed screenshots of social media and advertisements aimed at youth. An ISIS poster modeled after the Call of Duty video game read: “This is our call of duty: And we respawn in Jannah” — “Jannah” meaning heaven. Another post read: “YODO: You Only Die Once, why not make it martyrdom.”

Mia Bloom, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, ended the panel by responding to Lori’s presentation.

“The reality of terrorism is that a lot of people who are part of terrorist movements are not radicals,” she said. “There is no clear direct causal mechanism for explaining recruitment.”

Overall, while the panel covered many subjects, scholars and experts have not reached universal agreements on the phenomenon of ISIS. And the aim of the panel wasn’t to reach definitive answers, but to spark debate and explore different approaches to the Islamic organization.

“I am consistently impressed with BU’s ability to pull in speakers,” said Stuart Ross, a senior in the College of Communication. “It was a diverse panel, and I think cross-backgrounds were different, and I learned a lot from that.”

With the new Mizan initiative, Pregill hopes to continue building bridges between different departments and programs.

Pregill is also working to spread the initiative internationally. Mizan will be co-sponsoring an international conference in Naples on Islamic traditions of the biblical prophets, and is planning to participate in the 2016 Biennial Iranian Studies Conference in Vienna, Austria. Eventually, Pregill hopes BU can host its own international conference, spotlighting BU research but also bringing in many people from the outside, both nationally and internationally.

“One of my agendas is to encourage more cooperation,” he said. “I hope to go out there and bring more people together so there’s more cooperative opportunities.”

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