Never again.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Islamic State's Medieval Morals

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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It’s been 150 years since U.S. law allowed masters to rape enslaved girls and women. Almost all modern Muslim societies banned slavery in the last century. So why is Islamic State turning back the clock, actively embracing and promoting enslavement of Yazidi women, thereby enabling them to be raped under one interpretation of classical Islamic law?

Islamic State’s goal isn’t primarily about money or sex, but about sending the message that they are creating an Islamic utopia, following the practices of the era of the Prophet Muhammad. They want to go back in time, to the days of the earliest Muslims and the Prophet’s companions. The more medieval the practice, the more they like it.

QuickTake The Third Iraq War

Our horror at this self-conscious neo-medievalism should teach us a lesson about the evolution of our beliefs and what it means to be modern. Begin with the sober acknowledgment that we aren’t light years ahead of Islamic State -- more like a century and a half.

Slavery in the U.S. isn’t a distant relic. We’re still dealing with its aftereffects, in the form of persistent racial inequality and long-lived symbols of the Confederacy.

And we would do well not to forget that American slavery, particularly in its last half-century before abolition, was one of the most brutal slave systems in recorded human history. In comparison, the history of Islamic slavery is relatively mild.

Slaves of African descent were not only tortured to increase cotton yields, but also, in the case of the women, subjected to systematic and lawful rape. My Harvard Law colleague Annette Gordon-Reed has shown in her work on Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson that there were occasional examples of more complicated, partially mutualistic relationships between slave women and masters. But this was, she points out, the exception rather than the rule -- and it became increasingly rare as slavery in the Deep South reached its brutal climax, before abolition came by the sword.

What we in the U.S. recently sanctioned, we now find repulsive. And, of course, we’re morally correct to reject slavery and rape in the most stringent and absolute moral terms. These human actions -- and institutions -- are as wrong as anything can be. They and their aftereffects must be uprooted, by force when necessary.

The process that brings us to this rejection of our own morally repellent traditions makes us modern. We develop new ideas that our ancestors would hardly have recognized -- and we come to believe that our old ideas were not just wrong, but horrifyingly wrong. Modern people are prepared to say that we, and our fathers, and our fathers’ fathers’, sinned. The fact that something is old and venerated isn’t a good enough reason to keep it when its immorality becomes manifest.

The modern project is to try and cleanse ourselves of bad things from the past while keeping what was good about it. This attempt to purify and improve is what defines us as modern people.

At the same time, we don’t reject everything about our past. The U.S. Constitution acknowledged and sanctioned slavery created by state laws. But modern Americans don’t reject the Constitution. Instead, we recognize that our Constitution is good in part because it has been able to evolve beyond its origins.

This is why the idea of a living Constitution is so important to a functioning, modern society. An unchanging Constitution would include and enshrine the racism and sexism of the founding generation. It’s no coincidence that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the most eloquent exponent of the living Constitution, was a veteran of the Civil War who’d been wounded in battle and lost his closest friend. He’d seen the country reject parts of its constitutional past; he’d seen the price of that rejection; and he emerged committed to keeping the constitutional alive -- cleansed of those wrongs it had originally included.

Gay marriage is a good example: The Supreme Court has reinterpreted the Constitution to change the institution of marriage. The justices struggled with this process of change, as did the country, and the struggle isn’t completely over. But the odds are very good that the process will be a success, and that our more modern Constitution will continue to improve itself over time.

As modern people, we’re always gambling that we will make things better when we change them. Sometimes we’re wrong. It would be naive to think that history, including modern history, is a series of gradual improvements. From the excesses of the French and Russian revolutions to the horrors of fascism and totalitarianism, the modern age has given us plenty of examples of modernism gone awry. The fact that something is new and seems good is no guarantee that it is moral, any more than antiquity is proof of morality.

But part of being modern is recognizing an emerging consensus on the wrongness of past practices like slavery. Islamic State is enslaving women to trumpet to the world that it refuses to accept the idea of contemporary progress, an idea that has, in fact, been accepted by the vast majority of Muslims. The only appropriate modern response is horror -- and a commitment to do something about it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net