Why won’t they say that Baghdadi was evil?

Too many feel unable to condemn the dead ISIS leader in strong moral terms.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics USA World

‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dies at 48.’

This was the second headline the Washington Post chose for its report on the death of Baghdadi. It was easily the most misleading, given that this ‘austere religious scholar’ was also a terrorist-in-chief who urged his global adherents to seek out ‘infidels’ and cave their heads in with rocks.

Many have rightly mocked the Washington Post’s soft-soap approach to the leader of a mass-killing machine. But as spiked pointed out, other outlets were equally rose-tinted, with one describing him as a ‘promising young footballer and student of the Koran’, and another telling ‘a rags-to-riches story of “a little-known teacher of Koranic recitation” who transformed himself into the “self-proclaimed ruler of an entity that covered swaths of Syria and Iraq”’.

This desire to humanise Baghdadi, to demystify him through biographical mundanity (‘shy’, ‘studious’, ‘not great with ladies’), is understandable. Nothing human should be alien to us. Grasping his personal evolution, the political and social conditions in which he and his followers’ jihadism prospered, is a necessary task.

But in humanising him, in foregrounding the less remarkable aspects of his life, something else is at play, too. It betrays a willingness to obscure what set Baghdadi apart. A willingness to deny his exceptionality. A willingness to downplay his determination to annihilate non-believers.

And that really should not be downplayed. Baghdadi consciously sought the annihilation of those whom he and his movement deemed unpure: the apostates and the infidel. And, of course, the Yazidis. The mission of ISIS, writ large in the takfir doctrine to which its adherents dedicate themselves, is near-enough genocidal. Yes, some unbelievers were permitted to live in the Islamic State, as long they paid a punitive tax, and accepted their enslavement. But many weren’t. Gratuitous slaughter tended to be ISIS’s preferred modus operandi. What’s more, Baghdadi encouraged the soldiers of his Islamic State to revel in it, to embrace the act of annihilation. Decapitating prisoners or garrotting apostates became a gruesome rite of passage, a means for the jihadist to perform his own purity and zeal, sometimes in front of cameras.

We therefore can and should call Baghdadi evil. That defines him. Not his youthful bookishness, his useful left foot, but his wilful destruction of human life.

The reluctance to condemn Baghdadi as evil, the willingness to downplay that which morally set him apart, is not just a failing among obituarists, or even among certain sections of the Western media. It also speaks of the Western elites’ lack of moral clarity more broadly – a lack brutally exposed in its confrontation with ISIS.

Of course, there was a ready acceptance that ISIS was a barbaric movement. After all, it was responsible for countless terrorist atrocities, attempted genocides, and gratuitous, self-aggrandising murders. But simultaneously, there was always a sense among Western political elites that Western states and traditions were really not much better. It meant that a morally relativising pall hung over the West’s response to ISIS’s barbarism.

This came to a head in February 2015, a few months after ISIS had terrorised the Yazidis and imposed its murderous regime on vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. President Barack Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast that: ‘Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ… [And] slavery and Jim Crow all too often [were] justified in the name of Christ.’

‘Lest we get on our high horse.’ Obama was effectively refusing to condemn ISIS in moral terms because he felt that the US and its allies were not much better. Terrible deeds had been carried out in the name of Christ just as they were being carried out in the Middle East in the name of the Prophet. There may have been some logic to Obama’s position (although the ahistorical equivalences drawn really don’t hold up). But it wasn’t logic that was really informing his position. It was the implosion of all semblance of moral authority. It was the growing sense that the one-time leader of the free world was no longer in a position to judge a barbaric, murderous cult, ‘lest we get on our high horse’.

Many criticised Obama at the time. But this inability to pass moral judgement was not Obama’s alone. It was (and is) increasingly shared by Western political and cultural elites. They believe that to condemn militant Islamists is to indulge Islamophobia; that to extol the virtues of Western civilisation is to approve of instances of Western barbarism; that to judge Western culture superior to that served up elsewhere is to support racism.

This retreat into an unthinking moral relativism was not a conscious decision. Rather, it was prompted by the corrosion of the sources of Western elites’ moral authority. The certainties of the Cold War are long gone. And the blundering, ethically veneered interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria designed to resurrect them only further drained what was left of the West’s moral authority. In its near absence, Western elites experienced moral disorientation. And it left them often paralysed before ISIS, incapable of justifying either the most meagre of boots-on-the-ground interventions then, or the most severe condemnations of Baghdadi now.

Of course, there is the current US president, Donald Trump. His embellished grandstanding speech, celebrating the dog-like death of the ‘whimpering’ Baghdadi, sounded like an attempt to revive some of that long-lost U-S-A moral confidence. But it jarred with the prevailing mood music, composed as it is of moral grays and historical regrets. Pundits and politicians compared it unfavourably to Obama’s quiet, clinical response to Osama bin Laden’s death. Trump’s was too ‘vivid’, too full of ‘John Wayne bravado’.

That wasn’t the real problem with it. No, the real problem was that Trump’s showmanship was no substitute for sincerity. Like his predecessor, he lacks any real moral clarity. Hence, just a few days ago, he said, cynically and ignorantly, that the Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) is worse than ISIS, no doubt as a sop to his ally, Turkey’s President Erdogan. Trump no more knows where he ought to stand on ISIS than Obama did.

It seems that in death, just as in life, Baghdadi continues to expose and exploit the moral disorientation of Western political elites.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Tim will be speaking at the sessions ‘The rise of conspiracy theorists’, ‘The crisis of trust in institutions’ and ‘What can we learn from the Enlightenment?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in London this weekend. Get tickets here.

Picture by: YouTube.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Amelia Cantor

30th October 2019 at 10:42 am

Baghdadi was certainly evil, like Hitler, Stalin and Thatcher.

Lenin and Trotsky, on t’other hand, committed mass murder and torture to create a better world. That’s why they are still a beacon of inspiration to all true humanist progressives.

T Zazoo

13th November 2019 at 8:12 pm

And Margaret just squeezes Pol Pot out of the bronze medal ! Leaving the Kim dynasty somewhere in the dust (they must be just trying to help people too).

Jonathan Smith

30th October 2019 at 9:38 am

Hitler was an author and artist of watercolour and oil. He loved his country and his mother. He was a sharp dresser, cutting a well groomed dash. Unmatched in his oratory, men respected him and ladies swooned. Until his winning streak was over, he made Germany great again.

T Zazoo

13th November 2019 at 8:09 pm

And he had a dog. You forgot that he had a dog.

John Millson

30th October 2019 at 8:40 am

Yes, labelling him ‘evil’ is in a way aggrandizing & *mystifying* another example of an inadequate, ultimately pathetic man, making use of circumstances to lead other lost empty people do unspeakable acts. All ‘monsters’ in history have turned out to be wily, opportunists. Just miserable creatures with a bit of, for them, rare luck.

Surely ‘homicidal maniac’ is a more useful label.

If only it were possible to inoculate everyone against Gullibility at birth.

Dan Loomis

30th October 2019 at 6:34 am

Trump said the PKK (which is a terrorist group) is probably more of a terrorist threat than ISIS — because ISIS has been almost entirely destroyed. It is logical that an active terrorist group is more of a threat than a defunct terrorist group. Trump was not giving a speech on the historical comparative threat levels posed by terrorist groups at their peaks throughout history, he was talking about an ongoing situation and why America is in no rush to provide military support to a terrorist group that currently exists and is being fought by a NATO ally.

Winston Stanley

30th October 2019 at 3:44 am

The question is a bit childish, even nursery level. Obviously he was “good” according to his own values, even exceptional. Just as liberals are “good” according to their values, and getting “gooder” all the time, with woke, tr ans etc. Value judgements are relative to the culture and they change through time and place. There is no eternal, immutable, objective standard that stands outside of historical and cultural relativity, any criterion of truth by which to evaluate the values themselves. “God is dead”. To say that he was “evil” is just to say that we have different values. His acts were those of the “good and holy”, just as we disagree about whether one should be “good and holy” in that sense. Nor do we keep to our old views about “good and holy”. Maybe it is just as enlightening to say that we are “evil”, according to his values, and according to our old values, and that we prefer it that way. We would rather be cool and chilled than “good and holy”. Secularism, like chill out and mind your own, that is our way, never mind all that “good and holy” nonsense. Arguably the problem with IS is not the absence of “morality”, but its presence. He is a “saintly” bloke, and that is the problem? Moral dogmatism rather than a chilled and tolerant relativism?

Andrew Leonard

30th October 2019 at 7:00 am

“Everyone gets a prize” – is nursery level

Winston Stanley

30th October 2019 at 12:27 pm

No “prizes” are required, the lifestyle is its own reward.

Our way is liberalism, even libertarianism, and you are free to practice the old virtues and vices as you see fit – so long as you let others make their own choices.

Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Gluttony, fornication and blasphemy, it is really up to you. One can live a chaste life or a libertine, be faithfully married or indulge bu ggery. Simplicity and industry or vainglorious pruning and vainer pastimes. Selfishness, self-indulgence or charity work. Leisure, sloth or application. Drunkedness or sobriety. Humility or pride. Religiosity or irreligion. You can be a saint or an all out sinner, it is really your own choice these days.

It is not so much morality as the absence of morality and that is how we like it. Chill out, do your own thing, and mind your own. One can call that “morality” if one wants to but why bother, it is more informative to spot the retraction of moral codes. Liberalism is not so much a morality as a freedom from morality – so long as you accord others the same right. A pact of the ungodly. Or one can be “moral” if one wants, it is one’s choice and one’s own morality.

We are the “evil”, the moral-less, the ungodly and that is how we like it. Freedom and tolerance, choice and self-expression. The one thing that we do not hold with is interference in the freedom, in the business of others. A pact of the ungodly.

Winston Stanley

30th October 2019 at 2:05 pm

Jesus virtue-signalling up on the cross on the hill: “Look at me everyone, look at how holy I am.” Talk about pride.

bf bf

1st November 2019 at 7:03 pm

Moral and compass appear to be two words that do not go together in your dystopian universe.

Winston Stanley

3rd November 2019 at 2:55 am

Did you get a plastic compass to stick in your mouth when you were in your cot? Still works fine does it? Have you stuck it anywhere interesting lately? I have brain, I do not need a dummy.

Winston Stanley

3rd November 2019 at 3:01 am

Mr BF “whites are superior” BF claiming the existence of a “moral compass”. OK, whatever!

Winston Stanley

3rd November 2019 at 3:27 am

“Equality is the opposite of quality.”

Maybe you would care to take a look at your “moral compass” and explain to us exactly what you mean by that slogan?

B/c we are all entirely convinced that you have a region of your brain that is somehow directly connected to the “inner meaning” of reality.

Winston Stanley

3rd November 2019 at 3:31 am

David Webb pronounced today that ethnic minorities should not be allowed to vote – does that somehow gel with your sturdy and reliable “moral compass” too?

Winston Stanley

3rd November 2019 at 3:58 am

If you cannot defend your position in public then do not pretend that you can.

Certainly do not claim the possession of some pseudo-mechanical device that gifts you “moral” authority just by its mention.

Magical charms lack charm in your hands.

Winston Stanley

3rd November 2019 at 5:06 am

BF has got a magic amulet, a “moral compass”. The genie sold it to him for 50 bucks at the market.


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