The Islamic State indulged in some of the most ostentatious brutality and sadism of recent decades. If any extremist group deserves the adjective evil, this would be it. But it is precisely our disgust, which ISIS has well earned, that makes it difficult to talk about what the group was and what it meant—and what it may still mean.
The Washington Post was mocked for describing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar” in the headline of its obituary after the ISIS chief was killed on October 27. (The headline was later changed.) Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that the Post and other mainstream outlets had “harsher criticism for the President of The United States than they do for the leader of ISIS, a known serial rapist and murderer.” He kind of had a point.
Similar criticisms were lobbed against Rukmini Callimachi and Falih Hassan, the authors of a New York Times story about Baghdadi’s death, for describing various government services that ISIS provided in the parts of Iraq and Syria that it once controlled. “The Islamic State collected taxes and saw to it that the garbage was picked up,” they wrote. “Couples who got married could expect to receive a marriage license printed on Islamic State stationery. Once children of those unions were born, their birth weight was duly recorded on an ISIS-issued birth certificate. The group even ran its own D.M.V.” Patrick Osgood, a researcher focusing on Iraq, said on Twitter that the Times story’s “emphasis is utterly wrong, privileging ISIS marginalia over a true reckoning of immense human cost—genocide, multiple massacres of 100s, 1,000s missing, ruinous war—of [Baghdadi’s] fetid ambition.”