Yes, the title of this post is provocative, but no more so than the title of the New York Times article by Rukmini Callimachi (“ISIS enshrines a theology of rape”) about ISIS’s buying and selling of Yazidi sex slaves and the rape of young girls who aren’t even in their teens. (This is apparently one of a series of pieces about ISIS that will appear, and this one is particularly horrifying.)
I’m constantly inundated with emails and attacks by people who claim that the perfidies of militant Islam are due to the West, not to Islam itself. Religion is largely exculpated. And yes, I’ll admit that some terrorist attacks by Muslims have been exacerbated by Western activities, but I can’t exculpate religion itself as a cause of this divisiveness.
And when the divisiveness takes the form of ISIS’s systematic, bureaucratically-organized rape of Kurdish non-Muslims—people who can’t be responsible for any colonialism—and when that rape is justified by citing the Qur’an and the will of Allah, then it’s hard to pin the rapes on colonialism. You may say that these rapists are merely using the Qur’an as an excuse, but what would happen without that excuse? Might the situation be at least a little better?
I do want to emphasize that the main point of the New York Times piece (and of my piece here) is the horrors of rape endured by the Yazidis —a religious sect of Kurds characterized by Wikipedia as monothesistic but by ISIS fighters (and the Times) as polytheistic, and therefore a religion of infidels. Because Yazidis are seen as infidels, it’s considered okay—nay, a blessing—to rape their women. That’s where the theological justification comes in, which the Times piece mentions over and over again. What is really horrible is the minute organization of how Yazidi women are abducted (men and boys beyond puberty are simply executed), and how contracts are drawn up for their sale and “use.” A few excerpts, beginning with the powerful opening of Callimachi’s piece:
In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl, the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted.
He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her.
When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.
“I kept telling him it hurts — please stop,” said the girl, whose body is so small an adult could circle her waist with two hands. “He told me that according to Islam he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God,” she said in an interview alongside her family in a refugee camp here, to which she escaped after 11 months of captivity.
The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution. Interviews with 21 women and girls who recently escaped the Islamic State, as well as an examination of the group’s official communications, illuminate how the practice has been enshrined in the group’s core tenets.
The trade in Yazidi women and girls has created a persistent infrastructure, with a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them.
You can read about the horrific details in the piece; some of the accounts of rape of girls as young as 11 and 12 are very hard to take. But of course according to Muslim scripture, Muhammad himself took a nine-year-old as his wife and had intercourse with her. That, combined with the demonization of non-Muslims, must surely help justify what’s going on with ISIS.
Repeatedly, the ISIS leadership has emphasized a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.
“Every time that he came to rape me, he would pray,” said F, a 15-year-old girl who was captured on the shoulder of Mount Sinjar one year ago and was sold to an Iraqi fighter in his 20s. Like some others interviewed by The New York Times, she wanted to be identified only by her first initial because of the shame associated with rape.
“He kept telling me this is ibadah,” she said, using a term from Islamic scripture meaning worship.
When the Yazidi women are abducted, they’re put in buses with covered windows (because the women themselves aren’t properly covered), transported to holding centers, and then graded as if they were cattle. Then they’re sold.
In the parking lot the same fleet of Hajj buses was waiting to take them to their next destination, said F. Along with 24 other girls and young women, the 15-year-old was driven to an army base in Iraq. It was there in the parking lot that she heard the word “sabaya” for the first time.
“They laughed and jeered at us, saying ‘You are our sabaya.’ I didn’t know what that word meant,” she said. Later on, the local Islamic State leader explained it meant slave.
“He told us that Taus Malik” — one of seven angels to whom the Yazidis pray — “is not God. He said that Taus Malik is the devil and that because you worship the devil, you belong to us. We can sell you and use you as we see fit.”
If this is based on colonialism, or revenge toward Western incursions, why have Yazidis been raped but not Christians or Jews? A University of Chicago scholar explains:
[Matthew]. Barber, of the University of Chicago, said that the focus on Yazidis was likely because they are seen as polytheists, with an oral tradition rather than a written scripture. In the Islamic State’s eyes that puts them on the fringe of despised unbelievers, even more than Christians and Jews, who are considered to have some limited protections under the Quran as “People of the Book.”
Not all Muslims, of course, agree with the acts themselves or the theology that ISIS uses to sanction rape. I’m not demonizing the entire religion here, though I do consider Islam the world’s most harmful faith. Rather, I’m demonizing its most extreme efflorecence, which is to some extent enabled by not only more moderate Muslims, but those misguided Westerners who completely exculpate religion. As a recent Atlantic article argued, ISIS appears to be bringing back ancient, caliphate-based versions of Islam. And, according to one author quoted in the Times piece, “these institutions need to be revived because that is what the Prophet and his companions did.”
I’ll give just one more excerpt, which suggests that Jewish and Christian captives are now in for the same fate. After all, though they’re “people of the book”, they’re still nonbelievers in Allah. My emphasis in this passage:
The Islamic State recently made it clear that sex with Christian and Jewish women captured in battle is also permissible, according to a new 34-page manual issued this summer by the terror group’s Research and Fatwa Department.
Just about the only prohibition is having sex with a pregnant slave, and the manual describes how an owner must wait for a female captive to have her menstruating cycle, in order to “make sure there is nothing in her womb,” before having intercourse with her. Of the 21 women and girls interviewed for this article, among the only ones who had not been raped were the women who were already pregnant at the moment of their capture, as well as those who were past menopause.
Beyond that, there appears to be no bounds to what is sexually permissible. Child rape is explicitly condoned: “It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty, if she is fit for intercourse,” according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute of a pamphlet published on Twitter last December.
Say what you will about the motivations of ISIS. Say that the theology is just a cover for the natural tendency of men in war to rape their captives (but notice that this is not always official policy). Say that exactly the same thing would happen if ISIS weren’t a religious organization, but merely some xenophobic group lacking any religion. I don’t believe those claims, but I’m sure some will make them. But what you cannot credibly say is that this is the fault of the West for unfairly maligning Islam or invading Islamic lands.