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Content note: This article contains discussions of rape, slavery, and physical assault.
The news that Daesh — for an explanation of why I prefer Daesh to ISIS/ISIL, read this article — is enslaving members of the Yazidi ethnic minority, raping them, and specifically enjoining members of the organization to engage in sexual assault is not new. Refugees as well as human rights organizations have documented systemic patterns of sex slavery so extensive that Daesh even has its own infrastructure to support the practice, complete with regular slave markets to meet demand.
What is new, however, is the revelation of a detailed fatwa setting out a list of rules for how, when, and where rape should be conducted, both condoning the practice and creating guidelines for fighters who want to exploit women kidnapped as "spoils of war."
U.S. special forces allegedly captured it along with a variety of other material (such as documentation on organ harvesting) during a raid, and it lays out a chilling framework that both justifies rape and even suggests that it may be a mandate for Daesh fighters — this is a document that treats slaves as rewards for good service, creating an incentive both to join the organization and serve with distinction. The New York Times has hosted a copy on their servers — be warned that it makes for very unpleasant reading. The organization has also discussed the subject in its online magazine — yes, Daesh has an online magazine — Dabiq.
It starts with a question — the writer expresses some concern about the "treatment of female slaves," establishing that slavery has been an accepted practice in the organization for some time, but asking whether sexual assault is "permitted by Sharia law." Far from indicating that sexual assault is forbidden (which in fact it is under the Qu'ran, as is slavery itself), the fatwa details specific conditions in which it is forbidden, leaving all others up to the imagination. For example, a man who owns a mother and daughter must pick one, and cannot have "intercourse" with both. He and his son may not "share" a slave. The list goes on. One can see why Yazidi women are taking up arms to defend themselves and others.
Rest assured, though, the Fatwa ends with the note that: "The owner of a female captive should show compassion towards her, be kind to her, not humiliate her, and not assign her work she is unable to perform," adding that "the owner of a female captive should not sell her to an individual whom he knows will treat her badly or do unto her what Allah has forbidden."
The fatwa illustrates that Daesh is a highly unIslamic organization, promoting practices that were specifically prohibited by Muhammad as part of its larger policy of attempting to establish a new caliphate in the Middle East. Thousands of women have been kidnapped by the organization, which justifies their enslavement on the grounds that they aren't Muslim, and therefore should be considered spoils of war to be bought, sold, traded, and given away. Some slaves interviewed by human rights organizations even claim that Daesh soldiers told them that repeated rapes would convert them to Islam, though the fatwa (let alone the Qu'ran) makes no mention of this — it's possible Daesh commanders and other authorities made this suggestion.
This fits into a larger history of rape as a weapon of war. Humans have been making war for an extremely long time, and they've been enslaving and raping the women of the losing side for just as long — the Rape of the Sabines is a famous incident in Roman history for a reason. In 750 BCE, Roman men abducted Sabine women after they refused to negotiate with the Romans — and while some pedants like to suggest that the Romans simply took Sabine wives, it's pretty clear that the women were taken from their communities, forced into marriages with Roman men, and raped. Sexual intercourse against your will — as for example in a forced marriage — is rape.
During the Bosnian wars, rape was a systemic war crime, with Serbian forces targeting Muslim women with rape "day and night" before dumping them in mass graves. Some got pregnant, and were forced to have abortions in crude, horrific conditions. Others experienced the opposite — forced pregnancy designed to humiliate not just them, but their families and communities. In Rwanda, sexual violence was a problem on a "mass scale." A hidden side of the U.S. Civil War includes systemic use of rape — on both sides. That includes, of course, the rape of slaves by "liberating" forces. Under the Khmer Rouge, untold numbers of Cambodian women were raped, and they weren't even allowed to testify. Just this week, Korea and Japan reached a settlement on so-called "comfort women" — victims of repeated rape during World War II and the subject of decades of contention. Today, Boko Haram also stands accused of using rape as a tactic.
Young children to old women are all viewed as targets by rapists, both opportunistic and otherwise. Men can also be selectively targeted, though not on the same scale as women — for men, it often occurs specifically in the context of torture. Amnesty International argues that rape is becoming a specific military strategy now, though I disagree — it always has been. The Daesh fatwa is one in a long line of carefully applied strategies designed to subjugate people as invading and occupying armies sweep across new territory. Rape is used as a tool of humiliation, as a show of force, as an instrument of power and control to keep women terrified and, in some cultures, to drive home a sense of powerlessness among communities that feel helpless to stop gender-based violence.
Daesh knows this — the organization is incredibly canny and has demonstrated flawless military strategy, including radicalizing and recruiting child soldiers, rewarding members not just with slaves but with other spoils of war, destroying cultural landmarks to pull down the societies it is attempting to eliminate, utilizing social media to incredible success, seizing assets like crude oil, and, yes, raping women. Under these conditions, it is perhaps not surprising that hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the region and seeking refugee status with any and all nations that will open their borders to them.
Most of the women targeted by Daesh belong to the Yazidi, an ethnic and religious minority. Yazidi people have a mixture of religious beliefs that reflects centuries of complex cultural and religious heritage in the region, but the core of their beliefs is a callback to ancient Mesopotamian religions. Hundreds of women are dying — and killing themselves — in captivity, and Daesh is explicitly entering communities with no resources in order to kidnap women, illustrating that abduction, slavery, and rape are systematic parts of their strategy, not incidental or opportunistic. Like other ethnic and religious minorities, the Yazidi occupy a very fragile political and social position, and are at heightened risk for genocide, which is no doubt Daesh's ultimate goal.
The military discovered this document as part of an escalated assault on Daesh authorized by the Obama Administration, which is clearly taking an aggressive stance in the wake of the Paris attacks and concerns about wanting to be seen as a world leader. As Daesh commanders begin to be taken out one by one, though, others will rise to their places, as the group is extremely well-organized, and it has followers with fanatical devotion — the type that's only possible through a mixture of religious extremism, but also desperation. Many Daesh fighters are offered paychecks and family benefits that might seem paltry to people in the U.S., but are substantial for people in impoverished regions of the Middle East. Perks like steady supplies of food and other benefits make membership even more appealing, and the trade in slaves is part of the engine designed to attract and retain recruits. Daesh has found a powerful niche to occupy in regions where highly destabilized governments aren't capable of law enforcement or the provision of social services, and it's also indoctrinating the next generation in purpose-built schools and other settings, which is a disturbing prospect.
Muslim authorities argue that Daesh cannot arbitrarily declare itself a caliphate, and they also reject the self-published fatwas issued by the group, let alone its claims of being a Muslim organization. While their words are often aimed at the West as they attempt to intercede in a climate of growing Islamophobia, they aren't necessarily reaching Daesh fighters. More to the point, it might not matter if they do — because many of those fighting for the organization aren't doing so because of religion, but because of the substantial benefits Daesh has to offer. Fighters there for the religion are convinced that Muslim leaders outside Daesh have strayed from the path of righteousness, but they may not even be the majority in the group at this point.
While religious extremism can drive a war, it's an infrastructure of providing community services and paying fighters that will finish it unless the West can dismantle Daesh from the core — which requires refusing to conflate the group with any form of Islam.