Recent reports of Islamic State’s sexual enslavement of Yazidi women and girls, as well as women from other minority sects, have provoked international outrage. Many Muslims have been incredulous that a movement calling itself Islamic could cite scriptural sanction for such horrendous practices.
Experts in early Islam have analyzed the origins of such policies in 7th century Arabia and historical interpretations in Islam. But ancient Islamic traditions do not fully explain these atrocious policies.
They should instead be viewed as a response to modernity itself: a riposte to modern Western ideas about women’s emancipation and male and female sexuality. In addition, leaders of developing religious movements often seek to control their followers’ sexual practices to build group solidarity even as they break down old relationships and ties.
Questioning Islamic State’s claims to be returning to the origins of their faith may be essential, because Western modernity has invariably been the main stimulus to the revitalization of “ancient” practices.
Many people, for example, saw the destruction of ancient temples in Iraq or demolition of the great Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan as archaic religious reactions to idolatry — some primitive inability to appreciate art and antiquities. But scholars have remarked instead on the language used by Islamic State spokesmen or the Taliban, who repudiated Western pleas to protect cultural heritage in particularly contemporary terms. The enemy was UNESCO, not the actual monuments.
In the same fashion, Islamic State’s current sexual enslavement policies in many ways recall Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria. That mass kidnapping sparked an international outcry, especially from international women’s organizations — an outcry far beyond any reaction to this group’s massacres of schoolboys.
Yet that widespread outcry may actually have been one of Boko Haram’s key reasons for the abductions. Boko Haram is not just seeking to kidnap brides or collect ransom. It seems intent on confronting modern attitudes in Nigeria — and by extension the West — about the value of girls in the world today: Should they be career-bound scholars or brides of warriors?
So what about Islamic State’s sexual enslavement of non-Muslims, particularly Yazidi girls? Given the group’s policy coordination at the highest levels, are these practices being carried out as an intentional repudiation of an international “year of the woman” argument? Is the group seeking to refute efforts to lionize Malala Yousufzai or champion women’s emancipation even in the most traditional of villages?
Islamic State is attuned to the interests of observant Muslim boys and girls around the world. As it works to recruit young adults and teenagers throughout the West, newspapers have reported, the group has demonstrated a remarkable sense of the languages and challenges of modernity.
So there may also be an official sense among Islamic State leaders that the practice of sexually enslaving Yazidi women would likely disgust and outrage the West and other Muslims. Yet it also challenges modern Muslim youth to think about male sexual gratification in unambiguous warrior terms, and to view Islamic State’s stark society as morally complete in its treatment of others — a society which requires that they must give up “Western” values to join.
The social context may be just as important for understanding this new policy of sexual enslavement. One thing learned from the study of the small religious movements that have sprung up in the West over the past few centuries is the systematic restructuring of sexual relations that leaders have often demanded at an early point in the movement. This may involve group celibacy or polygamy, the exclusive sexual rights of the leader, or free sexual relations. It can often mean dissolution of prior marriages.
From the Jewish Frankists to the Mormons, the Shakers, the Branch Davidians and others, there is a pattern of inverting or eliminating prior sexual and emotional bonds to establish a new order, administered through the leader and his acolytes at the most intimate level.
This could easily apply to Islamic State’s sexual enslavement policies. The group is declaring its own institutional domination over both the bodies of women it has captured and the sexual gratification of its recruits — as an explicit feature of its new religious utopia.
For the men paying to own and abuse the girls, extra-marital sex becomes a sacred act, as recent reports have illustrated — a reversal of Muslim men’s traditional sexual norms. for the treatment of captives, but Islamic State has reconceived these laws to the advantage of particular religious ideals and within the terms of a modern debate, carried on through Internet chat rooms, online news outlets and the complex media-worlds of Muslim youth.