Foreign Policy's story on ISIS' brutality of women tantalizes but disappoints

It drew my eyes immediately: a story about how ISIS brutalizes Yazidi women in the name of Islam. It’s not the first time the topic has been covered but I’m always interested in stories with Iraqi datelines; in this case the oil-rich Kurdish city of Kirkuk.

Northern Iraq has gotten a lot more interesting ever since ISIS arrived there and began kidnapping non-Muslim women who were unfortunate enough to be in their way. An article in Foreign Policy Review got in touch with some of these women but the result was heavy on promise but short on delivery. It begins with the author interviewing a captured ISIS fighter:

The prisoner is in his mid- to late 30s, relatively fair-skinned for an Iraqi, with curly auburn hair and light brown eyes. According to the Peshmerga, the fighting force of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), he was the leader of an Islamic State intelligence unit. His jailers explain that the prisoner was responsible for interrogating people in Islamic State-held territory, trying to gather information and root out any internal dissent.
I purposefully twirl a piece of my hair around my index finger. I am aware that the prisoner, as a member of an organization that insists on the complete submission of women, is likely fighting back fury at the sight of an unveiled woman looking at him without fear.
“Tell me about your wife,” I begin. “How did you treat her?”
“My wife completely covered her body and face and never left the house without me,” he replies sullenly. I don’t know how much encouragement he received from his captors before speaking with me, but he seems healthy and uninjured. “She is forbidden from going anywhere without me.”

This is, of course, interesting and I'm hoping at this point we can learn why this man treats his wife as indoor chattel.

The Islamic State prisoner says he left his wife in the town of Hawija when he was sent to set up a sleeper cell in Kirkuk, which is held by the Peshmerga. She was going to follow after him, but he was arrested while trying to enter Kurdish territory with a group of refugees. Now, he says, he’s been gone for more than four months — which, under the Islamic State’s understanding of sharia, means she is probably married to someone else.
“How do you think she feels about that?” I ask.
“[My wife] is just a woman, like every other woman,” he says coldly.
“Women exist to be married and have children. In jihad, feelings do not matter. Women survive; they do not live.”

Then the writer reveals the purpose of the article.

But if the evidence for these crimes is unimpeachable, the motives for them are much hazier. Why exactly do Islamic State members commit such vile atrocities against women? What mental processes do they go through that lead them to a place where women can be bought and sold like sheep? That is what I hoped to discover by interviewing imprisoned Islamic State members, as well as women who have fallen victim to their merciless ideology.
Through my interviews, it became clear to me that the Islamic State has perfected a process of dehumanization that allows its members to indulge their misogyny, aggressive sexual tendencies, and need for power — all in the name of Islam.

Then she interviews some women who were imprisoned by ISIS and asks them what their captors’ motives were. One told her that Islam was a “sickness” that infected the men. Another says ISIS simply wanted to convert everyone.

The scene shifts back to her interview with the captured fighter, who alludes to Yazidi women being considered slaves and “spoils of war;” so they have no rights. But the author doesn’t explain what tenet in Islam made the fighter say this. She could have looked up Sura 4:24 in the Quran, which allows Muslim men to have sex with captured female “spoils of war,” and explained this to her readers.

The piece then wanders into discussion of the politics among the Kurds that’s helping keep Yazidi women imprisoned, then ends with a quote from one of the Yazidis again. Where, I wondered, was the theological explanation for why Islam –- as practiced by ISIS -– allows this sort of brutality. The headline promised one thing. The article delivered quite another: a pastiche of interviews whose main point was how bad ISIS is.

Well, we know that. This story badly needed an editor to sharpen its focus before being tossed online with a come hither headline. Foreign Policy’s religion coverage is all over the map. Two of its writers placed second in this year’s magazine reporting category in the annual Religion News Association contest with three stories on China’s Muslim minority and persecution of Middle East Christians. The magazine just posted an intriguing piece (way too short, unfortunately) about China’s new rules forbidding Uighur Muslim parents to coerce their child into a religion. But a piece in May on Islamophobia in Portland, Ore., had lots of red flags and it was clear the author didn't know the city. And an essay on why Mars’ first colonists should believe in God had me scratching my head. 

I’ve been following FP for awhile now and I’ve noticed their articles on religion don’t tend to explain the theology behind the news. Which is a shame, because a publication specializing in national security issues should have people on staff who understand how religion bolsters or threatens that security. FP is consistently left of center and recently, it dropped any pretense of objectivity in its first-time-ever endorsement of presidential candidate (Hillary Clinton) along with headlines about why Trump is ISIS’ “dream candidate.” 

So if you want subtlety, don’t click on those links. I wish there was decent analysis in the secular English-language media about religion in foreign countries. Sadly, you’ll have to look outside of Foreign Policy’s pages to find it. 

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