First thing first: There is no way to read the recent Los Angeles Times report about the rape and torture of women caught up in the fighting in Syria without being sickened. This is powerful material and this lengthy news feature contains lots of on-the-record material about a crime that many are simply too humiliated and terrified to report.
But as I read through it, I noticed something rather strange. You can see hints in the opening anecdote:
Soon after the young woman was released by the Syrian government in a prisoner exchange, activists began noticing the signs.
The woman's husband immediately divorced her. She rarely ventured outside her parents' house. Not long after, she left for Turkey.
Activist Kareem Saleh, who knew the woman from their work within Syria's peaceful opposition, called her at her new home, hoping to document the suspected sexual crimes. But the woman resisted, asking why her story was important and how it would benefit the antigovernment cause. Saleh spoke to her over the course of several days, but even when the woman relented, she would describe the conditions of her captivity only in general terms.
"She said, 'There was a lot, a lot of torture,' and I said, 'What kind of torture?' She kept repeating, 'A lot, a lot of torture,' and I kept pressing until I wore her down and she finally began telling me specifically about the rape."
What does religion have to do with this? The story stresses that documenting the role rape has played in the conflict is difficult because of "Syrian cultural norms that regard rape as a source of shame and dishonor." That's one way to put it.
Keep reading and read carefully:
Terrified women and unwilling families are more concerned about not tarnishing familial honor than in seeking legal justice. ... Instead, the victims have fled to neighboring nations, divorced or been forced to marry older men, ending up as second or third wives. In the worst cases, they have been killed by their own relatives, in what the families see as a way of restoring honor. ...
Allegations of mass rapes have circulated since Syrian soldiers and militiamen began storming opposition-held neighborhoods and towns. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 4,850 cases of sexual violence, more than half of them rape. Of those, only 40 were based on victims' statements; the rest relied on witnesses.
Yes, much of this suffering can be blamed on cultural norms.
But there are religion ghosts -- on all sides -- haunting this topic of honor and shame. Government soldiers fighting against radical Muslims know that raping Muslim women will bring a unique form of dishonor on these women and their husbands. And there is a twisted, deadly logic -- falsely linked to religion -- at play when radical Muslims rape Yazidi women, after killing their husbands, and then claim them as converts and wives.
Rape is an especially hellish weapon when monsters on both sides are willing to claim that faith in some way justifies their actions, as well as the horrors that women face afterwards.
But religion plays no role in this story. This is merely a matter of culture.
And something else hit me when I reached the end of the report. Apparently, rape is being used by the Syrian government against antigovernment activists and that is that. There is no mention, in this Los Angeles Times report, of rapes being committed by soldiers in other armies. It's the government versus the opposition forces and that's that.
This struck me as strange, in light of the United Nations report that just came out -- click here for the full document in .pdf form -- about the systematic use of beheadings, crucifixions, stoning, torture, mass executions and rape by the forces of the Islamic State in Syria. Here is the top of a Fox News story about the UN document:
ISIS is beheading and stoning men, women and children in Syria, leaving crucified bodies in public squares for days and engaging in rape and torture, according to a new U.N. report released Friday.
The report, entitled the “Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria”, gathers information from 300 interviews with men, women and children who fled or who are living in ISIS-controlled areas. “ISIS has beheaded, shot and stoned men, women and children in public spaces in towns and villages across northeastern Syria,” states the report, written by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.
Even a simple Google News search yields waves of similar reports. I thought this CNN story on the use of rape by ISIS on the role of rape in the crushing of Yazidi minority villages was especially strong.
The bottom line, as stated by an American bishop in my own Eastern Orthodox Church (yes, which is based in Damascus), is that there are monsters in all of the armies in the Syrian conflict. Here is a small part of what Bishop Basil Essey had to say a year ago:
Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that "vicious wrongs" have been done on both sides and that "there's really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None" ...
"So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we've had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don't know about except what they've shown us in this awful civil war."
So this Los Angeles Times report is must reading, but I still found it strange. Why spill so much ink on such a terrible, crucial subject and only mention the crimes on one side? Why focus on only one pack of monsters, without even mentioning the crimes of others as well?