It would be hard to imagine a story much more hellish than the lengthy New York Times piece that is racing around the Internet today that ran under this blunt headline: "ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape."
However, it is the second piece of the double-decker headline that will be the most controversial and discussed part of this piece: "Claiming the Quran’s support, the Islamic State codifies sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria and uses the practice as a recruiting tool."
The bottom line: To make that statement, the Times team needs to show readers specific references in the Quran, by quoting them, and then show proof of how ISIS leaders are interpreting those passages, perhaps through a lens from earlier expressions of the faith. It would then help, of course, to show how mainstream Islamic scholars, and experts outside of Islam, read those same passages today.
The Times gets most of that done and must be praised for making the effort. It is interesting, however, that the weakest parts of the piece concern the actual contents of the Quran and the doctrines being debated. The piece is stronger -- brutally so -- when dealing with the people.
The Times claims that this "theology of rape" essentially begins on Aug. 3, 2014, with the invasion of the Yazidis communities on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. Among those captured, men and older boys were forced to prostrate and then were sprayed with machine guns. Women and younger children were separated and carried away in trucks, with other goals in mind. Much of this reporting is based on documentation gathered by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
This brings us to the thesis passage of this massive news feature:
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. ...
A total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted last year, and at least 3,144 are still being held, according to community leaders. To handle them, the Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by the ISIS-run Islamic courts. And the practice has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.
A growing body of internal policy memos and theological discussions has established guidelines for slavery, including a lengthy how-to manual issued by the Islamic State Research and Fatwa Department just last month. 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.
In other words, rape is a form of spiritual discipline when the woman being raped is part of a religion that is considered heresy. Or, as a young girl described what happened before and after she was raped:
“He kept telling me this is ibadah,” she said, using a term from Islamic scripture meaning worship.
Why the Yazidis? This is a case where the Times needs documentation and its reporters have found sources that claim to have it -- drawing on articles published in the Islamic State's online publications.
The October issue of Dabiq contained an article, in English, with this headline: "“The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour." The rape of the Yazidis was planned, following doctrinal research by Shariah students in ISIS schools. The Yazidis would not be offered the choice of paying the jizya takes to live in subservience , there was no chance to pay a tax known as jizya to be set free, “unlike the Jews and Christians.”
So one victim said:
“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.”
The Islamic State’s sex trade appears to be based solely on enslaving women and girls from the Yazidi minority. As yet, there has been no widespread campaign aimed at enslaving women from other religious minorities, said Samer Muscati, the author of the recent Human Rights Watch report. That assertion was echoed by community leaders, government officials and other human rights workers.
Mr. 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.”
However, later on in the piece, the Times team provides information that appears to undercut this section of its own report. Also, as human-rights activist Nina Shea has reported in The American Interest, there has been evidence for sometime now that Christians and others have been claimed as ISIS sex slaves.
Note this passage in the Times report:
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.
So the key question in this article is this: Can the Times team demonstrate that Islamic State leaders have built a theological case for this sex-slave policy? Are there Islamic scriptures that they are using, or twisting, perhaps offering some unique interpretation based on events in the history of the faith. Once again, there are ISIS documents to discuss.
Let's look at these passages carefully:
In much the same way as specific Bible passages were used centuries later to support the slave trade in the United States, the Islamic State cites specific verses or stories in the Quran or else in the Sunna, the traditions based on the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, to justify their human trafficking, experts say.
Scholars of Islamic theology disagree, however, on the proper interpretation of these verses, and on the divisive question of whether Islam actually sanctions slavery.
Note that ISIS leaders cite "specific verses or stories in the Quran or else in the Sunna." This raises obvious questions. What verses are they citing? What do these verses say? Let's read on.
“In the milieu in which the Quran arose, there was a widespread practice of men having sexual relationships with unfree women,” said Kecia Ali, an associate professor of religion at Boston University and the author of a book on slavery in early Islam. “It wasn’t a particular religious institution. It was just how people did things.”
Cole Bunzel, a scholar of Islamic theology at Princeton University, disagrees, pointing to the numerous references to the phrase “Those your right hand possesses” in the Quran, which for centuries has been interpreted to mean female slaves. He also points to the corpus of Islamic jurisprudence, which continues into the modern era and which he says includes detailed rules for the treatment of slaves.
“There is a great deal of scripture that sanctions slavery,” said Mr. Bunzel, the author of a research paper published by the Brookings Institution on the ideology of the Islamic State. “You can argue that it is no longer relevant and has fallen into abeyance. ISIS would argue that these institutions need to be revived, because that is what the Prophet and his companions did.”
The Times is to be commended for offering voices on both sides of this debate about the "right hand" passages. However, once again, what is missing? The Times team is covering a debate, without providing readers a chance to read the actual materials that are being debated. Perhaps there could have been a sidebar provided for this purpose or an info-graphic to show the actual working of the key texts?
I am left with what, for me, is a troubling journalistic question: Were Times editors hesitant, or afraid, to quote the actual Quran passages that are being debated in this own troubling and fascinating story? Why not quote the most authoritative written source that is relevant to this debate, the source containing the words that ISIS is claiming as support for its "Theology of Rape"?