Revelations that the Islamic State has concocted a theological rationalization of the systematic, institutionalized rape of Yazidi, Christian and other women are appalling. We had been aware that it and its ally Boko Haram were particularly brutal toward women, but elevating these acts to religious duties is the most grotesque distortion.
Alas, this is not new. It is eerily reminiscent of Imperial Japan’s rationalization for enslaving tens of thousands of Koreans and others as “comfort women” for soldiers fighting for its deified emperor. It also echoes the Fourth Crusaders, who regarded their cause as so holy that it justified the systematic rape of (mostly Christian) women they encountered in cities along the way. (The Fourth Crusade became so enmeshed in this and other barbaric behavior that it never actually reached the Holy Land.) In our own time, the nominally Christian Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda makes similar claims.
The Islamic State’s theology of rape is every bit as much of a perversion of the teachings of the Prophet as the Crusaders’ twisted, self-serving rationalizations were betrayals of the Gospel of Jesus. Any number of devout Muslims recoil in horror from the Islamic State just as Christians today have largely wiped the Fourth Crusade from our collective memory.
But rather than treating these atrocities as bizarre anomalies, we must understand what fuels them if we are to defeat them. A large part of it is rampant disrespect for and degradation of women even under “moderate” regimes. That desensitizes men to women’s suffering and denies women the social and political tools to defend themselves.
The other part, however, is an ossified, unreasoning, traditionalist approach to religion. Rather than attempting the fool’s errand of separating “moderates” from “extremists,” we should pay far more attention to the difference between modernizers and traditionalists — and to those who share our democratic values and those who do not.
Our current approach is a hopeless muddle. We support the bombing of the Houthis — whose top priority is expelling al Qaida from Yemen and who have shown no interest in events outside their borders. We condemn the Islamic State’s public beheadings and ally ourselves with Saudi Arabia, which sentenced a dissident blogger to 1,000 lashes — essentially a public death by torture.
We are so eager to secure the Islamist government of Turkey’s help against the Islamic State that we acquiesce in its bombing of the Kurds — who have been the only consistently effective ground force against the Islamic State (and who are caring for hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees with little international aid).
And now we seem to be sending signals that Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose barbarism spawned this explosion and who continues indiscriminate bombing of his own people, might be acceptable after all.
Granted, our missteps have made much harder the task of supporting democratic modernists, Muslim and secular alike. In country after country, we encouraged pro-Western democrats to rise up against autocrats only to abandon them when they faced predictable repression. Had we supported the Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein after the first Iraq war, the resulting regime would have been much more pro-American; by the time we actually intervened, most of our friends had been slaughtered. The same is true for Libya, for Syria and, increasingly, for Egypt and Bahrain.
Young men with no jobs and dismal life prospects make easy targets for recruiters offering appealing scapegoats: the West, or Israel, or non-Muslims, or women. Young men despairing of being able to support a family are obvious targets for the false theology of rape.
It is only by vanquishing hopelessness that we can deprive the Islamic State of its lifeblood of recruits; no amount of bombs, and no amount of lesser-of-evils diplomatic maneuvers will do the job. And hopelessness will not disappear as long as countries are ruled by autocrats, secular or religious: their regimes perpetuate the corruption that prevents development of healthy economies. As long as Assad is in power, al Qaida and the Islamic State will grow. And as long as Gen. Abdel al-Sisi rules Egypt, torturing and killing his peaceful democratic opponents, that country — with its tottering, corruption-ridden economy and huge numbers of unemployed youth — will become more radicalized.
We need to stop treating human rights as an unaffordable luxury to be casually sacrificed for realpolitik. Only modernizing democrats can bring peace to the region, and they need our support.
David A. Super is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.
©2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer