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ISIS's sexual barbarity is not the exception, but the rule in war

Revelations about the ‘sex-mad’ depravity of ISIS puts them on par with war crimes from Bosnia to Abu Ghraib

In an interview with CNN, Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, a Syrian activist, described life for women in ISIS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, to be the equivalent of a “big open prison”.

Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi is not his real name but he is the founder of the fledgling underground resistance movement Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

"ISIS fighters are really sex-mad. ... Some of them have two and three wives, and even with that they are trying to find slaves from Yazidi girls,” al-Raqqawi says. “A large section of ISIS members suffer from sexual anomalies and brutal instinctive desire for sex.”

A report produced by the activist group details horrific accounts of twisted sexual perversion – despite ISIS’s ultra-conservative boasts. One of the most sought after items in ISIS-controlled territory is the erectile enhancement drug Viagra – “in order to increase their strength to have more sex.” The report goes on to state that women and even very young girls are so terrified of the terror group’s violent sexual advances that many are too “terrified to leave their homes” due to “sexual practices of a brutal and abnormal manner.”

While these allegations are yet to be independently verified, and the identities of the activists are yet to be confirmed, they are consistent with the personal stories of those who have escaped sexual slavery under ISIS. "Women captured as slaves by [Islamic State] have been sold in markets in Raqqa,” said Valerie Amos, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief. “Some are sold to individual men. Others are kept by [Islamic State] in rest houses and face multiple rapes by fighters returning from the battlefield.”

These accounts are an assault on Western sensibilities, but only the ignorant and the foolish would dismiss sexual terrorism as something that is unique to ISIS, Islam, religious fanaticism or even Middle East culture. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of Western intellectuals and commentators willing to display said ignorance and foolishness, as a number have seized upon accounts of such sexual barbarity to paint it as something that is inherent to Islam – including The Atlantic piece “What ISIS Really Wants,” which did exactly that when it quoted an anonymous Islamic scholar who had endorsed sexual slavery to be consistent with Islam.

Sexual terrorism is neither unique to ISIS nor self-proclaimed Islamic terror groups in general. Sexual terrorism is what war-induced social chaos looks like, and no single ethnicity, religion, race or cultural identity has a mortgage on sexual violence carried out in times of conflict.

Since the dawn of civilisation, war has been linked to sex. The ancient Greeks depicted this truism in the illicit affair between the goddess of love (Aphrodite) and the god of war (Ares) - as did the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament, where war and sex is presented as intertwined. “Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves,” is how the book of Numbers (31:18) describes the Israelite tribes’ vengeance on Midian.

The depraved sexual violence carried out by ISIS mirrors the depravity carried out by any number of modern militias and militaries – secular and religious. It even mirrors the twisted sexual violence of those who have been aligned to separate warring factions – as was the case in Bosnia during the 1990s – when UN peacekeeping troops were both the patrons and sponsors of a prostitution ring that enslaved, raped and murdered women who had been trafficked to Bosnia from all over Eastern Europe (a story retold in the film The Whistleblower starring Rachel Weisz).

“The wars in the Balkans saw the rise of rape camps, places where women were kept under guard and repeatedly abused by Serbian paramilitary forces,” writes Chris Hedges, who survived 60 days of Serbian shelling in Sarajevo. “When this became boring – for perverse sex, like killing, must constantly entail the new and bizarre - the women were mutilated and killed, reportedly on video.” In War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Hedges recounts how Bosnian Muslim men were gathered in town squares and beheaded by Serb militias. That is after they were forced to dig their own graves and “watch as their daughters or wives were raped in front of them.”

Hedges, who has covered conflict in Iraq, Central America and the Balkans, says that in war, even weapons becomes sexualized: “They [militias] carry their weapons slung low at an angle toward the ground….In the midst of slaughter the only choice is often between hate and lust. Human beings become objects, objects to extinguish or to provide carnal gratification. The widespread casual and frenetic sex in wartime often crosses the line into perversion and violence. It exposes the vast moral void.”

Israeli writer Amos Kenan was a platoon commander in the Israeli Army Brigade in 1948. “At night, those of us who couldn’t restrain ourselves would go into the prison compounds to f*** Arab women,” Kenan wrote in a 1989 article. In 2012, Eyal Qarim, an Israeli army military rabbi condoned rape in times of war so long it was for the purpose of the “success of the whole” and “since essentially, a war is not an individual matter, but rather nations wage war as a whole, there are cases in which the personality of the individual is ‘erased’ for the benefit of the whole.”

America is no stranger to war’s lustful and perverted impulse. The US Senate’s investigation into the CIA torture programme has already detailed incidences of rape and murder. But Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh says that despite this disclosure, we “haven’t begun to see evil… horrible things done to children of women prisoners, as the cameras run.”

According to a number of mainstream media outlets, including the Washington Post, the US is yet to release a video that shows US military personnel raping young Iraqi boys in front of their mothers at Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

“The women were passing messages out saying ‘Please come and kill me, because of what’s happened’ and basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomised with the cameras rolling. And the worst above all of that is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking that your government has. They are in total terror. It’s going to come out,” said Hirsh in a 2014 speech.

Sexual assault within the US military itself has now reached pandemic levels. A Pentagon report revealed there were 3,553 reports of sexual assault in a 12-month period from 2012 to 2013. During this period, US soldiers were “15 times more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed by the enemy”.

In Kill Anything That Moves, US Vietnam War veteran Nick Turse reminds us that the War Crimes Working Group investigated more than 300 allegations of massacres, mutilations and rapes committed by the US in Vietnam. “Other files documented the killing of farmers in their fields and the rape of a child carried out by an interrogator at an army base.”

“You’re not likely to encounter the story of the rape of a Vietnamese woman by Americans in the ‘literature,’ writes Turse. “And yet the sexual assault of civilians by GIs was far from uncommon, even if you can read thousands of books on the Vietnam War and have little inkling that it ever happened…. war is also about rape, even male-on-male rape, even GI-on-GI rape. Just how many such rapes occurred, we’ll never know, because such acts were and generally still are kept secret.” 

If modern history is a guide, ISIS’s sexual brutality is not the exception but the rule in war - no matter who is wielding the gun. “The truth is, we don’t even know the full story of war’s obscenity when it comes to the American experience,” contends Turse. And it’s likely we never will. Americans are rarely interested in reading the details of sexual atrocities carried out by its own. The focus is always on Them and never Us. Turse suggests the reasons for this are many and varied, “ranging from racism and ethnocentrism to pure financial calculation”.

I don’t doubt the veracity of al-Raqqawi’s claims about ISIS’s sexual violence. The terror group’s heinous propensity for unimaginable violence is well-documented. But the US and its allies often use their enemy’s violence as a tool to conceal their own. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) is a well-known pro-Israeli “propaganda machine” based in Washington, DC. The group released its translation of an alleged “ISIS Sex Slave Pamphlet” at the same time the US Senate’s torture report was released to the US public. Coincidence? You decide.

The point being that in warfare the line separating the morality of the oppressed and oppressor, the victim and the perpetrator, is almost impossible to distinguish. Only fools, whose historical memory has been hijacked by those who bang the drums for perpetual war, think otherwise.

- CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America, God Hates You. Hate Him Back, Koran Curious, and is the host of Foreign Object. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: A woman looks at paintings by artist Fernando Botero inspired by the prison abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib in Iraq in Rome's Palazzo Venezia 16 June 2005 (AFP)

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