Author - Mariz Tadros

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The danger of exporting a post-Orlando, counter-orientalist discourse to the Middle East
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In solidarity with Iraqi religious minority women on international women’s day
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The beheading is only the tip

The danger of exporting a post-Orlando, counter-orientalist discourse to the Middle East

In The Culture War Over Islam Continues, Daniel Philpott suggests that the interpretive frameworks through which the Orlando tragedy has been read in the US represent a polarization between two reified positions: the “hawk position” which demonizes Muslims and the “dove position” which negates any association between Mateen’s professed religious affiliation and the underlying structural drivers of conflict at work. Scholars of the Middle East — who have long been committed to exposing and fighting orientalism as a feature of Western interpretive frameworks for Islam (religion), Islamism (as a political ideology), and Muslims (as followers) — have eloquently exposed reductionisms, essentialisms, and bias in the American discourses on the Orlando crisis. These discourses are critically important to counterbalance the hawks’ discourses, some of which have perpetuated discourses of xenophobia and fear mongering.

There are multiple dangers involved, however, if scholarly contestations by Middle East academics fighting orientalism spatially (in the West) and temporally (specific to the phase following Orlando) are exported to the Middle East. In many regions, while there are multiple struggles for political, economic, and social justice, there is also a struggle against deep structures that seek to circumscribe spaces for multivocality and inclusivity. Discourses that condemn all critiques of Islamist political forces as Islamophobic can lead to a muting of the voices of activists locally such as Islam el Behery who, as a Muslim scholar, sought to expose certain teachings by Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest institution of religious teaching, that encroach on freedoms. Al Azhar filed a blasphemy lawsuit against him, and he ended up with a five-year prison sentence. Other than responses by some secular Muslim scholars and activists in Egypt, Behery’s case generated very little solidarity from around the world.

Dove-like discourses in the US have repeatedly reminded audiences that those who affiliate themselves with ISIS are not Muslims. Fine, but caution is needed when this discourse travels to the Middle East, where there is a struggle by reformers to make institutions such as Al Azhar take a categorical stance against movements such as ISIS. So far, Al Azhar has refused to declare ISIS as apostates even though some of its scholars have no qualms defining the country’s non-Muslims in those terms. It won’t make much of a difference for ISIS whether it lies in the “in” or “out” box set by Al Azhar’s demarcation, but the significance of such a demarcation lies in the message it sends to Muslims worldwide. When ISIS is seen simply as part of an unruly crowd on the margins of the Muslim community (khawaraj), this is dramatically different than when they are seen as outside of Islam altogether. There has been a struggle to press Al Azhar to take a stance against those who kill in the name of Islam. In other words, whereas the struggle in a post-Orlando US is to challenge those that claim allegiance to ISIS as followers of Islam, the struggle in other parts of the world is for Muslim scholars to get Islamic political forces and institutions to represent radical movements as anathema to Islam. This points to the importance of not only recognizing locally situated discourses and interpretive frameworks, but also being aware of the potential dangers of exporting the language, framing, and standpoint used in one context (such as that of Orlando) to one radically different in the Middle East.

In solidarity with Iraqi religious minority women on international women’s day

If you are looking for a good reason to reject the title of this article, you will find plenty. Why religious minority women? All women in Iraq have suffered, in particular since the American invasion, irrespective of whether they belong to a religious minority or not. Why label them “religious minority women”? They may not identify themselves as such, and such categorization creates harmful silos that victimize people anyway. Why should we single them out for solidarity?  There are many between-the-lines basis for discomfort in focusing our attention on Iraq’s “religious minority women”: the media’s focus on women who belong to religious minorities in Iraq only serves to accentuate a reductionist singling out of ISIS as the big evil as opposed to examining the complex set of actors and forces at play. Finally, while the plight of religious minority women in Iraq is quite dreadful, there are other women who are also suffering globally, but may perhaps not be receiving the kind of media attention that is given to this current geostrategic hotspot. And the very final finally, what if the reports of atrocities suffered by religious minority women are exaggerated/inaccurate/biased/made up?

Some unpacking is needed here. That Iraqi women have suffered some of the worst atrocities and violations of their basic rights in particular since the US invasion and the assumption of power of a highly authoritarian and sectarian regime has now been well documented in particular through the pioneering work of Nadje Al Ali.  It is also possible that if you collect the narratives of women who belong to religious and ethnic minorities such as the Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, Shia Turkmen, many would feel uncomfortable with being called “minority” and they would argue they have lived there for at least two millennia, and for the Yazidis, their ancient heritage goes back to 4000BC.  They would also not necessarily identify themselves by their gender identity, other identifiers may take precedence in relation to the context and the moment.

However,  national Iraqi women’s organizations, international human rights organizations as well as UN sources are all coming back with the same evidence: women members of religious minorities’ suffering has reached proportions greater than that of the general female population on account of their systematic targeting. It is distinct from the assault on Iraqi women on account of the politics of the intersection of gender with religious identity. According to a recently published report by Minority Rights Group and a number of rights-based organizations, drawing on local accounts, there are more than 5,000 Yezidi women who have been abducted, raped and sold as slaves. The forced conversion of many Christian, Yazidi and other non-Sunni women and their forced marriage to ISIS fighters as well as the thriving slave trade in these women is beyond counting. ISIS has justified these act on ideological grounds: the right to take women who are not of the Muslim Sunni faith as war booty. The corroboration of evidence from widely different sources, both indigenous as well as external suggests that these are not mere fabrications or exaggerations.

The political economy of sexual violence is sustained through a web of actors driven not only by ideology.  The sex trafficking of these women is not confined to a closed ISIS club in Iraq: sex slave markets have been set up beyond the Iraqi borders and “catering” to non-Isis clients as well, as an economic enterprise. The report notes that “recently, the US-led airstrikes on ISIS’s oil network has significantly diminished a vital source of funding, reportedly causing the group to intensify its trade in women as an alternative source of income”. Many of these women have also been trafficked and sold as sex slaves in the Arabian peninsula, making prospects of their re-capture extremely slim, states the report.

We may choose to see the sexual enslavement of women belonging to religious minorities, whether sold as slaves, detained for ISIS fighters’ sexual exploitation, or in forced marriages as part of a broader spectrum of gender based violence. True, it is. But it also needs to be seen as targeted genocide. The Minority Rights Group report argues that the evidence does point to a pre-meditated intent to cleanse communities on account of their religious identity. In this sense, the sexual violence is part and parcel of this political project: “Summary executions, forced conversion, rape, sexual enslavement, the destruction of places of worship, the abduction of children, the looting of property and other severe human rights abuses and crimes under international law have been committed repeatedly by ISIS. While minorities have long been vulnerable to attacks by extremists, this violence appears to be part of a systematic strategy to remove these communities permanently from areas where they have lived for centuries”

The visibility of religious minority women of the Arab world in transnational policy spaces leaves much to be desired. A march is organized in London in solidarity  but so much more is needed. Transnational solidarity work needs to stem from partnerships with local and regional actors, so they speak with, rather than on behalf of, local organized activisms. However, against a backdrop of almost complete silence on the part of organized regional feminist actors on the genocide in Iraq, perhaps sidestepping the regional and engaging with organizations working with Iraqi women is needed. Transnational solidarity is needed on several levels. First, the need to recognize their particular hardships on account of the intersection of their religious and gender identities while also recognizing their full agency in resistance and endurance and that of their communities. Second, the need for international transnational feminist activists to press to not only have the perpetrators accountable but the accomplices and bystanders too. According to the report by Minority rights group and others, accounts of abductees who managed to escape for instance makes reference to a Saudi prince collecting the money from the sale of the women slaves. The accomplices who organize the slave markets, those who smuggle them, those who purchase the women and the bystanders must all be held to account. Analysts also point to US American foreign policy: after all who enabled the arming of these groups in the first place? There are also countries like neighbouring Turkey who have refused to take in Christian refugees who have escaped ISIS from Iraq and Syria. A prominent Syrian bishop has accused Turkey of allowing all to pass through its borders (including stolen oil from Syria) except Christian refugees.

Yes, all Iraqi women have suffered, and many others around the world are suffering too, but the women belonging to religious minorities in Iraq are facing an existential threat of massive proportions, and a transnational feminist response of equal proportions is needed. It starts with reaching out to organizations on the ground in Iraq and surrounding countries where they have been displaced, so as amplify their voices in the international media, support their mobilizational efforts for recognition internationally and build international alliances to hold all those who should be held to account, the perpetrators, the accomplices and the bystanders.

The beheading is only the tip

The beheading of 21 Coptic Egyptians in Libya has stirred widespread international condemnation, yet this can neither be interpreted as a separate incident of ISIS’ brutality nor can it be seen exclusively in geo-political terms as a political manoeuvre in a power struggle between regional actors. This is part of a broader political project of cleansing the Middle East of its religious minorities in Muslim majority contexts, a project whose orchestrators are a dense network of actors of whom ISIS is only one player, and an outreach whose boundaries stretch well beyond Libya.

Islamist targeting of Christians in Libya since 2012

While ISIS has claimed responsibility for the beheading of the 21 Copts, in effect, the targeting of Copts is part of a more systematic targeting of Christians in Libya since 2012 which corresponds to the rise of Islamist militant groups taking over of large parts of the country. The assault on civil liberties by the militant Islamist groups has affected large populations, but Christians are specifically targeted on religious grounds associated with an ideology that sees them as infidels.

While there is a small indigenous Christian community who has lived there for hundreds of years, a small congregation of Catholics and a number of Protestant churches, the great majority of Christians in Libya are Coptic Orthodox Christians (estimated to be around 300,000) who came from neighboring Egypt in search of work or any kind of livelihood. During Gaddafi’s tenure, Coptic Christians established their own churches in Libya, worshipped without major inhibitions, and enjoyed relations with the majority Muslim Libyan population that were by and large convivial and harmonious. Many middle class families went to Libya in search of better economic opportunities, settled there, and used to visit Egypt every so often. The bulk of the Christian residents, however, are young men from poor, rural communities situated in some of the most deprived and excluded parts of Upper Egypt. They have crossed the borders to Libya in search of any employment they could find: as day laborers for the land-owning Libyans, as street vendors in the local markets, or any other job they could scavenge to save a little money and send to their families back home. They have been systematically targeted by various militant groups in Libya, including the Battalion of Ansar Al Shariah, Al Nusra and a cocktail of jihadi groups.

Though there is widespread chaos in Libya and terrorist attacks have spared no one, the assaults on Christians since December 2012 have been systematic. Churches have been burnt, ransoms imposed, and individuals tortured and killed. Christians would be recognized by the tattoo of a cross imprinted on their wrist or arm. In other incidents, Muslim local informants would relay to Islamist groups the names and addresses of Christians in their community, and individuals acting on economic predatory grounds would report where Christians were to Islamist groups in return for a reward.

Why did the Christians not return to Egypt in view of these alarm bells? Some were actually captured on their way back to Egypt, fleeing Libya. Others thought that if they went into hiding, they would be safer, while still others waited for the situation to calm down, knowing they had no alternative source of livelihood to go to back home to.

Large scale kidnappings, selective killings

Since October 2013 up to the present, there have been 1,125 incidents of Egyptians being kidnapped in Libya. The majority are poor, marginalized young people in search of a livelihood. Of the 1, 125 kidnapped, none of the Muslim men were killed and were all released. Of the Christians captured, all have been killed. (though there may be more who were taken hostages, the whereabouts of which are unknown, and undocumented in the media). This cross-comparison of the predicament of the Egyptians who were captured suggests that there is a pre-orchestrated plan of eliminating those who happen to be Copts on grounds of religion.

The killing of the Copts and the release of the others is only explained by the will of the assailants. The BBC, for example, reports that eyewitness accounts in one incident of kidnapping involved an armed group dashing into a house full of Egyptian workers, asking whether there were any Christians there, seizing them, and leaving the rest.

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Beyond Libya: Islamists’ systematic targeting of religious minorities in the Middle East

The cleansing of Libya of its Christian population is part of a broader political project of political Islamist groups to rid the world of religious pluralism. Again, it cannot be reiterated enough that this political project seeks to redraw the profile of its political community in a way that is exclusionary of women, artists, human rights activists, those who interpret/practice the faith differently, and the list goes on.

However, there is a striking similarity in the Islamists’ modalities of targeting religious minorities across the borders, whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya or other parts of the region.

The targeting relies on the collaboration of various Islamist networks on scanning the horizons for where Christians live and work. It also relies on local informants sharing the profile of families in great detail and often (though not always) benefitting economically from such transactions. The targeting involves Islamist militants’ enforcement of a ransom in return for securing the right to live; kidnappings targeting Christians in Iraq, which have been happening since the American Occupation of Iraq; and the disintegration of the Iraqi state into sectarian silos. What ISIS brought to Iraq and Syria, however, is a form of religious cleansing of an intensity and scale that has prompted Amnesty International to attest that fresh evidence it uncovered “indicates that members of the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) have launched a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq, carrying out war crimes, including mass summary killings and abductions, against ethnic and religious minorities.”

A recently released UN report produced by the U.N. body responsible for reviewing Iraq’s record for the first time since 1998 denounced “the systematic killing of children belonging to religious and ethnic minorities by the so-called ISIL, including several cases of mass executions of boys, as well as reports of beheadings, crucifixions of children and burying children alive.”

There are communities now facing an existential threat.  We recognize that this political project is neither encapsulated in ISIS nor contained in the Libyan boundaries because the beheading is only the tip.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.