Islamic State Slave Trade Highlights Broader Problem in Muslim World

December 12, 2014

8 min read

Every evening, silence reigns in the Khanke refugee camp near the Kurdish city of Dohuk in northern Iraq. Winter has already arrived, bringing with it rain, mud, and cold.

A fire has been lit for warmth, but the flame is potentially dangerous. A Yazidi family is crowded into each tent. The tents afford no protection from the rain, and if any of the structures catch fire, they can turn into death traps. About 60,000 Yazidis live in this camp. Last summer, they managed to survive and escape from Mount Sinjar, which was taken over by the Islamic State terror group. Every person at the camp knows someone who was either killed or wounded, or is currently missing. Every refugee has a sister, wife, or daughter who was kidnapped and raped.

Some of them have already seen the video footage on YouTube showing the modern slave markets in Syria and Iraq, and the women who have fallen into bondage. According to these video clips and the accounts that are trickling out of Raqqah, the Islamic State “capital” in Syria, and from Mosul, its stronghold in Iraq, the women are sold at auction to the highest bidder. Prices vary—virgins are worth $100, while women who have borne children fetch roughly $10. The jihadists of Islamic State, using passages from the Koran as their justification, regard the Yazidis as idol-worshippers who may be bought and sold like sheep.

The situation is growing worse in regions taken over by Islamic State. Public executions and amputations mandated by Shariah, the Islamic system of religious law, are carried out every day just a few miles from the Turkish border. Children under 10 years old train with live ammunition, and thousands of Yazidi and Kurdish women are enslaved.

The Muslim world looks on in silence—almost no condemnations are heard, perhaps because some of the norms of the Islamic caliphate established by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are customary in other places in the Middle East.

Yazidi women being rounded up by ISIS.
Yazidi women being rounded up by ISIS.

“Saudi Arabia, which says it uses… the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam as the predominant law for its country, the only difference between them and ISIS (Islamic State) is that [Islamic State] is public and brazen about what it does,” Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), told

Some of the women enslaved by Islamic State have managed to escape, including by contacting their families to convey ransom demands from the terror group. The ransom in certain cases is as high as $5,000 for a young woman or teenage girl, and very few families are able to raise that sum. According to reports, the Kurdish government has already paid Islamic State more than $1.5 million in ransom for male and female Yazidi captives.

A woman who manages to escape continues to live in fear of the Islamic State terrorists, and in fear of the rapists and murderers in Syria and Iraq. These women have made long journeys on foot to find that they don’t have a home to return to—Mount Sinjar, the place where the Yadizi community lived for thousands of years, is under Islamic State control.

Now, the women are living in Erbil, in Dohuk, and in refugee camps set up by the Kurdish government. They are lonely, collapsing under the trauma they have suffered. Paulo Kosaka, a well-known Portuguese politician who visited Erbil, described his meeting with one of the Yazidi teenage girls who managed to flee captivity.

“When the girl was kidnapped and handed over to one of the members of Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, she was forced to convert to Islam and pray five times a day. She was forcibly married, and her husband abused her,” he said.

In tears, the Yazidi girl told Kosaka about where she lived in captivity for several months. It was across the street from a mosque, and the call to prayer was what frightened her the most.

“During the conversation, as she told about the experiences she had undergone, she fainted from the pain, and after that she did not speak anymore,” said Kosaka, who has learned that slavery is more widespread than U.N. experts who visited the region last summer estimated.

“At least several thousand women were enslaved overnight,” he said. “In many cases, these are very young girls, only 11 or 12 years old.”

Dr. Mirza Dinnayi, one of the heads of the Yazidi community and a former adviser to the president of Iraq, is also in Erbil. With help from several German organizations, he is trying to get the women to Germany, where they can receive treatment and rehabilitation. At best, several dozen of them will get proper treatment and begin new lives. All the others, both men and women, will carry the trauma forever.

The Arab world’s indifference 

Few of the women are willing to share what they went through—the auction in the slave market, the gang rapes, and the abuse. Many Yazidis draw a parallel between the silence of some of the traumatized women and the silence of the world. When Mount Sinjar was overrun by Islamic State forces, who killed and enslaved thousands of people, the global media hardly took notice.

When the American army airlifted humanitarian aid to the refugees who were dying of hunger and thirst, the Yazidis suddenly became a focus of interest in the West, but that interest did not last long. At present, it seems that the world has resigned itself to the fact that a bleeding nation remains homeless and that its women have been forced into bondage.

“Two questions come up in that context,” Kosaka said. “Why was the world silent when all of this happened, and why it is impossible, at this stage, to retake these cities—Raqqah and Mosul—which have markets for trafficking slaves?”

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has expressed shock that the Arab Muslim world is not condemning Islamic State more frequently. One letter, signed by 126 Islamic clerics two months ago, described the actions of Islamic State as a violation of Islamic law. But these efforts seem to have barely made a ripple in the Arab world.

The signatories of the letter “most of whom are Western, are the ‘who is who’ of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the West,” said Jasser, who is currently leading the AIFD in preparing a written response.

“The reason they signed that letter…was that the Muslim Brotherhood, the founders and leaders of political Islam in the West and globally, (or) the ones who believe in political Islam or the Islamic state (concept) but do so in a non-violent way, are running for cover now wherever possible because they are horrified by what (the Islamic State) is doing to their branding. Yet if you read the letter…they don’t say that the caliphate is bad, they say that al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is wrong because he declared it in an incorrect way. They don’t say jihad (as a whole) is bad…(just that) al-Baghdadi’s jihad is wrong,” he said.

It’s like when “fighting drunk driving, and they’re trying to say that the alcoholism is ok, it’s just that you’re doing it in a violent and draconian way,” Jasser said. “But they haven’t changed the drug, and the drug is Islamism, the Islamic state [concept], caliphism, and jihadism. Until we as Muslims condemn them as a whole, they are always going to end up feeding into radical groups.”

Islamic State merely does openly what others do in secret. Black jeeps with license plates from the Persian Gulf states arrive every day at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, in which roughly 18,000 Syrian refugees are crowded together. Inside the jeeps are wealthy men from Jordan and the Gulf states who are looking for wives. Journalist Henrique Cymerman visited the camp as part of a report for Israel’s Channel 2 network. He spoke with young girls who were about to be forcibly married to these men—men who soon afterward would grow tired of their new wives and had no hesitation about divorcing them and sending them back to the refugee camp. The girls who marry these men from the Gulf states are sometimes as young as 13 or 14. Their families receive a sum of money, usually a few hundred dollars, as a dowry, and the girls return to the camp shortly afterward.

“I married because of my family’s terrible financial situation,” said Olah, a 13-year-old Syrian bride who married a 60-year-old man from Saudi Arabia.

“The situation in the refugee camps in Syria and Jordan, in Turkey and Lebanon, is unbelievable,” said Ahmed, a Syrian refugee whose family is still in Syria. “The women who live there have already been through the worst—rape, abuse, loss of all their relatives and their homes—and now, in these camps, their suffering continues.”

Ahmed added, “It’s very sad that the exploitation is being abetted by the Syrians themselves and by other Arabs.”

ISIS militants in Syria. (Photo: YouTube Screenshot)
ISIS militants in Syria. (Photo: YouTube Screenshot)

Cymerman said that Syrian women work as matchmakers in the refugee camps.

“The men order the brides according to specific criteria—16 or 17 years old, virgins, and with a specific eye color,” he said. 

Such activities take place not only in refugee camps, but also in countries like Egypt. In “bride cities” such as El Hammadiya, which is located near Cairo, several motels and lawyers’ offices arrange legal marriages between wealthy men from Gulf states and local girls. According to reports in the Arabic and Egyptian media, marriages of this kind can be arranged for just $80.

Jasser said that the way Islamic State “treats minorities, and the way it treats women, is just an exaggerated version of what is done in every one of [the Middle East’s] Islamic states. Some of them are just more mild and covert at the way they do it.” 

Psychological warfare under religious auspices

A horrific video shared on social media shows members of Islamic State boasting about the slave girls that they had just bought or would soon be buying—and the response of many Internet users in Egypt and Jordan was frighteningly supportive.

“Islam does not prohibit owning male or female slaves as long as they are treated fairly,” wrote one user with the screen name “al-Bukhari.”

According to Kosaka, Islamic State excels at using psychological warfare, and there are no prominent Islamic leaders to set a moderate example in Arab and Muslim countries.

“The members of Islamic State frighten the Iraqi soldiers,” Kosaka said. “They tell the soldiers that if they free the Yazidi women who converted to Islam and return them to their families, they will cause the women to renounce Islam. Anyone who does such a deed will burn in hellfire, they say, since he will be given the same judgment as an apostate. So what is necessary is a decision by religious clerics in Iraq that such conversions are a violation of Islamic law.”

Legally, one might try to distinguish between the forced marriages of women in Jordan’s refugee camps and girls from poor Egyptian families on the one hand, and the enslavement of Yazidi women on the other. But in either scenario, women—be they Yazidi or Egyptian—are treated like objects that may be bought, sold, and discarded when they are no longer needed. The members of Islamic State did not come out of nowhere. Before they even joined the group, they were raised to follow radical Islam and lived in a traditional society that sees women as less valuable than men.

“It is impossible to treat men and women equally in the workplace,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist, has said. “Women are not equal to men; that goes against natural law. The feminists do not understand the importance of motherhood in Islam.”

Slavery in Europe?

Dr. Ammar Nakshawani, an Iraqi Muslim lecturer who lives in London, recently gave a speech in which he explained why slavery could not be abolished. Anjem Choudary, a Salafist cleric who also lives in London, said publicly several weeks ago that he would be happy to move to the Islamic caliphate if he received an assurance that he would not be punished in the U.K. afterward. If Islamic clerics who work in downtown London are making statements like these, how can we be surprised that hundreds of young Muslims from Europe are going off to Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State?

When Islamic State’s crimes against humanity are examined in the context of regional reality, instead of under a spotlight, it is clear that those crimes did not emerge from a vacuum. Unless that nuance is understood, the plague of slavery in the Arab Muslim world will fester.

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