By the end of August, UN officials reported that some 2,500 civilians from these villages had been abducted and held in a prison. Teenage children, both males and females, were sexually assaulted, according to villagers who managed to speak with the UN officials. Groups of children were taken away. Women and children who refused to convert to Islam were sold as sex slaves or given to fighters. Married women who agreed to convert were told that Islamic law did not recognize their previous marriages. They were thus given to ISIS fighters to marry, as were the single women who agreed to convert.
The Yazidis are a mostly Kurdish speaking population whose syncretic religion pulls from both Islam and Christianity. ISIS views the Yazidis as devil worshippers. The Yazidis and other religious-minority groups are not “people of the book,” and are therefore required to convert or die, according to ISIS’s interpretation of Shariah law.
Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago estimates that as many as 7,000 women were taken captive in August 2014. According to ISIS, the practice of forcing the Yazidis and other religious minorities into sexual slavery is a way to prevent the sin of premarital sex or adultery, as well as a sign that the Final Battle will soon occur. In the fourth issue of Dabiq, an article entitled “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour” explains that polytheist and pagan women can and should be enslaved. Indeed, their enslavement is one of the “signs of the hour as well as one of the causes of al Malhalah al Kubra,” the Final Battle that will take place in Dabiq. Further, the article says, “a number of contemporary scholars have mentioned that the desertion of slavery had led to an increase in fa¯hishah (sexual sins such as adultery or fornication), because the shar’ı¯a alternative to marriage is not available, so a man who cannot afford marriage to a free woman finds himself surrounded by temptation towards sin. . . . May Allah bless this Islamic State with the revival of further aspects of the religion occurring at its hands.”
Below are some of ISIS’s answers about its theological justifications for sexual slaves and how to keep them:
“There is no dispute among the scholars that it is permissible to capture unbelieving women [who are characterized by] original unbelief [kufr asli], such as the kitabiyat [women from among the People of the Book, i.e., Jews and Christians] and polytheists. However, [the scholars] are disputed over [the issue of] capturing apostate women. The consensus leans towards forbidding it, though some people of knowledge think it permissible. We [ISIS] lean towards accepting the consensus. . . .”
“It is permissible to have sexual intercourse with the female captive. Allah the almighty said: ‘[Successful are the believers] who guard their chastity, except from their wives or (the captives and slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are free from blame [Koran 23:5–6].’ . . .”
“If she is a virgin, he [her master] can have intercourse with her immediately after taking possession of her. However, if she isn’t, her uterus must be purified [first]. . . .”
“It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of as long as that doesn’t cause [the Muslim ummah] any harm or damage.”
“It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however if she is not fit for intercourse, then it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse.”
According to esteemed political psychologist Vamik Volkan, collective historical trauma can predispose a society toward violence, identity politics (in the form of hatred of an out-group), and the rise of paranoid leadership and ideologies. The memories of this collective trauma become part of a shared myth, and what Volkan calls a “chosen trauma.” Volkan also sees a role for societal humiliation and cultural group psychology in the Middle East as contributors to paths of mass radicalization.
Within Iraq and Syria, ISIS has a rich vein of collective historical traumas on which to draw in consolidating its position and certainly the outcomes Volkan describes (violence, paranoia, and identity politics) correspond closely to the reality of ISIS today. Such traumas can lead to the selection of values, sacred or otherwise, that justify “purification” of the world. Once such paranoid leaders arise, they can neutralize “individual moral constraints against personal perpetration of suffering, torturing and murder,” psychiatrist Otto Kernberg explains.
In addition to whatever benefits ISIS can extract from the traumas suffered by Iraqis and Syrians (some of which were instigated by ISIS and its predecessors), it is also inflicting an ongoing collective trauma of nearly apocalyptic proportions on those same populations. The longer that ISIS rules its domain, the deeper and more catastrophic those traumas will become. While ISIS may not articulate its reasons in this manner, we believe it is deliberately engaged in a process of blunting empathy, attracting individuals already inclined toward violence, frightening victims into compliance, and projecting this activity out to the wider world. The long-term effects of its calculated brutality are likely to be severe, with higher rates of various forms of PTSD, increased rates of secondary psychopathy, and, sadly, still more violence.
Jessica Stern is a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University, and a member of Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and law. J.M. Berger is a non-resident scholar at the Brookings Institution.