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Trudy Rubin: A shocking silence on Islamic State sex slavery

Yazidi Kurdish women protest against the Islamic State’s invasion one year ago, in Dohuk, northern Iraq, on Aug. 3.
Yazidi Kurdish women protest against the Islamic State’s invasion one year ago, in Dohuk, northern Iraq, on Aug. 3. The Associated Press

One of the most heinous of the endless war crimes of the Islamic State has been the systematic rape of thousands of young girls and women – who are sold as sex slaves.

Most of the victims come from the Yazidi religious minority, labeled nonbelievers by the Islamic State. They were captured when the Islamic State invaded northern Iraq last year and wiped out their communities.

But one of the sex slaves was a fresh-faced blond American, a 25-year-old aid worker who was captured in Syria in August 2013. Kayla Mueller was chained in a room and raped for months by the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, before being killed in February (supposedly by a Jordanian airstrike, but the true cause is uncertain).

What astonishes me is the paucity of global outrage at the buying and selling of sex slaves – not to mention U.S. outrage at the enslavement of Mueller. American women organized to protest the Taliban’s repression of women but not the Islamic State atrocities that make the Taliban’s war crimes look mild in comparison. How can this be?

It’s not because the Islamic State’s slave trade isn’t heinous or heartbreaking. The Islamic State has compiled Quranic scripture that sanctions slavery and sexual assault on nonbelievers. Clearly there is a need for Muslim leaders and senior clerics worldwide who haven’t already done so to label such scripture as centuries outdated, and denounce the practice of slavery.

As for the broader public, why no outcry? I asked Samer Muscati, senior researcher on women’s rights for Human Rights Watch who recently interviewed 20 young Yazidi women who had escaped the Islamic State slavery. He says these were among the worst cases he has ever documented – even after years of reporting on human-rights crimes in Iraq.

“People become numb to all these atrocities,” he said sadly. “There is war fatigue, with nothing but doom and gloom from Iraq and Syria.”

But what about Mueller’s case? Here was a young American woman – kept as the personal sex slave of the Islamic State’s leader – who wrote in a smuggled letter that she would never “give in” to her captors. She refused a chance to escape lest she endanger Yazidi girls imprisoned with her to whom she had become a mother figure. A U.S. effort to free her failed, as she had already been removed from the site that American commandos raided.

Yet her tragic story has caused hardly a ripple in U.S. public opinion.

Perhaps Americans are perplexed that an American would risk her life to try to help Syrians. Or maybe most Americans are simply confused about what, if anything, they can do to halt the Islamic State atrocities in the Mideast.

I can understand that confusion. President Barack Obama’s policies for fighting the Islamic State are so inept and contradictory they have helped the group’s so-called caliphate to sink ever-deeper territorial roots. The White House still doesn’t seem to recognize the long-term security threat the group poses to the U.S. homeland, as the Islamic State inspires ever more disgruntled youths to adopt its fanatic values.

Top U.S. military brass label a revanchist Russia the most urgent U.S. security challenge in the near term. But, if left unchecked, the Islamic State may pose the greater threat to the West over the next decade. And should anyone doubt the more immediate the Islamic State challenge to Europe, one needs only watch scenes of Syrian refugees streaming through the Balkans to escape the chaos that jihadis (and Damascus) are wreaking.

So the fight against sexual slavery must be part of a bigger struggle. This will require (finally) a serious U.S. policy to help Iraqis and Syrians who want to roll back the jihadis. Washington must give all needed military support to Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish Kurds, who have fought most effectively against the Islamic State.

In the meantime, concerned Americans should press the administration to provide more targeted aid for Yazidi girls who have escaped the Islamic State, and are now living as refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan, whose regional government is overwhelmed and can’t provide all the assistance that is needed.

The enslavement of Yazidi women symbolizes a movement that rejects every norm of civilization, and must be combated. For those who are outraged at the Islamic State’s adulation of rape, there are things to be done.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.

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