The enslavement of thousands of Yezidi girls and women in an Islamic war that has been legitimized with references to Mohammedian words and wars once again confronts Muslims with a serious moral question. Are they prepared to stand with the victims against a violent fascistic tradition that has been glorified for more than 14 centuries? Denial is of no use. It has been well documented by Islamic historians and scholars that sexual enslavement of girls and women was committed by Islamic armies throughout history, from the time of Mohammed’s army to the Ottoman army. The crimes that have been committed against Yezidis since August 2014 are merely a continuation of that horrific history that has been accepted with little challenge.
The fact that there are millions of innocent Muslims who would never commit such crimes does not negate the fact that those acts are Islamic, as opposed to Christian, Buddhist, communist, and so on. These crimes are Islamic in at least two senses: 1- insofar as the perpetrators routinely draw on primary Islamic texts, including the Quran, and 2- insofar as Islamic authorities across the board have either openly sanctioned them or implicitly done so by not taking a juridical stance against them. Also, the fact that others, such as Crusaders, committed comparable crimes in the past does not make what is happening now any less Islamic or any less immoral.
Ultimately, the burden is on Muslims to distance Islam from genocide and enslavement. No such distancing can be meaningful without genuine confessions and apologies, as painful as those confessions and apologies may be for ordinary believers. The point of focus should not be Islam but the victims of Islam as such. Denying that “real” Islam is responsible for crimes committed by practicing Muslims amounts to denying the very victimhood of the victims. Disputes about what constitutes “real” Islam are an Islamic problem, not a Yezidi, Armenian, or Jewish problem. Is it not bad enough that it is debatable whether a religion allows the rape and murder of others only because they do not follow that religion? Islam is not a finished product; rather, it is continually constructed not only through what Muslims do but also by what they choose not to do.
Putting the pseudo-metaphysical debate over “real” Islam aside, what no one can deny is that Islamic authorities have perpetually refused to condemn acts of genocide and enslavement against non-Muslim peoples. Islamic authorities and masses reacted violently to cartoons of Mohammed, Israeli attacks on Palestinian militants, and the American war in Iraq. Why is it that they do not condemn the Yezidi genocide that was committed under the very banner Mohammed used to wage his wars? To me the answer is obvious, but it seems that the vast majority of Muslims refuse to contemplate that question.
As for those who would claim that their faith is built upon an innocent relationship with God, they are guilty of idealizing something that is utterly political. Religion is a socio-political institution that, for centuries, has dictated everything believers think they know about their God. After Sinjar, the illusion that a believer can stand outside history and maintain a personal relationship with an all-loving God can no longer endure. Suppose a believer could actually dismiss all living Islamic authorities, states, and fighters and instead just hold on to what s/he believes to be a pure notion of God. While enjoying his/her spiritual connection with God, analytically speaking, s/he must use a language because there can be no notion of anything, including God, without language. Even on that level, that very language is an institution, which entails that the believer will follow certain authorities and traditions.
It is the gaze of the Yezidi, Armenian, and Jewish victim that should be the compass of morality for Muslims, not the panoptic gaze of a God that would allow such horrors to be committed in his name. Regardless of the existence or non-existence of God, ethically, it is imperative to take the side of the victim. In ethics, personal fears and rewards are irrelevant.
An imperial religion, including its notion of a pure God, is not separable from to the hegemony of the dominant ideology, which overrides the rational moral intuition of an individual. The dominant ideology has always manufactured Gods, unethical moral values, and powerful illusions of purity. Truth is not metaphysical; it is historical. A historical truth that should be obvious to any reflective mind is that there are no Gods for the oppressed. If the oppressed had a God, they would not be oppressed. If the poor had a God, they would not be poor.
As much as the hegemony of the dominant ideology is ultimately a historical and social matter, enlightenment, as we learn from Kant, is a matter of autonomous thought. At the end of the day, it is the individual her/himself who decides what value system to follow or rebel against. It is those who seek to escape ethical responsibilities that require Gods. Gods are created in the first place to make what otherwise would be considered immoral seem moral, or at least not immoral.
What all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, should be seeking is the forgiveness of Yezidis, not of a God that logically either does not exist or exists and allows the sexual enslavement of children and women. After Sinjar, it is we, non-Yezidis, who should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing the 73rd Yezidi genocide to take place, just as we should be ashamed of what was committed against Armenians just over a century ago – crimes that continue to be denied. It is precisely the denial of responsibility that makes some Muslims morally responsible for the continual crimes committed against the non-Muslims of the Middle East.
Living in a world where such barbaric acts are still committed and sanctified by “sacred” texts should cause more disquiet than what any idea of God could solve. The barbarian jihadists came from our countries, cities, schools, and houses. It is a betrayal to Yezidis and other victims to claim that those who are enslaving them have nothing to do with us, the human community at large. Our very humanity should undergo scrutiny for what is being committed by our fellow human beings. In the case of educated Muslim men, it takes a disturbing amount of insensitive self-righteousness not to subject their Muslim-hood to a merciless trial by conscience.
Ultimately, Yezidis will survive this barbarism as they have survived its earlier iterations throughout history, but the question that remains is whether Muslim elites can summon the courage to face their own value system.
Saladdin Ahmed is a philosopher with research interests including philosophy of space, Frankfurt School, social movements, and minorities. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa.
Painting by Kurdish Artist Rebwar K Tahir
This article is written exclusively for Culture Project