Islam, ISIS and the FGM fatwa

Islam, ISIS and the FGM fatwa July 25, 2014

Reporting from the front lines of the Middle East conflicts be a parlous experience if you are on the wrong side of the battle line. However not all of the no-go areas are geographically bounded. The topic of  Islam and female genital mutilation is a country few reporters are willing to enter. Cultural prejudices and politically correct assumptions appear to be driving the reporting on Islam. Few reporters seem willing break free from the herd and ask “why”?

Western Asia is a hard place for reporters. Relying upon U.S. or Israeli government agencies for information can be a frustrating experience — bureaucratic petty-mindedness knows no national boundaries. Yet it is possible to test the truths handed out in press statements by observation and old-fashioned reporting.

This is not always possible when reporting from the rebel side or from hostile regimes. Checking can get you killed as reporters covering the fighting in Gaza have noted in recent days. Even Hamas, however, attempts to play the Western media game (according to its lights) and holds press conferences.

Not so with ISIS, the Sunni extremists who have seized Mosul. While their supporters can be found on Twitter and the Web — it has not been possible for reporters to check the claims coming out of Northern Iraq. The atrocities and destruction committed by ISIS can be seen in the photos of decapitated government troops, crucifixions of enemies and videos of burning churches and fleeing refugees taken by smart-phones and posted to the internet.

The war aims of the group can be divined from videos of speeches given by its caliph or statements posted to the internet — yet these must be viewed with suspicion as their provenance is unclear. The story that ISIS’s religious/political leaders have issued a fatwa — a religious decree — ordering all women under the age of 49 to undergo FGM (female genital mutilation) has played across the newspapers in recent days.

However, the second day stories suggest this may not be true.

The source for the claim of FGM for the women of Iraq came from a good source — a UN official in Iraq. Reuters reported:

The United Nations, expressing deep concern, said on Thursday that militant group Islamic State had ordered all girls and women in and around Iraq’s northern city of Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation. …

Such a “fatwa” issued by the Sunni Muslim fighters would potentially affect 4 million women and girls, UN resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq Jacqueline Badcock told reporters in Geneva by videolink from Arbil.

“We have current reports of imposition of a directive that all female girl children and women up to the age of 49 must be circumcised. This is something very new for Iraq, particularly in this area, and is of grave concern and does need to be addressed,” Badcock said.

The follow up from Reuters reported that their sources could not confirm the UN’s claims. The second day story from The Guardian said:

Jihadi extremists who have taken over the Iraqi city of Mosul have denied ordering families to have their daughters undergo female genital mutilation in order to prevent “immorality” or face severe punishment, as claimed by a senior UN humanitarian official on Thursday.

Yet even this reported denial has to be weighed carefully, The Guardian said in its second paragraph as the denial comes from supporters of ISIS, not ISIS itself.

Supporters of the Islamic State, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, dismissed the story as propaganda based on a fake document – though residents of Mosul, as well as Kurdish officials, insisted it was true.

What we have then is a fog of war story. It could be true, it might be false. Some on the ground in Mosul believe it, some do not. The original document could be genuine, it could be a forgery. Reporters are not likely to find where the truth lies under the current conditions of battle.

Nevertheless it is curious that one area where there is no danger to life or  limb for reporters in this story has been ignored — the religion angle. While the truth of the existence of the religious decree is in debate, no questions are being asked whether the substance of the decree is in accord with the religious beliefs of the authors. To ask this question is not to play a Dan Rather “false but accurate” game, but to examine the issue of why the claim that Islam requires FGM would have credence amongst the subject populations of Mosul.

The BBC story on this controversy offers this explanation for FGM.

The ritual cutting of girls’ genitals is practiced by some African, Middle Eastern and Asian communities in the belief it prepares them for adulthood or marriage.

Yet it does not make note that these communities are overwhelmingly Muslim. In a June GetReligion article entitled “The Guardian on Islam and Female Genital Mutilation” I addressed the newspapers reporting on a statement made by the Muslim Council of Britain that declared FGM un-Islamic. The final paragraph of that story noted:

In sum, the Muslim Council of Britain condemns FGM as un-Islamic, some clerics say it may be practiced, whilst others believe it must be practiced. A balanced article on Islam and FGM should note the lack of unanimity amongst Muslim legal scholars on this issue — and explain the seeming contradiction between the claim in the lede and the claim in the body of the article about Islam and FGM. The Guardian need not, and should not, referee the dispute of religion v. culture in the FGM debate. However, it should provide context and balance so that the reader may understand.

The same criticism can be brought to these reports from Iraq. It may well be that ISIS is imposing a foreign cultural practice of FGM on the Muslims of Iraq, but ISIS appears to believe it is a religious necessity.

The bottom line is that context is key. The reticence of western reporters to explore the link between FGM and Islam robs readers of the information they need to understand this story. It flows from cultural assumptions about Islam — assuming that it is likely to be true — but does not ask the hard question of whether this Islam being preached by ISIS is within the mainstream traditions of that faith. Is this a throwback to the Seventh Century or a modernist creation (like the burqa) created by a political movement with a veneer of religiosity?

Is it true? Reporters should ask.

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