Today, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to campaigners against rape in warfare, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege. I followed Nadia Murad’s amazing efforts o raise awareness about of ISIS atrocities against Yazidis since 2015. Here is my piece about her visit to Egypt, in which I argued that Public pressure, not political pressure, is the only way that can force religious scholars to confront their own demons and stop the current stagnation of Islamic thoughts.
Nadia Murad Basee Taha, the 21-year old Yazidi woman brutally tortured and raped by ISIS fighters in Iraq, has embarked on a very tricky mission: to confront the Muslim world with the crimes of ISIS. She is visiting Egypt to raise awareness of the atrocities committed by the Islamic State.
Murad was living in Kocho, a village near northern Iraq, with her mother, brothers and sisters. On August 15, 2014, ISIS fighters stormed her village; they executed six of her brothers and then took her to the Iraqi city of Mosul, where they “distributed” her and many others to be enslaved by the fighters “They took us to Mosul with more than 150 other Yazidi families. In a building, there were thousands of Yazidi families and children who were exchanged as ‘gifts’,” she said.
Murad testified at the U.N. Security Council (watch the whole video here) and gave several interviews to various outlets in which she spoke about the gruesome details of her brutal ordeal under ISIS and how she was held as a sex slave for three months. One cannot even begin to imagine how this young girl has coped with her trauma and be able to recite the details of her torture again and again. Her tenacity and determination are simply breathtaking.
In Egypt, Nadia is seeking support from the Islamic World; she wants Islamic authorities to stand “firmly and clearly” against ISIS. She said that she was hoping to meet with scholars from Al-Azhar to provide them with information about the atrocities and crimes committed by ISIS in the name of Islam. Nadia gave a lecture in Cairo University, where she received an honour award. She also spoke at Ain-Shams University.
Egypt’s president Sisi also met Nadia Murad, who “reassured” her that Al-Azhar is working to correct teachings about Islam in order to confront extremism; he also confirmed that Islamic civilization has historically protected all citizens of different religions and ethnic groups. Their meeting was only covered by official and local Egyptian media and by many of Sisi’s supporters on social media, but was largely ignored by Western media.
Sisi’s meeting with Nadia may be just a PR stunt, a part of his “war on terror” policy. It could also be part of his subtle push on Islamist bodies to respond to his previous call last January to reform religious discourse. In a speech last week marking the birth of the Prophet Mohamed, Sisi repeated his call for reform and urged Islamic scholars to send Christmas greetings.
There is undoubtedly serious resistance within Egypt’s religious establishment to facing the “controversial” issues of Islamic doctrine like slavery. It is true that Islam has encouraged freeing slaves, but it never actually abolished slavery as a practice; the Prophet Mohamed owned slaves. Palaces of caliphs and kings were full of slaves, many of whom were prisoners of wars. Some slaves were promoted and became military leaders or even kings. Queen Shagart el-Dur of Egypt was originally a slave.
In the modern era, slavery has been formally abolished in Muslim countries and many have assumed that the practice has become culturally unacceptable; hence, the topic faded from religious discussion. No one, however, predicted the rise of ruthless and regressive groups like ISIS that would resurrect this medieval practice, and in such a barbaric and ruthless way.
The case of Nadia Murad is a stark reminder of the religious side of the ISIS doctrine—a systematically twisted and literal interpretation of Islamic texts to justify barbarity. Her campaign in Egypt is crucial, as it forces religious scholars to face uncomfortable questions about theology that they would rather avoid.
Al-Azhar is considered the highest authority in Sunni Islamic thought and broader Islamic jurisprudence. There is a tendency, however, within Al-Azhar’s scholars to issue strong statements strongly condemning ISIS’ actions and assert how those actions “ have no relation to Islam,” while dismissing ISIS’s interpretation of tricky topics like slavery as “ “ignorance” or “twists” of religious texts. Yet they fail to provide a way to prevent those “alleged twists” from happening in reality.
Many Egyptians were not aware of the gruesome, repugnant details of ISIS atrocities against Yazidi. Some anti-coup elements allowed their contempt for Sisi to override their humanity. For example, the Islamist thinker and historian Mohamed El-Gawady wrote on Twitter: “First coup leader to meet with a Satan worshipper.”
Nonetheless, the shock and disgust with ISIS’ atrocities were palpable on many Egyptian FB pages.
Reformation of Islamic thought and challenging medieval ideas will not come naturally to religious scholars in Egypt. Even an autocratic leader like Sisi may not succeed in pushing a reform agenda on an institution like Al-Azhar in a country chronically struggling with structural flaws and poor educational standards. Today, TV presenter and Islamic researcher Islam Beheiry, who dared to say that ISIS relies on interpretations of traditional Islamic literature in their activities, has been sentenced to one year in jail. His case highlights the huge resistance within the Islamic authorities to any challenging views or modern interpretations of Islam.
Public pressure, not political pressure, is the only way that religious scholars can be made to confront their own demons and stop the current stagnation of Islamic thoughts. The attention to the case of Nadia Murad in Egypt may be a small step in her rocky road to challenge medievalism, but it is a step in the right direction. Murad should tour more Muslim countries and continue to knock on the doors of timid Muslim scholars until the radical ideology of ISIS is properly cleansed from Muslim societies.
Author: Nervana Mahmoud
Nervana Mahmoud is a doctor and independent political commentator on Egypt and MENA Al Hurra News, BBC’s 100 women 2013 and an advocate for liberal tolerant Middle East.