This week, five Yezidi women in Canada as refugees – including a 14-year old girl – filed a complaint with Canadian police about continued harassment from Islamic State (ISIS) supporters. The women have been receiving threatening phone calls, graphic e-mails and abusive messages.
According to Canadian news source W5, the women “have handed over to police recordings of the phone calls and screen grabs of the texts, which reference the Islamic State and include pictures of beheadings and armed Jihadis. W5 has listened to the phone calls. In one, a man laughs as he says in Arabic: ‘I am the man who f****d you. I am your rapist.’ A second caller denounces Yazidis as devil worshippers. And a third caller makes a graphic reference to rape. The callers appear to have Iraqi, North African and Gulf state accents. York Regional Police have assembled a team to try to track where the calls are originating.”
Similar stories emerged during the past few years from Yezidi refugees in Germany and other countries.
To these accounts we must add the grim truth that some 30,000 people from outside Syria and Iraq voluntarily traveled to these countries to join ISIS and fight for the group. Contrary to popular belief, these foreign ISIS volunteers were mostly not poor, deprived or even very devout Muslims. A recent study of ISIS volunteers from Saudi Arabia found their religious education and knowledge limited, while their socio-economic situation was generally good. In another 2018 study from the journal “Terrorism and Political Violence,” Efraim Benmelech and Esteban Klor examined statistical data regarding all the known ISIS foreign fighters, and found that: “…poor economic conditions do not drive participation in ISIS. In contrast, the number of ISIS foreign fighters is positively correlated with a country's GDP per capita and its Human Development Index (HDI). In fact, many foreign fighters originate from countries with high levels of economic development, low income inequality, and highly developed political institutions.”
In other words, a disproportionate number of these ISIS volunteers came from wealthy European countries – places with good education systems, excellent social services, and wealthy economies. Why would people from such “lands of opportunity” use their own money to travel to Turkey, and then cross the Syrian border to join ISIS? According to Benmelech and Klor, first and second-generation Muslim immigrants to Europe often face difficulties assimilating or being accepted in their new societies. As a result, they become susceptible to ISIS propaganda and radicalization. So instead of volunteering to help earthquake victims in Iran or working in a refugee camp or something, such people choose to go to Syria, join ISIS and behead and rape Yezidis and others.
That may be part of the story, but this columnist feels unsatisfied by such explanations. We still have all the ISIS volunteers from the Arab Gulf countries and North Africa to account for, as well as the Iraqi and Syrian ISIS members who did not join the group out of duress.
The continued harassment of Yezidi refugees in fact points to a much darker, sinister explanation for ISIS’ popularity. Simply put, a lot of people in the world harbor fantasies of owning slaves, raping women and feeling powerful. They went and joined ISIS for self-gratification. They saw a group and ideology that would permit them to indulge in their sickest fantasies while simultaneously promising them hero status, absolution and perhaps martyrdom if things went badly. Female ISIS volunteers dreamed of marrying dark knights and feeling similarly empowered. That was enough for them to give up decent lives and good jobs in pleasant countries and buy airline tickets to Turkey, travel to Syria and risk their lives fighting for ISIS. Some who made it back from “the Caliphate,” or others who never went but like to live vicariously through those who did, now keep entertaining themselves by harassing the victims who survived the whole ISIS monstrosity – such as the five Yezidi women in Canada. All of which must make us seriously lose faith in humanity.
Before losing complete faith, however, one need only remember the volunteers who went to join the Syrian Kurdish-led forces or the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighting ISIS. These people left the comforts of their homes not for rape and pillage-filled adventures, but to protect the defenseless and stop the madness of ISIS. At the same time that foreign ISIS volunteers should face the harshest of punishments for their choice, these opposite kinds of volunteers should have received heroes’ welcomes when they returned home. Those still in Iraq and Syria fighting ISIS remnants should likewise not be forgotten.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.