America’s War on Sexual Violence, Mass Atrocities & Religious Persecution Should Begin at Home
Without question, the so-called “Islamic State” is an abomination that should be wiped from the face of the earth. However, it is unclear whether America is the right agent to see this through. Part of the trouble relates to the Obama Administration’s strategy, which seems likely to empower ISIS even as it undermines the security and interests of America and its allies—but there is an ethical dimension as well:
While ISIS poses a serious (although likely overstated) threat to the governments of Iraq and Syria, over the last two Administrations, the U.S. has itself forcibly overthrown the governments of Iraq and Libya—both in defiance of international law. And along with ISIS, the U.S. has spent the last three years seeking to undermine the Syrian government. Additionally, they have sheltered Israel from meaningful accountability to the international community, allowing the crisis in Palestine to fester. As a result of these policies, it would not be a stretch to say that the United States is actually a greater threat to peace and stability in the region than ISIS—not least because U.S. actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have largely paved the way for ISIS’s emergence as a major regional actor.
But perhaps more disturbingly, many of the same behaviors condemned by the Obama Administration and used to justify its most recent campaign into Iraq and Syria are commonly perpetrated by U.S. troops and are ubiquitous in the broader American society. Until these problems are better addressed, the United States’ efforts to undermine ISIS will be akin to using a dirty rag to clean an infected wound.
The initial driver of U.S. involvement was the outrage over ISIS’s capturing thousands of Yazidi women, and the sexual violence subsequently exercised against them—horrors which provided moral credence to the war against ISIS in much the same way that the 2001 U.S. war against the Taliban was justified in part by highlighting the plight of Afghan women living under their rule.
However, over the course of that war, and the subsequent 2003 war in Iraq, U.S. soldiers and contractors repeatedly used rape as a weapon of war, both against prisoners and the local civilian population. Meanwhile, U.S. contractors exploited their diplomatic immunity to set up vast sexual trafficking rings–further immiserating the very populations their invasion was predicated on saving.
But perhaps more disturbing than the crimes committed by U.S. personnel against Iraqis and Afghans were the atrocities committed by servicemen against their fellow soldiers: As many as 1 out of 3 female soldiers are raped over the course of their military careers. Up to 80% of these assaults go unreported, in large part because reported cases rarely result convictions or proportional punishment. In fact, the victims are frequently punished socially and professionally for reporting abuse, and they are barred from suing the government for reparations even when wrongdoing is proven. Nonetheless, there were more than 5,000 reported cases of military sexual violence in 2013 alone. And beyond the assaults, sexism and sexual harassment are deeply ingrained in the military culture.
The stats are not much better in the broader population. As many as one in five women who attend college in America are sexually assaulted over the course of their academic career, often with no justice even when the crimes are reported. This is commensurate with broader trends in the United States—in fact, the rate of sexual assault for non-college women may even be higher.
As in the military, most of these crimes are not reported to the police, and most reported rapes are never prosecuted—let alone resulting in convictions for the perpetrators. And these stats do not even take into account illicit sexual trafficking which, according to the U.N., is so widespread in America that it generates $9.5 billion annually—reflective of a broader cultural problem of commercializing and commodifying sex and sexuality.
If the crimes against thousands of women in Iraq and Syria justify a U.S. mobilization that costs U.S. taxpayers nearly $10 million per day, how much more militant should Americans be about resolving the tens of thousands of cases of sexual violence that go unpunished and largely unnoticed in the U.S. each year?
In addition to sexual violence, there was widespread outrage over ISIS’s uncompromising brutality and the pornographic way they record and broadcast these acts—which include beheadings, crucifixions, and occasional incidences of cannibalism.
Of course, U.S. soldiers and contractors have and continue to torture their enemies, often taking obscene photos to brag about and reminisce upon their acts. The contractors who were implicated in these abuses have never been prosecuted. Instead, the whistleblower who initially exposed these crimes, Bradley Manning, has been sentenced to 35 years in prison.
There are further reports of U.S. servicemen committing massacres, desecrating the corpses of their enemies, or even hunting the locals for sport while collecting photos, and even body parts, as trophies. And these are just a sampling of the acts which have been picked up by war correspondents and detailed in the media—many more crimes have never received exposure abroad, with crimes committed against Iraqis and Afghans by U.S. servicemen going largely underprosecuted or altogether unprosecuted.
Because these atrocities are not sufficiently dealt with by the United States, the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan have demanded the right to try Americans in their own courts. However, as protecting U.S. politicians and soldiers from international accountability formed the basis of U.S. opposition to establishing or joining the International Criminal Court, the Obama Administration refused to cede anything to these nascent states. As a result, concerns about accountability proved to be the main obstacle in the U.S. reaching a security agreement with Afghanistan—and Iraq’s refusal to grant U.S. soldiers immunity was the reason America ultimately abandoned the pursuit of a status of forces agreement there, contributing significantly to the security vacuum that allowed ISIS to rebuild in Iraq and expand into Syria. That is, ISIS’s crimes were largely enabled by America’s refusal to face up to its own.
Americans should bear this in mind as the Obama Administration loosens its already overly-permissive standards vis a vis collateral damage and targeting civilians in its current campaign. The killing of innocents is not somehow morally superior if committed remotely by a drone or missile rather than the tools at ISIS’ disposal.
Finally, many Westerners have been horrified by ISIS’s persecution of religious minorities (especially crimes against Christians). However, the United States is complicit in this as well: U.S. policies in Iraq helped spark this cycle of sectarian violence.
Meanwhile, its own armed forces were indoctrinated with anti-Muslim propaganda—complete with recommendations for servicemen to resort to “Hiroshima tactics,” in a “total war against Islam,” in which protections for civilians were “no longer relevant.” Reflective of this mentality, the armed forces have been heavily infiltrated by white-supremacists, neo-Nazis and other hate groups who believe and act as though they are engaged in a holy war, which is to begin in the Middle East and then be carried back into America. This institutionalized misrepresentation of Islam and dehumanization of Muslims probably played a significant role in the aforementioned atrocities.
Attempts to rectify these issues have been highly problematic. For instance, the Army reformed its training to include a greater emphasis on culture. But even this material proved to be largely plagiarized from sources which are overtly homophobic and anti-Islam and loaded with unhelpful and misleading stereotypes–leading to the military to recently retract the manual altogether in the face of public scrutiny.
However, this is hardly just an issue in the army. Anti-Muslim discrimination and hate crimes are pervasive in America, from the classroom to the boardroom. In the popular culture, Islamophobia transcends the political spectrum and is fairly mainstream—to the point where pundits and politicians can openly call for Muslim internment camps, or push for laws restricting or altogether banning Muslims from practicing their faith, even as many of these same people work to obliterate the lines between the (Christian) church and state.
Muslim voices which could unapologetically challenge these tropes are largely excluded from the public discourse in favor of “house-Muslims” who will nod their heads in condemnation of terrorism (emphasizing that most Muslims are “moderates”) while uncritically calling for (liberal) reform and revolution in Muslim lands of which they are no longer residents (if they ever were)—and all without voicing much (if any) substantive criticism of the Western countries in which they reside, beyond the narrow concerns about discrimination and persecution.
And yet despite these compliant spokespeople, and the fact that only 6% of terror incidents in the United States have been carried out by Muslims over the last 30 years (and the threat of terrorism is itself overblown), Muslims are frequently subjected to arbitrary surveillance and detention, as well as legal entrapment. All of these practices are considered as crimes against humanity according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the U.S. ostensibly champions everywhere else in the world…perhaps nowhere more than in Muslim-majority countries– 7 of which the U.S. has bombed in the last 6 years, almost always under the auspices of “humanitarian intervention.”
Authentic Outrage, Authentic Patriotism
Criticisms like these invariably evoke charges of anti-Americanism among reactionary readers—unduly. If one were truly committed to defending America and promoting its values, if sincerely outraged by the sorts of atrocities committed by ISIS—rather than sanctioning condescending and counterproductive incursions in the Middle East, Americans should dedicate much more time and energy to responding to similar problems within the United States and its institutions abroad. In this way, the United States could respond to the ISIS challenge by growing better and stronger, rather than undermining Americans’ interests and freedoms in the name of (and at the expense of) their “security.”