Before the massive protests in the West Bank crowded everything else out, one of the biggest stories out of the Middle East yesterday was a report from one of the UN’s top officials in Iraq that the Islamic State had ordered the “circumcision” (AKA, female genital mutilation, FGM) of all women and girls in and around Mosul. In hindsight, there were reasons to be skeptical of this report. For one thing, IS has been “governing” a big chunk of Syria for a while now, and as far as I know there’s been no report of FGM being mandated there. FGM has never, as far as I know, been a big jihadi hangup; I don’t think Al-Qaeda has every said a word about it, though its Taliban allies in Afghanistan presumably practiced it (or at least tolerated it) when they were running the country, since FGM is traditionally practiced in Afghanistan.
For another thing, the prevalence of FGM is very inconsistent in the Arab world, and IS is more an Arab supremacy society at this point than a state, let alone a “caliphate.” FGM is hard to pin down in terms of religion vs. cultural tradition. It’s alarmingly prevalent in several predominantly Islamic countries, but in those countries it can usually be common among the minority (non-Islamic) religious populations as well (though it may be less prevalent). The preponderence of Islamic legal theory, so far as I know, is generally favorable where it comes to FGM, but there is disagreement among the legal schools as to whether it’s obligatory or just commendable. The prevalence of FGM in Islamic Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia is almost certainly a function of the spread of Islam, since the faiths it displaced there (Buddhism, Hinduism) expressly prohibit FGM. On the other hand, there are places like Ethiopia, which is mostly Christian yet where some estimates suggest that an astonishing 75% of all women have undergone FGM. Given the impossible to unravel relationship between any religion and the cultural traditions that pre-date, help to produce, and influence the development of that religion, it’s less useful to try and parse the particular roots of FGM when what we ought to be doing instead is just working to end the practice. But I digress.
Anyway, as far as Arab countries are concerned, FGM prevalence can be very high (in Egypt, for example) or very spotty (very high rates of FGM are found in parts of Yemen, for example, but in other areas of the country it’s very low). FGM is found at fairly high rates in Syria and Iraq, but mostly among their Kurdish populations; rates among Arabs are much lower. The idea that IS would declare mandatory FGM in Mosul wouldn’t have been totally out of the question, but wasn’t some obvious, inevitable thing, either. So as Michael Collins Dunn points out, it says something about IS, which has already brought back crucifixion, destroyed centuries-old religious sites, massacred its perceived enemies, and cleansed its territories of Christians and other non-Sunni Arab minorities (both on religious/sectarian and ethnic grounds), that most people who heard the FGM story just assumed it was accurate.
As it turns out, the story wasn’t accurate. ISIS denied issuing the order, which isn’t proof of anything in itself, but it’s not like they’ve been shy about admitting any of the many atrocities they’ve actually committed, so why would they try to hide this one? Then reports from journalists in Iraq began to come in, and it turned out that none of them had heard any reports about ISIS and FGM out of Mosul. So this story was wrong. But I believed it when it first broke, and if the same story broke again tomorrow I’d probably believe it then, too. At this point there’s no act of barbarism that I would put past these IS psychopaths.