Women sold as slaves. Women beaten in the streets. Women raped for sport. Girls as young as 8 or 9 years old forced into marriages with strangers, and bound to sexual servitude.
The reports of the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State against girls and women – most of them Yazidi – seem as unending as they are despicable and senseless. But the latest may yet be the most depraved: women and girls being raped repeatedly as a way to "make" them Muslim.
According to a CNN report, a new directive from ISIS's self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, instructs men to rape the women that they capture. A woman who is raped 10 times, it says, will then become a Muslim.
That this represents an extraordinary manipulation of Islamic law, or sharia, seems to be of no concern to ISIS soldiers despite their professed devotion to upholding and imposing those very laws. And it presages even greater danger for the girls than the rape itself. One Yazidi woman, identified only as "Noor," told CNN that the soldier to whom she was enslaved raped her and then allowed 11 others to do the same, meaning that she was in fact twice raped after "becoming" Muslim.
But a Muslim woman who is raped is guilty of adultery according to sharia, and is a dishonor to her family and her tribe. Their only redemption is to kill her – a so-called honor killing. Will this new directive then allow ISIS members to legitimize the murders of Yazidi women and young girls who – unlike Yazidi men – have largely been allowed to live so long as they remain concubines and slaves to ISIS warriors? Or is it simply a new form of Islamic conquest, legitimizing rape while expanding the Muslim population? Or something else?
Other victims have also said they were told their rapes were a form of worship, encouraged in the Quran. Indeed, in an extensive investigation, the New York Times described a "theology of rape," in which militants often pray before molesting their victims. One victim, a 12-year-old Yazidi girl, told the Times: "He said that by raping me he is drawing closer to god."
"Repeatedly," the Times reports, "the ISIS leadership has emphasized a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous."
Even more shocking, the Times investigation shows, "child rape is explicitly condoned" by Islamic State leaders, who have victimized Yazidis more than other religious minorities, as Yazidis practice a non-Abrahamic religion that ISIS considers a form of devil worship.
Such tactics might lead those otherwise repelled by the idea of raping helpless girls to believe that such depravities are not only sanctioned by their religion, but holy. And if raping a girl ten times will bring her to Islam, then indeed each rapist becomes, in this perverted vision, not her diabolus but her savior.
But it isn't only non-Muslim women who are victimized. Similar tactics have emerged among Muslim communities in Libya, where, according to Britain's Express, parents in the ISIS stronghold of Sarte are being forced to marry off their daughters to ISIS rebels or face public flogging or worse. In Derna, girls as young as 12 have also reportedly been married off, traded for a promise of protection to the family. Consequently, according to the Independent, "the number of under-age girls forced to marry has increased 15 percent since an IS local branch seized a large part of the coastal city" last October.
Many Western Muslims decry the rapes and forced marriages, arguing that, as Pakistani-American counterterrorism expert Farhana Qazi said in an interview, "rape and any form of abuse is against the tenets and practice of Islam." But others point to a legacy of enslavement in Islam, particularly during war, and note that there are even rules regarding the treatment of slaves and the taking of women as concubines outlined in the Quran. It is that legacy, they maintain, that ISIS leaders use to justify their actions as part of their revival of a true, "pure" Islam.
Such is the evil cunning of the Islamic State and its leadership: with a single weapon – rape – they penetrate not just the bodies of young women, but, too, the hearts and minds of men. Not only are 99 virgins waiting for you in Heaven, but if you join us, you can rape your way across the Levant.
And with its powerful propaganda machines, it is possible that the "holy rape" fable could even help recruit more young Muslim women from the West, urging them to join the jihad in Syria and, in their already-distorted thinking, to give their bodies to the militants. It will make them "more holy." It will bring the soldiers closer to Allah in their strife.
Should the propagandists of ISIS endure long enough, they can shape the ideas and visions of the next generation and the very depths of their inhumanity. It seems almost beyond the reach of Western, post-Enlightenment minds, a way of thinking we cannot begin to comprehend. How can we possibly begin to combat it, let alone to build a humane culture in its place?
Frighteningly, Farhana Qazi says it may not even be possible. Yet somehow we will have to. Because each of these young women, these girls enslaved for sex, will soon become a mother. And what they teach their children – daughters as well as sons – will be left to their ISIS masters if we fail.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.