FGM in Iraq: The hoax of a hoax?
Last week a statement by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was circulating in Arab Social media calling female genital mutilation sunnah (the right path in Islam) and called on all Muslim women to have it done. A number of Western media outlets and international organizations reported this fatwa (religious ruling) thereby warning of its consequences for women and girls in the areas occupied by IS in Iraq and Syria.
A few days later this fatwa was unveiled as a hoax by several journalists with Spiegel online taking the lead. But was it really unveiled as a hoax? Most reasons brought forward are based on flawed information and misconceptions about the nature of fatwas.
It needs to be differentiated between two separate informations. One was the fatwa itself, the second was a statement by Jaqueline Badcock, the humanitrian coordinator of the United Nations in Iraq. Badcock told the UN headquarters in Geneva about the fatwa in a briefing by videolink from her base in Erbil about the fatwa mentioning that according to UNFPA figures four million girls and women would be affected by this fatwa. This was released to the press. Badcock also said that ISIS had ordered the mutilation of all girls and women between 11 and 49. This last information was not part of the fatwa which circulated on the internet and it is not clear to this day where Badcock got this information from or if she was simply misunderstood. The UN is currently not commenting on the issue but trying to verify the information.
The ISIS fatwa which circulated on Social Media says:
„For protecting our Islamic nation in Iraq and Syria, our land, and our people, we need to look after our women and their behavior while preventing them from the dreadful modern life they are surrounded with. A rule to all of the Islamic nations, regions, and districts is to protect women as our Khalifa says and prophet says while the mother Aatyia was circumcising a woman, the prophet said, “Don’t get disappointed, that is good for your husband, and your face”. In another story, the prophet saw the mother Hajer, who had been known to circumcise women, and asked her whether she still practices her job or not, the mother Hajer answered with yes. Then she asked the prophet whether it is Haram or not and he answered her that is was halal and he could teach her how to do it. The prophet said, “it is brighter for the face, and makes the husband happy”. Meanwhile, the prophet says, “if you cut, do not exaggerate”. Abu Harera gives another statement that the prophet says, “All Muslim women, accept circumcision but do not exaggerate on it”. Therefore, this is a call for all women to get cut.”
After the UN commented on it and several media outlets reported it, the Middle East journalist Jenan Moussa found that her contacts in Mosul had not heard of the fatwa. Several other journalists supported this.
Indeed, many people, including the UN and Stop FGM Middle East, did not take a close look at the fatwa. It was not released recently in Mosul, but in 2013 in Aleppo.
However, does this make the fatwa itself a hoax? Der Spiegel is quoting the Middle East Expert Charles Lister saying that female genital mutilation was not a feature of Salafist Islam. AFP quoted Lister saying: “FGM just doesn’t fit with the Islamic State’s image, notwithstanding how brutal an organisation it has proven itself to be.” The Telegraph quotes the Middle East expert Michael Stephens saying that the fatwa was not written in language that would likely to be used by the group.
This certainty by Middle East experts is surprising. Female Genital Mutilation is endorsed by Salafists, e.g. by the Egyptian cleric Wajdi Ghoneim or the popular Saudi TV Sheikh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid. While Ghoneim comes from a country where FGM is a widespread practice Sheikh Munajjid is preaching to a population in Saudi Arabia which is in its majority not practicing FGM. Thus, he is not defending an existing tradition but demanding to introduce a practice alien to the people he is preaching to. What makes experts so certain the Islamic State wouldn’t do the same?
In the case of Iraq, such a fatwa would even be mostly inline with local traditions. No statistics exist for the region of Mosul, because of constant security concerns it was not possible to conduct studies. However, several studies exist for the Kurdish region of Iraq, the region of Kirkuk and Southern Iraq – all showing that FGM is a prevalent practice with numbers ranging from 25% to 78%. It would be highly surprising if FGM was not practiced in Mosul as many news articles are now reporting.
Concerning the language of IS and whatever could be meant by “Image” of the group, it must be explained what a fatwa is. A fatwa can be released by the highest religious authority of a country and made public through state media like in the case of the infamous Salman Rushdi Fatwa which most Western readers take as the example of a fatwa. The Islamic State often has fatwas read in mosques. However, this is only one sort of fatwa. The vast majority of fatwas are answers to a question posed by a believer, often about issues concerning daily life like how to wash, food etc. Fatwas can be released by any religiously educated person – and in Sunni Islam there is no prescribed way of getting a religious education, thus the circle of people who can release fatwas is not exactly clear. A fatwa is not binding for the believers.
IS does enforce with extreme brutality what they consider Islamic law such as the proper veiling of women, non smoking and the outlawing of alcohol. These measures are flanked with fatwas, yet, the fatwa and the enforcement are still two different things. Even ISIS would not enforce all fatwas: If a believer would enquire how he must wash before praying, not even the craziest Salafist would think of going to houses enforcing such a fatwa.
The supposedly hoax fatwa by ISIS is a very mainstream fatwa about FGM. Who ever wrote it knows the hadith (sayings of the prophet) which most clerics use when defending “female circumcision”. Contrary to general perception mainstream Islam is not opposed to this practice. There are small groups like the Ahmadiyya which oppose it fiercly, there are individual prominent clerics who oppose it and there are regions where it was not ever practiced like in the Maghreb. However, most law schools say it is Sunnah, sometimes meaning it is a good thing but not obligatory, sometimes meaning it was done in the times of the prophet and not prohibited by him, therefore people are allowed to practice it. Mainstream Islam views it as a private matter leaving it to the parents. However, one law school, the Shafa’i, say it must be done. The fatwa in question reads like a Shafa’i fatwa. It seems quite plausible that IS would make this interpretation their own as they tend to always pick the most extreme interpretation of an issue.
It is also plausible that an individual or a group within IS issued this fatwa as an answer to someone a year ago in Aleppo, but that despite the phrasing “Therefore, this is a call for all women to get cut” it was still considered a private matter. It is also possible that this person did not have proper religious training and his language does therefore not meet high standards of theological texts – apparently those sharing the fatwa in Arab Social media did not notice this though, only Middle East experts were of this opinion. It is also possible that this IS person photoshoped a stamp in there because he didn’t have one handy in war torn Aleppo. It is almost impossible to find out.
Contrary to media reports there is no dementi by IS. Several IS supporters have dismissed the fatwa as a fake in social media, but no high ranking IS official has called it a hoax. On other issues, e.g. when a fatwa circulated which called for expelling the Kurds from Mosul, IS has come out and called this fatwa a fake.Thus, it needs to be concluded that no one knows at this point for sure whether the FGM fatwa is a hoax or not. Women and human rights organizations in the area of Mosul did not think it was a hoax. One thing can be said for sure though: Where ever groups like IS reign, women and girls are under threat for freedom, well-being and life, whether through FGM or through other measures.