Colonial Origins of Sympathy for ‘ISIS Brides’

Europeans who joined ISIS and have now surrendered in Syria are receiving widespread attention, often being humanized while their victims are forgotten or dehumanized. Within this trend to highlight the perpetrators is a specific focus on ‘ISIS brides’ – women who supported ISIS and often traveled thousands of kilometers to join. Many of these women, like one whose March 9 interview was prominent on social media, say they support ISIS and support enslaving and raping in the name of ISIS.

The spotlight on European ISIS members – and the assertion that they have a right to return home and not be put on trial by local Iraqi or Syrian governments in the Middle East – is a legacy of colonialism, in which European countries refused to hand over perpetrators to local courts under the belief that locals were inferior. The idea that Europeans could join a genocidal organization, commit crimes against humanity and face little to no prosecution is rooted in the failure to prosecute Nazis and colonial-era crimes.

One example is Shemima Begum, who went to Syria to join ISIS and has received so much sympathy in the UK that it almost appears as though she and other Europeans who joined the terrorist group are the central victims in the story. Diane Abbott, Labour Party Shadow Home Secretary, tweeted that it was callous and inhumane that the UK government has stripped Begum of citizenship.

Not all of the focus is sympathetic, but the obsessive focus on the “ISIS brides” at the expense of telling the story of ISIS victims is a legacy of the colonial era, which portrays Europeans as superior to the rest of the world. The central difference today is that while Nazism and colonialism were predicated on white supremacy, the identity accorded ISIS members from Europe is primarily “European” or “Western” regardless of whether the ISIS member is a white or a person of color, so long as they have citizenship from a European country.

British ISIS members are lauded for their Britishness, whether it is wanting to return to have fish and chips or “be with mum.” The end result is the same – it is the concept that a person who happens to have Swedish, German or French citizenship is portrayed as superior to foreigners, even if they participated in genocidal acts against those foreigners.

ISIS systematically murdered members of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, then kidnapped, sold and raped more than 5,000 Yazidi women and children. Some 3,000 of those people are still missing. ISIS bulldozed dead Yazidi victims into 69 known mass graves in Iraq in scenes reminiscent of the Einsatzgruppen murdering Jews and dumping them in ditches in 1941.

European citizens actively participated in ISIS crimes, just as they had in Nazi crimes. More than 5,000 people from across Europe joined ISIS, including numerous converts from Finland, France, Germany, the UK and elsewhere. Many of these ISIS members were privileged and middle class, and enthusiastically boasted in 2014 that they were going to Syria to rape, murder and commit genocide of minorities.

The SS would have marveled at their zeal for genocide. Whereas the Nazis attempted to hide the crimes of Auschwitz, not broadcasting what they were doing, ISIS members, particularly Europeans tweeting in English, boasted of buying slaves and beheading people.

When the ISIS crime spree was over, more than 1,000 of these European criminals surrendered in Syria and have been detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main ally of the US-led coalition. In many cases, unlike other ISIS members from places far away like Central Asia or Chechnya, the European members appear to have fled most of the battles and waited to surrender, expecting to enjoy good treatment.

In interviews, they demand their “right” to return to places like Holland and New Zealand. None of them express remorse for ISIS crimes, for the genocide, slavery and mass rape. They express only feelings of privilege, using terms like “free speech” to indicate that they are Westerners and expect special treatment as Westerners. Like colonizers of old who left places like India or Kenya to return to Europe, their view is that their European citizenship makes them untouchable in Syria and not subject to local laws.

This concept of being above the law in Syria or Iraq is rooted in the colonial-era contracts that European powers signed with the Ottoman Empire, which were called “capitulations.” These made it so that the citizens of European countries would not be subjected to local Ottoman law and thus free from prosecution, taxation and other cumbersome issues. The colonizers who went to join ISIS expected this as well. They believed that they would never have to face an Iraqi or Syrian court with an Arab or Kurdish Iraqi or Syrian judge.

The European ISIS members and their sympathizers generally argue that their European citizenship should make them untouchable by local laws, which are portrayed in colonialistic language as primitive or barbaric. This is particularly ironic, considering that these ISIS members believed in slavery and barbaric cruelty, and yet they are portrayed as European victims.

In addition to being portrayed as victims – or at least humanized perpetrators – the ISIS members are even compared to other groups that historically suffered. The Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt tweeted about how Jews were stripped of their citizenship in the era of the Holocaust. This appeared to reference Germany stripping ISIS members of citizenship “because that is the historic precedent of withdrawal of citizenship in Germany.”

Suddenly and perversely, ISIS members are being portrayed as victims similar to Jews fleeing Nazism, when in fact it was the ISIS members who behaved like Nazis and inflicted Nazi-like genocide on minorities in Iraq and Syria. This attempt to turn the ISIS supporters into victims seeks to ignore and dehumanize ISIS victims. Whereas European ISIS members are often known by their names, their victims are described in the press as “sex slaves.” While the children of ISIS members receive sympathy and are said to deserve a “right” to return to Europe, the victims of ISIS never seem to have any rights in Europe.

This is as convenient as the way in which colonial countries left their empire behind in the 1960s and didn’t bother to then pay the victims of imperialism any kind of compensation. Germany, for instance, didn’t care for its former colonies, and those colonized didn’t get German citizenship. Neither did Belgium make up for its crimes in the Congo. Ignoring the crimes of their citizens in Syria and Iraq is merely the latest extension of not taking responsibility. The same tradition of walking away from crimes is playing out in Syria and Iraq.

The victims of ISIS, particularly victims of European ISIS members, deserve compensation. Yet instead of caring for their own children or the children of the victims, the children of European ISIS members seem to take precedence. Why isn’t a child born in Syria to a mother from ISIS more needing of support from the UK than a child born to someone from the UK? Why not put Yazidi children who were enslaved at the front of the line to be cared for in Europe? Yazidis also had children, they were also groomed and trafficked. To pretend that their suffering is less turns justice on its head.

Throughout the entire ISIS period, there has been a tendency to romanticize the ISIS supporters from Europe, portraying them as “one of us,” wayward souls who made a mistake, and to dehumanize and make generalizations about ISIS victims. This is particularly egregious. It is hard to miss the parallels with the Nazi era, when former Nazis were permitted to return home to farms and go back to their normal life. It was only by chance that Eichmann was discovered and brought to Israel for trial. He would not have been tried in Germany or in countries where his crimes took place.

Moreover, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust rarely received much sympathy or support after the war. Like Yazidis, they had to flee to IDP camps, sometimes even forced to be detained next to former perpetrators. Treated as Jews by the Nazis, the US and British also often saw Jewish survivors from Germany as German citizens, not Jewish victims.

Their plight was largely forgotten in 1946 as countries sought to reconstruct after Nazism and put their past behind them. Countries with large numbers of collaborators quietly integrated them while treating Jews like a bad memory. It’s no surprise that in most of these countries, property stolen from Jews was never returned or only returned after the victims died, and that monuments to Jewish suffering arose only 50 years later.

The lessons of the colonial era, Nazism and ISIS have not been learned. Instead, the extremism, racism and genocidal impulses behind each still exist in some European countries. The death of Begum’s baby was called a “stain on the conscience of the UK government,” but the real stain is the deaths of Yazidis at the hands of ISIS, the murder of their children and the missing 3,000 Yazidis. They are a stain on our conscience.

They had as much of a right to life as every one of the European members of ISIS. The only difference is they didn’t have citizenship in an EU state.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum