It’s always exciting to talk about sex. Combined with Islamism, sex could become the most discussed and read about topic in the media. That’s why Jihad Al Nikah (sex jihad) has become the obsession of everyone writing or working on Syria. It is an exotic topic for Western media outlets and audiences alike. Meanwhile, Arab media uses it to indulge the viewers in suppressed fantasies.
Truth is secondary here. It doesn’t matter anymore if Jihad al Nikah is an actual phenomenon. Either way, it takes over everything else that matters. The same can be said about all the other shocking information coming from Syria, including the savagery of beheadings, the heart-eating man, the burning of churches, and the barbarism of the rebellion.
These realities, although factual and truthful, are often exaggerated. They also overwhelm everything else about Syria and the revolution. They take over all other layers and make genuine calls for freedom and reform insignificant. Al-Qaeda may be a sexy topic, but sex jihad is even more so.
The regime’s obsession with sex and rape has always been a political and cultural tool used for oppression. It did not start with the revolution. Assad’s prisons were the sites of horrible sexual abuse and torture of prisoners, both men and women, for many years.
But the Syrian regime knows how to play this game quite well, much better than the opposition at least. From extremism to minorities, Assad knows how to play his cards. He has presented his regime to the international community as the sole protector of the Christians in Syria, highlighting al-Qaeda burning churches and its attacks on Christian villages. Of course, ISIS’s sectarian rhetoric makes Assad’s task an easy one, but that does not mean that the rebels seek to eliminate the Christian presence in Syria.
The Syrian regime’s thugs raped and tortured many women and children, according to a number of human rights organizations. Its allies in Lebanon and Iran have also been using and abusing Mutaa marriage for political reasons for many years now. (Mutaa marriage has never been regarded as an immoral practice by the regime because it is practiced by its allies. It has become a social and political necessity.)
But sex jihad is a different story, yet the double standards are barely noticeable. Just one story about a 16 year-old-girl saying on regime media that she practices sex jihad was enough for every media outlet to make it a major headline.
Rawan Kaddah was her name, and she claimed on Syrian state TV that her father forced her to practice sex jihad. Of course, the story was reported even as many doubts are emerging about its accuracy. (According to Kaddah’s family, their daughter was kidnapped by the Syrian security forces after returning back from school last November in her southwestern hometown in Daraa.)
Most indicators suggest that the story was fabricated by the regime, and there is little information on the practice of sex jihad in Syria among the rebels in general. And so, the proportion of this story’s coverage in the media despite the little information available is indeed surreal.
Again, the double standards work both ways. Media often looks for buzz, not truth. And, this subject gets more hits, so who cares, right?
It seems everybody is in denial. Many say that the Syrian revolution is ugly, so we shouldn’t get involved. Many also say that the Syrian rebels are all extremists and barbarians, and that’s why Assad is a better option. They even say that the Syrian opposition is all Sunni, which is why the regime is more secular. And, in the midst of all this misleading information come reports about sex jihad, which gives everyone an excuse to accept Assad’s story. Not because of information and proof, but because it is an easier and guilt-free process.
Of course, the Syrian rebellion is not ideal, and there is an ugly layer to it, but that does not mean that the Syrian regime is more secular or preferable than the rebels. Raping women in prison and torturing children is not more civilized than the heart-eating man. Forcing a girl to go on TV and say that she has practiced sex jihad is not more humane than beheading opponents on the battlefield. And, brutally killing children in Sunni villages and towns does not make Assad less sectarian than his opponents. Indeed, sectarianism was created by the regime’s favoritism from the very beginning: esteeming Alawites and Christians over Sunnis, and more recently massacring Sunnis while protecting Christians and other minority groups.
Assad is clearly neither secular nor civilized, nor is he the protector of minorities. And sex jihad is just another game he uses to feed into the stereotypes of the West and the stigma that summarized the revolution as a ragtag group of extremists.
The problem is that the Syrian opposition has lost the media game. The scarcity of information and inconsistent media campaigns on the rebels' part hands the regime easy victories. And every time the media gets distracted by stories about sex jihad and beheadings, the rebellion against Assad takes another hit. Sadly, it means that the Syrian revolution may be a very long one indeed.
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW. She tweets @haningdr