If both of the above imaginary situations came to pass, it is highly likely that the British and American governments would bring the full force of their military power to bear on the perpetrators of such mediaeval barbarism. And they would be right to act in the interests of their citizens in this way, providing the protection that governments should provide to their own.
The subtext in the above scenarios is that in fact the situations described are going on as we speak. The hundreds of citizens who have been put up for ransom, with some being killed on camera, are not British but rather Assyrians, kidnapped in February from dozens of predominantly Christian towns and villages in the Khabur river valley in northern Syria. The exorbitant ransom demanded is far beyond the financial capacity of the local Assyrian community.
The thousands of women and girls, some pre-pubescent, serving as sex slaves are not Americans but mostly non-Muslim Yazidis, kidnapped in Sinjar in northern Iraq late last year. Some Christian women are also being held in the same manner. The perpetrators are, of course, the soldiers and leaders of the Islamic State, who have established rules of trade that include allowing an individual jihadi to purchase up to three female concubines. The captured woman are reportedly considered by their captors to have become Muslim if they are raped by ten ISIS fighters.
The significant difference between the above imaginary situations and the reality is that neither Assyrians nor Yazidis are citizens of powerful nations. Those currently held in captivity cannot hope for their armed compatriots to come to their rescue. In such a context, their nightmare must be even darker and full of greater despair, enveloped within a sense of absolute hopelessness. It is little wonder that a number of the Yazidi women are committing suicide, according to reports provided by some lucky women who have escaped their captors.
And as these appalling situations continue day after day, leaders of the powerful nations do express concern and meet to confer about ways of gradually “degrading” the capacity of the Islamic State. A group of nine nations led by the USA have been conducting bombing raids from the air on Islamic State targets since August 2014, with mixed results. But while the discussions and the bombing raids take place, days become months and months become years, and the Assyrian and Yazidi hostages remain in their situations of terror, with little hope of rescue.
Two thoughts come to mind. Firstly, the great nations of the world that are mulling over ways of dealing with the Islamic State in a step-by-step fashion would do well to act as if the kidnapped hostages are indeed British and American. Images of British citizens being executed on mass and American women being sold at sex-slave markets may well succeed in breaking the paralysis that has beset Western action over the problem of the Islamic State.
Second, the tragic situation raises the issue of the future viability of religious minorities in the Middle East. The best solution would probably be for Assyrians and Yazidis to migrate to the West. Many will do this, but many will remain in their ancestral homelands.
For those who remain, an option that should be seriously considered is the model of Israel. Jews have long argued the case for Israel on the basis that they must be able to defend themselves because they cannot rely on others to do so. In this particular respect, Israel’s history since 1948 has been one of resounding success. In the same way, Assyrians, Yazidis and other threatened minorities — including Egypt’s Copts who witnessed 21 of their number beheaded by Islamic State terrorists earlier this year — must be encouraged to explore options for autonomy, to ensure their survival. It has worked for the Jews of Israel, and it is working for the Kurds, who are slowly creating the territory and structures of an autonomous nation.
Surely it is not too much to hope that one day Assyrians, Yazidis, Kurds, Copts and other oppressed minority groups may be able to live in the security of their own lands as Jews can do, safe from the cycles of Islamist intolerance that characterize Middle Eastern history.
Guest Editorial Policy