After opening its doors to a religious minority targeted for genocide by the so-called Islamic State group, Winnipeg is now home to one of the largest Yazidi refugee communities in Canada.
The Islamic State used propaganda and a "perversion" of Islam to sow the seeds of hatred that fuelled the genocide, says Michael Petrou, an author and historian who kicks off a lecture series Monday night at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
"We need to confront this cruelty head-on, and that means understanding IS," Petrou said Thursday from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where the Canadian is a fellow at the school’s journalism institute.
"Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians have suffered enormously at the hands of IS. With the Yazidis, it was genocide through murder, forced conversion and slavery," said Petrou, who was in a village in northern Iraq in October 2014 with a Kurdish force that had taken the area back from the Islamic State.
"All the scars of war were still there. They found clothing that was unique to Yazidi women and proof that they were trafficked to fighters throughout Iraq," he said. "I spoke to a number of Yazidis in refugee camps in northern Iraq, and heard stories of their enslavement and rape."
In 2015, an analysis of the Islamic State’s practice of sexual slavery, taken from memos issued by the terror group and social media accounts of its members and supporters, was published by the Middle East Media Research Institute. That same year, the New York Times reported on theological discussions IS was having, establishing guidelines for slavery and the Islamic State’s research and fatwa department issuing a how-to manual. The newspaper reported terrorist leaders were using narrow and selective readings of religious rulings to not only justify violence, but to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.
In Winnipeg, Yazidi women who fled say the propaganda campaign worked. Their captors and rapists justified such actions in the name of religion, said Nafiya Naso, a member of the Yazidi community whose ancient religion is deemed heretical by IS.
Naso works with Jewish Child and Family Services, and volunteers with Operation Ezra, a multifaith campaign led by the Jewish community to privately sponsor Yazidi refugees to come to Canada.
"Many women talk about the selling and buying of Yazidi women and girls, saying even if the buyers weren’t a part of IS, they took part in buying saying it was OK because Islam says we are infidels and therefore not considered human," Naso said.
Such atrocities have nothing to do with religion, said Shahina Siddiqui with the Winnipeg-based Islamic Social Services Association.
"Terrorists are terrorists," said Siddiqui, who declined to participate in Monday’s event at the museum. "They are not representatives of Islam or Muslims — Shia or Sunni or any other religion. Terrorism has no faith."
Petrou argues the only way to eradicate the so-called Islamic State group is by using religion.
"If we confront head-on how central Islam is to IS and its perversion is to its self-conception, that leaves it vulnerable to using the same faith and holy book to undermine their message," he said.
Such steps are being taken, Siddiqui said.
"Just a couple of years ago, hundreds of Muslim religious leaders, both Shia and Sunni from around the world, issued a fatwa against terrorism and, point by point, negated every claim of (IS) on religious grounds," she said. "Overwhelmingly, Muslims do not consider (IS), al-Qaida or Boko Haram as religious movements, or their leaders as legitimate and qualified scholars or experts on the interpretation of the Qur’an, Islamic law or the teachings of the Prophet."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
Updated on Friday, January 12, 2018 at 7:09 AM CST: Adds photos