It had all the elements of a sensational news story: Sex! War! Romance! Extremism! Hypocrisy! Jihad! It was almost too sensational. And too good to check.
It started last March, when Tunisia’s Minister of Religious Affairs Nourredine al-Khademi claimed well-known Saudi cleric Muhammed al-Arifi (who urges his followers to “shed blood, smash skulls, and sever limbs for the sake of Allah”) had issued a fatwa legitimizing “sex jihad.” It was perfect click-bait: Muslim women travel to Syria to satiate the sexual desires of jihadists fighting Bashar Assad’s regime and—fingers crossed!—come home pregnant. Everyone is sexually satisfied and a new generation of extremists is born.
On social media, videos circulated claiming to have identified a woman shuffled off to the Syrian battlefield for sexual combat. And while Al-Arifi promptly denied the fatwa (those who believed it, a spokesman said, were “insane”), al-Khademi thickened the story, alleging that “sex jihadists” were returning from the front pregnant after they had been “swapped between 20, 30 and 100 rebels.”
“It seems like something the Iranian media would put out there to discredit the rebels and the opposition and to make them look like heathens.”
It was wonderfully salacious. And it also happened to be untrue. But despite being repeatedly shot down by experts, the tale of lust in the service of Allah is back.
Last week, an Iranian media outlet circulated a report, which quickly spread across Arab-language social media: A Saudi woman had left for Syria three months ago—and this one included images, sultry and partially-clothed, of the supposed sex-jihadist. But earlier this week, Iranian bloggers, skirting government filters, discovered that the woman’s photo had been plucked from a porn website—a clumsy ploy to impugn the supposedly pervy Syrian opposition.
“Theologically speaking there’s no ‘sex jihad’ within Islam at all,” says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. “It seems like something the Iranian media would put out there to discredit the rebels and the opposition and to make them look like heathens.”
Iranian bloggers saved the credulous American media the embarrassment of reporting that a wave of horny extremists had invaded Syria. They had fallen for it before. Last year, the Huffington Post swallowed the Tunisian claim whole: “Sexual jihad fatwas typically allow armed members to have sexual intercourse with women as part of a temporary contract. It also allows women to sleep with more than one man a day, Fars News explains.” Fars News is an Iranian propaganda outlet.
And as recent as last week, a writer at Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze was promoting the sex-mad Islamist meme: “[T]here was the now infamous ‘sex-jihad’ fatwa, which holds that any Muslim woman who willingly allows her body to be used by the sexually-deprived jihadis becomes herself a jihadi, if not a ‘martyr,’ deserving of all the honor and rewards associated with those titles.”
It’s a story that hits every conservative nerve: sex, promiscuity, and Islamic extremism. (Such stories are not entirely unbelievable: Shia Islam permits short-term marriages, known as al-mut'a marriages, and temporary marriages are also practiced by some Sunnis.)
And who doesn’t love a story of religious hypocrisy? After the raid on his compound, U.S. officials leaked details of Osama bin Laden’s Internet reading habits. He was, of course, fond of watching porn. The New York Post plastered the “news” on its frontpage: “Osama bin Wankin’.”
Bin Laden might have been a resident of “Whora Bora” (credit to the Post for that), but the persistent tale of sex jihadists is too good be true. “There are younger teenage girls, anywhere from 16 and older, and they’ll go [to Syria] because they want to find a husband to marry,” says Zelin. “They don’t go there for sex.”