Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Bin Jeddo made headlines on Friday after issuing a scathing condemnation of “sexual jihad” while alleging that an unspecified number of Tunisian women were traveling to Syria to provide anti-regime fighters there with sexual services as a form of holy war.
The minister’s claims that women “have sexual relations with 20, 30, 100” militants and “come home pregnant” are eyebrow-raising, doubly so because of how free of hard details they are. Bin Jeddo did not furnish any statistics about how many women were traveling to Syria for this purpose, nor did he specify how many were returning pregnant, though similarly vague media reports indicate that it could be as many as hundreds.
This is not the first time this outré idea has been trotted out. Pro-Syrian regime websites seized on the idea when it surfaced in March after a Salafist Saudi preacher reportedly endorsed sexual jihad as a means of bolstering anti-regime forces. Opponents of Egypt’s deposed Islamist president Mohammed Morsi also used the idea as part of a smear campaign against his supporters following his ouster in July. In both cases it has served an easy way to discredit Islamists by simultaneously highlighting their radicalism and hypocrisy.
The sexual licentiousness, religious fanaticism, and female promiscuity all embodied in the single idea of “sexual jihad” seem almost perfectly designed to guarantee widespread repugnance among Arabs. This is not to say the concept is not rooted in reality; some hardline Salafists do believe that what they call “Jihad al-Nikah” is a legitimate form of holy war. It is, however, by no means a widely accepted interpretation of doctrine, and Mohammed al-Arifi, the Saudi preacher supposedly behind a fatwa encouraging sexual jihad in Syria, immediately denied his backing for the practice and labeled supporters of the idea “fools.”
So why is a representative from an Islamist government raising the alarm now? The likeliest reason is regional concern about jihadists — of the conventional male variety, that is — traveling to Syria. According to Bin Jeddo, his government has banned six thousand young Tunisians from traveling to Syria since he assumed office in March. Syria’s potential as a magnet for jihadists and as an engine for radicalization is currently a major concern across the Middle East and North Africa, including for governments that oppose the Assad regime. So efforts to discourage travel there and to ensure those efforts are backed by popular support will become increasingly important for these governments. “Sexual jihad” is a highly effective bogeyman in that respect.