Islamic State: Religious Intolerance and Persecution in Iraq and Syria
Islamic State Forces at Ar-Raqqah
Religious persecution has been unleashed in its worst form in Iraq and parts of Syria by Islamic State, a deadly jihadist group of religious zealots of Sunni Muslims with a medieval mindset in Iraq. The emergence of the marauding army, formerly known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), is a sad reminder of absence of strong rulers and the failure of the US and other Western powers in their attempt to foist stable democratic governments in the two affected countries.
Both Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar Al Assad in Syria, ruthlessly ruled (Assad continues) their countries as only dictators of unbridled powers could, although they called their countries democracies and got themselves repeatedly elected in stage-managed elections to the top job, crushing all opposition and dissent in the process. One of the redeeming features of the reigns of these two rulers was that there was no or little, if at all, religious persecution of religious minorities in their countries. Fiercely guarding their hold on the reins of power with the support of their loyal coteries carefully selected from trustworthy and time-tested tribes or clans, they had apparently no use to play up the age-old religious schism obtaining in their countries.
Before Saddam was toppled in 2003, there was an estimated population of a million Christians in Iraq. They were a small minority, but free to worship, free to build churches, and free to speak the ancient language of Jesus, Aramaic. They were treated much the same way as Muslims. Saddam's right hand man and Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian. Following the invasion of Iraq by the US, religious schism reared its ugly head and Muslims of different denominations started killing each other; they also started killing Christians and destroying Churches in big numbers. Christianity had come to Iraq with Thomas, the Apostle, nearly 2000 years ago. It survived invasions by Mongols and Turks. Christians could not, however, stand persecution by Muslims during the American occupation and were driven out on a Biblical scale. The situation has been aggravated exponentially with the advent of the radical Islamic State.
Bashar and Secular Syria
Before the outbreak of the ongoing civil war in that country, Syria was known to be a religiously tolerant state. Although 70% of its population were Sunnis, Muslims of different denominations, Christians and Jews lived in harmony. President Bashar Al-Assad himself belongs to the minority Alawite denomination (around 12%) which is an offshoot branch of the Shiite denomination and specific to Syria. Then there are other Muslim minority branches like Druz, Ismailias and Twelver Shiites (2-5%). Christians form 10% of the population. With the Constitution of the country providing safeguards and guarantees for the protection of minorities, people were free to practise the faith of their choice.
The civil war has changed all that. Although Assad has succeeded in getting the support of the Sunnis who occupy most positions in the government, bureaucracy, army and business community, his detractors suspect that the Alawites have more access than others to top jobs in the Army and intelligence services. Consequently, the Alawites are identified as a group close to the government camp in the civil war. With the forays of the army of Islamic State (IS) into Syria, the Christians and other religious minorities have been living in fear of persecution.
Emergence of Islamic State
Following the American occupation of Iraq, and installation of a newly-elected government headed by Nouri al-Maliki, Sunnis in Iraq increasingly became victims of economic and political discrimination at the hands of the Shiite leadership. This led them to support IS who now control about seven governorates in northern Iraq. In the ongoing civil war in Syria, IS has been fighting the Syrian army and rebel armies for tightening its hold over the provinces of Ar-Rqqah, Idlib and Aleppo which are already under their control and capture of more provinces.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi
Establishment of Caliphate
The forces of IS are aspiring to redraw the borders of the Arab World in the process of establishing an Arab emirate on the model of the Caliphate which had been established soon after the birth of Islam and covered vast stretches of land from Spain to Afghanistan, in an apparent exercise of nostalgia combined with a sense of religious superiority. Their members are from a wide range of countries like the UK, France, Germany, other European countries, the US and the Caucasus, totalling anywhere between 7,000 and 20,000. The organisation is headed by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi battlefield commander and a tactician. IS was at one point of time the Iraqi chapter of Al Qaeda. It was later disavowed by Al Qaeda for its extremely brutal ways and "notorious intractability." It has been declared a foreign terrorist organization by the United Nations Security Council and several Western countries including the US. The organisation announced on 29 June 2014 the establishment of a Caliphate by the name of Islamic State with the city of Ar-Raqqah (Syria) as its capital and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as the Caliph. It claims religious authority over all Muslims across the world.
War by IS
Fired by a romantic vision of revival of a glorious past, the army of IS set upon a mission of capturing swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, indiscriminately rending and killing soldiers of the Iraqi Army, Syrian Army, and other combating rival units, as well as thousands of civilians in the two countries in the process. They have been indulging in looting and pillaging and taking women as prisoners to be given away in marriage to their members or sold. They have a strict interpretation of the Sharia which they ruthlessly apply against Shiites and Christians.
To start with, IS had been dependent for finances on individual contributions from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia which supported its fight against President Bashar of Syria. It became cash rich by selling oil from the oil fields on the eastern coast of Syria which it controlled.
When IS took control of Iraq's second biggest city Mosul, it plundered hundreds of million dollars from the Mosul branch of the Central Bank of Iraq. This went to make IS probably the richest terror group in the world with estimated cash assets of $2 billion. If it holds on to the oil fields in northern Iraq and Syria, it would become much more financially assertive.
Over 40,000 Yazidis of northern Iraq who are descendents of Kurds and practise a pre-Islamic religion, face a threat of massacre by IS and have taken refuge in the Sinjar mountains in north-west Iraq. They were threatened by the extremist militants to convert to the Sunni faith or face death. Hundredsof their young women were abducted by IS. Those who have taken refuge on the mountain suffer from dehydration and lack of food. Scores of children have already died. The refugees (in their own land) have been appealing for help in response to which the US has carried out air dropping of food and water. Whatever little protection they enjoy is from the Peshmerga, battle-hardened Kurds who are the only warriors still fighting the IS on the ground. They also find the going tough without adequate supplies of arms and equipment to match those of the IS, which had fallen in their hands when the Iraqi army turned tail long ago, beaten and demoralised.
US President Obama Authorizes air strikes in Iraq against ISIL / ISIS
Aerial Bombings by Americans
In a slight twist, if not shift, to the US policy of taking targeted and precise military action announced in June, President Obama authorised aerial attacks on the IS in order to prevent a "potential genocide" in Irbil, Kurdish city and home to American diplomats and military advisors in Iraq. Thousands of Iraqi religious minorities from other northern parts of the country have taken shelter in Irbil. The aerial strikes have been reported to have successfully destroyed the equipment and arms supplies of IS on move to Irbil. Hopefully, the American intervention, even though limited in scale, would thwart a genocide.
American military intervention in northern Iraq has been welcomed by British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Holland. Obama has, however, announced that there are no plans to put boots on the ground in Iraq and that aerial attacks are intended to accomplish a specific goal viz. averting a potential genocide.
The Pope as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury have appealed for assistance and relief to the religious minorities being persecuted in Iraq. Britain and France are considering ways and means to help.
As President Obama has pointed out, there can be no military solution to the conflict in Iraq. The people of Iraq have to come together to work out a peaceful solution to the problem of intolerance and religious persecution. A reconciliatory government acceptable to all parties to the conflict would be an appropriate first step in the right direction. The role of the UN in making this possible would be invaluable. All the Levant countries should jointly address the barbarism in the interests of peace in the region.
© 2014 Kalyanaraman Raman