Making sense of Iraq, ISIS, Yazidis, beheadings, crucifixions and your social media feed
The headlines are currently filled with reports and claims of widespread persecution of religious minorities at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, also known as ISIL) rebels in Iraq and Syria. The word ‘genocide’ has even begun to appear.
For the shrewd observer, there is much to discern and not every news source, social media feed, or blog can be trusted to convey a factual picture. The situation is particularly sensitive, and in need of astute investigation, due to the potential reality of widespread persecution, genocide, and slaughter of innocents.
Well corroborated reports verify there is religious persecution of minorities occurring in Iraq. ISIS rebels, motivated by a confluence of religious, political, and cultural factors, are threatening, attacking, and murdering those who do not conform to their religious ideals — including Yazidis, Christians, and Shi’a Muslims. But, the situation is not as simple as “Muslims are embarking on a genocide of Christians” and understanding a bit of Iraq’s religious demographics, history, and the story of minority religions can help paint a clearer picture. Here are five things you need to about Iraq, ISIS, & the region’s religious minorities:
1. IRAQ IS NOT A “MUSLIM” NATION
It’s easy to assume that Iraq is a “Muslim” nation given that an estimated 97% of its population is Muslim. ‘Nuff said…right? The reality is much more convoluted.
The country’s Muslim population is divided between the Shi’a (60-65%) and Sunni (32-37%) faithful. The Shi’a (also known as Shiite) are a minority within the global Muslim population (11-12%, compared to Sunni’s 87-89%) and only claim a majority in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan (some recent claims also say Lebanon). Shiism developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when his followers split over who would lead Islam. The Shi’a branch favored Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Ali and the Shi’a were defeated by the Sunni and over time the political divide between the two groups broadened to include theological distinctions. Shi’as include Ithna Asharis (Twelvers), Ismailis, Zaydis, Alevis and Alawites.
Tension between Sunnis and Shi’as proves a perennial source of conflict in the Middle East and formed a core part of the motivations behind the Iraq Civil War that occurred after the U.S. led invasion that toppled the secular Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein. ISIS rebels come from a particular school, and sub-sect, of Sunni Islam (more on this later) and are not part of the Shi’a majority of Iraq’s Muslims.
Furthermore, there are many Muslims throughout the world who seek to distance themselves, not only from ISIS (more on this later), but from countries where Muslims seek to marry religion and politics. They instead hope that secular forces will continue to grow in the Middle East, and elsewhere, and that a progressive and modernized form of Islam will take hold (see Reza Aslan, No god but God).
Iraq’s Constitution establishes Islam as its official religion and requires that no law contradict Islam. Yet, since Iraq is an attempt at a federal parliamentary Islamic democracy founded in the ideals of pluralism, religious freedom is also guaranteed. There are large numbers of Christians in Iraq and up to 6 million people make up the country’s religious minorities (including Yazidis, Ahl-e Haqq, Mandeans, Shabak, and Bahá’í). However, that does not mean that the Muslim majority does not wield disparate amounts of power, nor does it mean there is no persecution of religious minorities. The U.S State Department reported in 2013:
In Iraq, there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, although to a lesser extent in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) than in other areas of the country. A combination of sectarian hiring practices, corruption, targeted attacks, and the uneven application of the law had a detrimental economic effect on minority non-Muslim communities, and contributed to the departure of non-Muslims from the country.
While Islam is predominant, state-sanctioned, and a source of conflict in Iraq it is jejune to simply say Iraq is a “Muslim” nation and convey that there is some single, unified, Muslim bloc, or that there are not significant religious divides present in the country that play a role in the current conflict.
2. IRAQ’S RELIGIOUS HISTORY IS DEEP AND DIVERSE
Iraq has not always been a predominately Muslim country and possesses a rich religious history. In fact, its deep and diverse religious past most certainly plays a part in the political, cultural, and geographical loyalties of its contemporary population.
Modern Iraq is at the center of the Mesopotamian delta between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, also known as “the Fertile Crescent.” Not only was the land fertile in terms of agriculture and civilization, but religion as well. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh emerged out of Mesopotamia and the Sumerian’s cyclical, agricultural, and ritualistic religious environment that featured gods and goddesses such as Ishtar, Dumuzi, and Enki. The Sumerian metaphoric language and religion influenced Mesopotamian mythology and history for centuries and Hurrian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and even later religious groups and cultures were shaped by the cosmology of their Sumerian forebears.
Following these indigenous religious expressions, “the Fertile Crescent” was dominated by the Persians from 323 B.C.E. During the Persian era of Iraq, the culture in the area was shaped by Hebrew and indigenous religious forces, but Zoroastrianism became the accepted religion of the Persian culture. Zoroastrianism — one of the world’s oldest surviving monotheistic religions — was founded by the Prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in ancient Iran circa 1500 B.C.E. Zoroastrian worship Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), respect the pure elements (water, fire, earth, wind), and introduced a formalization of the concepts of monotheism, paradise, destiny, and free will to Mesopotamian religion.
Assyrian Christianity was introduced in the 1st and 2nd-centuries C.E. and comprises some of the most ancient forms of Christianity in the world. It has since divided into various Christian sects including Nestorians, Chaldean Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and other Eastern Rite Christians (more on this later).
When Islam took hold around 634 C.E., the people of Mesopotamia were predominately Christian and paid the “non-Muslim” tax. Slowly, through intermarriage and conversion (both genuine and coerced) Islam prevailed. Over a century after the initial invasion of Islam (762 C.E.) Baghdad became the official capital of the region and served as a key commercial, cultural, and educational hub, linking Asia to the Mediterranean countries. It was a cosmopolitan city that, for a time, produced phenomenal philosophical and technical works by both Arab and Persian thinkers.
In the Middle Ages (1200-1500s C.E.), Iraq traded hands between the Mongols (which included shamanistic, Buddhist, Manichean, Nestorian, and Muslim influences) and the Muslim Ottoman Turks. Following World War I, the Ottoman Empire was defeated and the British defined the territory of Iraq paying scant attention to natural boundaries and religious and ethnic divisions. No single religious or political force has been able to effectively bring order to Iraq for more than a few decades since.
3. THE YAZIDIS ARE A UNIQUE AND FASCINATING RELIGIOUS MINORITY
From this rich religious, political, economic, and cultural history several religious minorities emerged. One of those smaller religious populations is the Yazidis. The Yazidi are Kurds, but possess their own unique religion. Though largely isolated from their neighbors, their main habitations are around Mosul. Hence they have faced displacement when ISIS rebels took hold of this northern urban center and its environs.
Thankfully, several news sources successfully explicated the religious and cultural distinctives of the Yazidis whose “faith is a fascinating mix of ancient religions.”
4. THE CHRISTIAN POPULATION IN IRAQ IS A MIXED BAG
What about Christians in Iraq? Several misleading headlines have zeroed in on ISIS’ attacks against Christians, not only ignoring Yazidis and other religious minorities, but not fully elucidating the Christian story in Iraq and reducing their narrative to persecution alone.
Iraqi Christians are some of the world’s oldest existent Christian populations. While not claiming a majority of the Iraqi population since the 7th-century, they constitute a significant and culturally influential minority. Before the Iraq War, Christians represented a little more than 5% of the population, claiming 1.5 – 2 million adherents. Due to rising persecution against Christians (abductions, torture, bombings, killings, forced conversion, and imposition of Sharia measures on Christian populations) their numbers plummeted to anywhere between 200,000-450,000 as of 2013 with many fleeing to surrounding countries such as Syria and Jordan (where, in the former location, they now face difficulties due to the Syrian Civil War). Those Christians that remain are concentrated in Baghdad, Basra, Arbil, Kirkuk and — significantly for the current context — in the Assyrian towns of the Nineveh Plains in the north and in Mosul.
The Christians are a diverse group and include Nestorians, Chaldean Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Assyrian Rite Christians, and small numbers of Armenian Orthodox. The majority of Iraqi Christians are influenced directly, or contingently, by Nestorianism, a Christian sect condemned by the councils of Ephesus (431 C.E.) and Chalcedon (451 C.E.) for their assertion of the independence of the divine and human natures of Christ. Still today, the majority of the worlds Christians would consider Nestorians and their antecedents “heretics.”
However, in most headlines they are being ambiguously labeled “Christian,” rather than as a “Christian sect.” There is certainly much debate about their place in Christian taxonomy, but it is interesting that in other contexts Nestorians and other Eastern Rite churches would be decried as perilously close to being “non-Christian” by the same Protestant and Roman Catholic groups now rallying to their cause. Theological disputes aside, they do not deserve discrimination, displacement, or death based on religious or cultural lines and any religious group that supports their right to existence should be lauded for their efforts.
5. ISIS’S RELIGIOUS MOTIVATIONS ARE SECTARIAN AND DO NOT REPRESENT “ISLAM”
Several wayward headlines read akin to this one from The Christian Post: “Muslims Hack Off Christian Man’s Head After Forcing Him to Deny Jesus Christ and Salute Mohammed as ‘Messenger of God.’” Not only is this headline charged with sectarian sentiment, but it is misleading and oversimplified.
Is ISIS Muslim? If you ask Sohaib N. Sultan who wrote for TIME magazine that “ISIS is Ignoring Islam’s Teachings on Yazidis and Christians,” that claim is nebulous at best. Sultan wrote:
I join the chorus of Muslims worldwide, Sunnis and Shi‘ites, who oppose al-Baghdadi and ISIS as a whole. The killing and oppression of innocent people and the destruction of land and property is completely antithetical to Islam’s normative teachings. It’s as pure and as simple as that.
Sultan’s comments echo a deep rift that continues to divide global Islam, which Reza Aslan refers to as a civil war between traditionalists and reformists. Not only this, but Islam is a diverse religion with various sects and schools of thought. Not only are there Shi’as, Sufis, and Sunnis, but the Sunni are divided into various schools and theological traditions that incorporate proponents of various lines of jurisprudence including the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i institutions.
ISIS militants and their leaders are influenced by, and are an active part of, the Salafi movement in Islam. Salafis are fundamentalists who view their movement as a return to the roots of Islam (although this claim is contested by Sultan and others Muslims throughout the world). Their name is derived from the Arabic phrase, ‘as-salaf as-saliheen’, which refers to the first three generations of Muslims — the pious “predecessors” or “ancestors” of Islam.
The Salafi movement is a slippery one to pin down. Some scholars, and the Salafis themselves, claim they are a subset of Sunni Islam, deriving their teaching from the Hanbali school. Others lump Salafism with Wahhabism — the ultraconservative Islamic teaching of Adn al-Wahhab that was institutionalized by the Saudis before being radicalized by al-Qaeda and used against their nation and other Muslims. Wahhabis adhere to takfiri beliefs, which lead adherents to target non-Wahhabi Muslims — mainstream Muslims, Sunnis, Shi’as, Sufi, etc. Salafis assert they are a broader movement than Wahhabis, but certainly the two are parallel developments and share much in common in terms of radical doctrine and violent, extremist, practice. Salafis seek to purify Islam, which features a built-in brutality toward non-Muslims.
ISIS and other Salafi movements would like to promote the narrative that their war is one between Muslims and Christians. However, as Aslan, Sultan, and others note, this is as much an inter-Muslim conflict as anything else. This does not make the atrocities committed against other religious minorities any less hideous, but it does note that this is more than a Muslim-Christian conflict.
In the end, this current confrontation, and for that matter all Salafi inspired violence, should be framed as a juxtaposition between the world’s peace loving people — Muslim, Yazidi, Christian, Buddhist, non-religious, or otherwise — and those who seek to use religion as a means of power, oppression, and senseless violence.
Hopefully, this blog (essay, really) helps to paint this picture and convey the historical, religious, and political nexus this present hostility is part of.