During September 2014, the #notinmyname hashtag went viral. Young British Muslims at the East London-based Active Change Foundation created a video condemning ISIS, with a tagline at the end: “ISIS do not represent British Muslims.” This was a great show of initiative by young men and women from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. It complemented the July 2014 letter, signed by over 100 Sunni and Shia imams and religious leaders, which urged young British Muslims not to join ISIS or fall prey to sectarian divisions. Further, in September 2014, Inspire launched a women-led initiative against ISIS at the Royal United Services Institute. Home Secretary Theresa May was the keynote speaker, and their #makingastand hashtag has also been shared widely. I was fortunate enough to have attended the launch; it was heartwarming to see a Muslim women’s initiative receive enthusiastic backing from people of all backgrounds, professing a wide variety of beliefs. This is the spirit in which we must go forward to tackle all kinds of extremism and sectarianism, no matter where they emanate from.
Initiatives like #makingastand provide a refreshing change from those that have dominated the British political scene for years. Too many political alliances are fickle, opportunistic, drawn along sectarian lines, and are conceived in opposition to ‘the West’ as opposed to standing for anything positive. These kinds of efforts – which often attract otherwise well-meaning individuals – actually take us backwards and propagate the cycle of hate.
Further afield, efforts to unite different groups of Muslims – including Sunnis and Shias – have spanned the gamut from the King of Jordan’s well-received ‘Amman message’ to the recent US-Islam World Forum convened by the Brookings Institute and the Government of Qatar, designed to bring together leaders in the realms of politics, business, media, academia and civil society. The Salafi governor of Medina also had a noteworthy meeting with the Shia community in which he said “It is an honour to visit this tribe.”
It was heartwarming to see a Muslim women’s initiative receive enthusiastic backing from people of all backgrounds, professing a wide variety of beliefs. This is the spirit in which we must go forward to tackle all kinds of extremism and sectarianism
There are also grassroots efforts in Iraq itself, such as the Organisation of Women’s Freedom, which runs a safe house for women fleeing ISIS persecution, and publicly denounces their genocidal campaign against minorities. These grassroots groups are contending with a seemingly never-ending cycle of brutalism, which was cruelly stoked with the 2003 US invasion. According to a Pew research survey in 2011, the majority of Iraqis are Shia (51%, compared with 42% saying they were Sunni). However, Saddam Hussein’s regime was, of course, Sunni-dominated. After the 2003 invasion, the Shias came to power, and sectarian violence continued until 2008, on both sides. Much of this was exploited by Al-Qaeda terrorists, who killed scores of Shias in bomb attacks.
In March 2010, parliamentary elections took place, and Nouri Al-Maliki’s Shia State of Law Coalition went up against the mainly Sunni Iraqiya Coalition, led by Ayad Allawi. The latter won 91 seats, compared to the State of Law Coalition’s 89. The initial jubilation of most Iraqi voters was not to last: the new Parliament only opened after three months of negotiations, allegations of electoral fraud, and a recount. To top it all off, Maliki remained the Prime Minister of Iraq. After a brief ceasefire, the violence increased again, partly due to Sunnis feeling disenfranchised and under-represented in Government (several were arbitrarily detained by police after protests about this in 2013), and partly after witnessing the actions of militants in the Syrian civil war. All of this has boosted the following of ISIS.
Today, Yazidis, Kurds and Christians have been killed en masse in their own ancestral villages. Shia shrines have been threatened. The border between Iraq and Syria has been decimated. Over 650,000 Iraqis have been internally displaced and are living in transit camps. Sexual violence is endemic, and at the same time, ISIS are enforcing strict female dress codes. Child soldiers have been recruited. Who could stand idly by in this situation? On 27th September 2014, British MPs voted overwhelmingly to support US air strikes over Iraq, albeit cautiously, only offering the use of six Tornados, and refusing to intervene in Syria. Various staunch opponents of the original Iraq war – of which I was one – have noted that the situation is very different this time round. As Sadiq Khan MP (who voted for intervention) wrote on his blog: “On this occasion, ultimately, a sovereign state has asked for our help, and we had a responsibility to answer that call.” Even Caroline Lucas MP, who voted against intervention, stated on her website: I don’t think this is like the last Iraq war. I don’t think that the Prime Minister is manipulating intelligence or lying to the House.” Further, just because British MPs voted for military action, it doesn’t mean that political and diplomatic solutions are redundant – quite the opposite.
To start with, Iraq’s politicians need to persuade Sunnis that they can participate as equal citizens in an Iraqi state. Secondly, Jordan’s announcement of a draft UN resolution – calling for a new international offence on crimes against humanity that target specific communities – is a welcome one. Thirdly, it is rare to see instances of Sunni-Shia co-operation when it comes to fighting IS in Iraq, but these are rising steadily. When IS fighters tried to storm the Tigris River town of Dhuluiya north of Baghdad in early October, they were stopped by a group of Sunni tribal fighters inside the town and Shias in its sister city Balad, on the opposite bank. Then there was another powerful Sunni tribe who fought alongside Kurdish forces to drive IS fighters from Rabia.
Respect for international law
Further, the international community should give greater financial backing to secular groups who fight both extremism and fundamentalism. Professor Karima Bennoune, law professor at University of California Davis and author of Your Fatwa Does not Apply Here notes: ‘While Qatari coffers have nourished jihadists across the region, secular groups who fight Islamists scrounge for funds.’ This brings us nicely to the last recommendation: the UK must establish a clear and consistent foreign policy that is based on respect for international law and human rights norms. This does not mean selling arms to regimes like Saudi Arabia; the British Government approved £1.6bn worth of exports to the Kingdom in 2013 alone. A Human Rights Watch report from 21st August 2014 revealed that 19 people had been executed in the twelve days prior to that. No matter where we live or which belief system we profess to follow, we cannot allow tribalism and allegiance to one’s own particular group to trump universal standards of justice and human rights. That is one of the lessons to be learned from the horrific situation that Iraq – and other countries in the Middle East – now find themselves in.
This article appears in CHARTIST #271