Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
24 July, 2014
• ISIS "Greater Threat" to West than al-Qaida
By Daniella Peled
• ISIS likely to attack Baghdad before end of Ramadan
By Laura Kokotailo
• Syrian rebels say ISIS on the run around Damascus
By Nazeer Rida
• Jabhat al-Nusra reveals its true nature
By Abdallah Suleiman Ali
• Are ISIS and ISIL based on religion or ideology?
By Laina Farhat-Holzman
• Are ISIS and ISIL based on religion or ideology?
By Laina Farhat-Holzman
• Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side: In a Syrian City, ISIS Puts Its Vision Into Practice
By An Employee of the New York Times and Ben Hubbard
• Saudi poll to reveal public’s level of sympathy for IS
By Abdullah al-Duhailan, Rahma Thiab and Shaden al-Hayek
• Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
By Boyd Tonkin
• Congress split on keeping Iraq together
By Julian Pecquet
• Mosul may mark a critical moment in the region’s history
By Michael Young
ISIS "Greater Threat" to West than al-Qaida
By Daniella Peled
23 Jul 14
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses a greater threat to Western security than al-Qaeda did in its day, according to an IWPR briefing this week.
Visiting London from Baghdad, IWPR Iraq chief of party Ammar al-Shahbander told the June 22 gathering that ISIS was an independent entity that operated in diverse ways and with different alliances in Syria and Iraq.
Speaking at the briefing via video link, IWPR Syria programme coordinator, Z.E., gave a snapshot of life in Aleppo and her work supporting citizen activism there. (Her name is not given here for security reasons.)
“Many people think that ISIS is not a threat to the West,” said al-Shahbander. “I completely disagree. ISIS is a much greater threat than al-Qaeda – it is the number one magnet for jihadis internationally.”
Not only has ISIS created its own de facto state, but it has a much more open recruitment policy than al-Qaeda.
“This is a very dangerous mix of people with top fighting capability and no ethics. ISIS is capable of violence beyond anything seen by al-Qaeda,” he continued, adding that the international mix of fighters made it all the more likely that they would bring extremist ideas back to their own countries.
At the same time, Shahbander argues that ISIS’s days are numbered in Iraq, as the range of Sunni groups that have struck up a temporary alliance with it and operate under its flag will ultimately turn on it – and they have significantly more military clout than it has.
The process will begin once the Iraqi establishment completes the tortuous process of appointing a prime minister. Assuming they do not settle on the incumbent, Nuri al-Maliki, the new premier’s first task will be to negotiate a political settlement with the Sunni Arabs, likely to result in a kind of devolved status for the territory the insurgents have captured in recent weeks.
Nor, Shahbander argues, will the other Sunni militias and groups tolerate the ISIS’s imposition of its narrow, hard-line ideology in the longer term.
Chairing the discussion, Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House), agreed that the complex nature of the conflict made mapping alliances very difficult.
“If you go to some policy circles in Europe and in the United States, there is confusion,” he said. “You have people saying that to solve this issue we have to collaborate with Assad and Iran, our allies in the fight against ISIS, and you have people saying that ISIS is the creation of Saudi Arabia.
“And on the other side, you have people saying no, this is the classic game of Iran and the Syrian regime playing arsonist and offering to be the fire-fighter.”
Z.E. agreed with Shahbander’s view that in Syria, ISIS is allied with President Bashar al-Assad’s government and not, as it might appear, his most dangerous foe.
“The ISIS base in Raqqa was not bombed once,” she recalled, adding that activists used to head there when firing began. “It was the only place where the regime wouldn’t shell us.”
In a vivid description of the war-torn city, she said she was living in the only remaining civilian neighbourhood in Aleppo. People had become so used to the “barrel bombs” dropped by the regime that they now simply tried to go into an inner room to avoid shrapnel if they heard helicopters flying above.
But the crude weapons still exact an awful toll. Z.E. said that last month, one scored a direct hit on a building whose basement had been turned into a school, killing 25 people.
Despite the huge dangers, she said, “There are still people surviving here. I am even invited to four weddings. Life goes on, in an awkward way.”
Describing her work to empower women, including running writing workshops and supporting training programmes, Z.E. said, “As a woman it’s easier for me to work with women under ISIS, even if I have to wear black and cover up.… Working with women is still valid whatever the situation.”
Looking into the future, she spoke of the need to document the contribution made by women.
“The history of this war is going to be written by men, and these women are going to be forgotten if we don’t write about them,” she said.
Guests at the briefing event welcomed the opportunity to get unique insights from actors on the ground.
“It was very good to have first-hand witnesses from Baghdad and Aleppo,” veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn said afterwards. “Aleppo, in particular, is a city on which it not easy to get up-to-the-minute eyewitness accounts of the situation such as we received.”
Daniella Peled is IWPR Editor in London.
ISIS Likely To Attack Baghdad before End of Ramadan
By Laura Kokotailo
22 July, 2014
Baghdad is under a real and impending threat from forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and it would be wise to expect an assault on the capital city before the end of Ramadan, said Jessica Lewis, a former American military intelligence officer with several years of service in Iraq. She also predicted the continued aggression of ISIS both within Iraq and externally, arguing that ISIS poses a real threat to Jordan, Lebanon and other states in the region and is not limited to Iraq and Syria.
ISIS has been on the offensive since its takeover of Mosul on June 10th, claiming a number of other cities such as Tikrit since then. The US has countered these offensive gestures by sending 700 military advisers, several Apache attack helicopters, and drones to Iraq. The Iraqi army has recently embarked on a counter-offensive in Tikrit and Samarra.
With regard to Baghdad, Lewis said, “I think ISIS is going to go for bases. There are 3 bases that I think are vulnerable…On the northern side of Baghdad we have Balad and Taji, on the immediate southwest of Baghdad we have the international airport.” The US has thus far used the Baghdad Airport as a main lifeline to supply the Iraqi government with military equipment.
Lewis added that she expected ISIS to target places that “represent the seat of government in Baghdad”, especially the Green Zone.
A substantial ISIS force is “in reserve” near Baghdad, said Lewis, and it has not yet seen combat. The presence of this force signals that the terrorist group has plans to attack the capital that have not yet taken place. Thus, we have not yet seen the culmination of ISIS’s offensive.
Moreover, ISIS is no longer just another terrorist group. It is now more accurate to think of it as an army. “This organization is capable of guerrilla style warfare and conventional warfare. Having that range means that they can prosecute hybridized warfare,” Lewis argued at an event focused on the threat of ISIS, organized by the Institute for the Study of War in Washington last Friday.
ISIS’s versatility makes it seem invincible and it will be difficult to develop a coherent counterstrategy against the group. However, Lewis said that the US could begin to think about what to do in order to prevent further expansion by paying attention to vulnerabilities within the organization. These include a potential for leadership cleavages and a need for internal and external lines of communication.
Lt. Gen. James Dubik, Senior Fellow at ISW, speaking at the same event, addressed what the US can do to implement a counterstrategy. He advocated for further US assistance to the weakened Iraqi security forces, as well as the establishment of new partnerships in Iraq with Sunni tribes and the Kurdish Peshmerga army.
He presented his strategy in four parts: “The first is to assist the Iraqi special operations forces, which are pretty capable still, in conducting direct action raids against ISIS networks, facilities and personnel. Second, our objective should be assisting Iraqi security forces, primarily Iraqi army and federal police, in planning and executing counter-offensives to re-establish the Iraqi border. Third, we must protect and sustain US personnel. Last, we should support Iraqis who are resisting and want to resist ISIS control.”
A balanced approach in which the US supports all factions in Iraq is the best way to not only defeat ISIS, but also ensure long-term stability in Iraq, avoiding further sectarian conflict, said Dubik. He not only expressed his support for providing assistance to Sunni tribal leaders, but also insisted that a strategy in Iraq would be incomplete if it did not assist the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, acknowledging their strength and regional influence.
Ultimately, the biggest interests of the US at stake at the moment are: to stop ISIS from solidifying, to prevent Iraq from becoming a “client state of Iran”, and to help Iraq create a more stable political system, said Dubik. “This effort has to be within the context of a determined diplomatic engagement.”
Syrian Rebels Say ISIS on the Run around Damascus
By Nazeer Rida
22 Jul, 2014
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are coming under increasing pressure from other Syrian rebel groups in areas around the Syrian capital, according to opposition activists.
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman, told Asharq Al-Awsat on Monday that fighters from other Syrian rebel groups had recently expelled ISIS from the Ghouta, a belt of agricultural land around the eastern half of Damascus.
He said that ISIS fighters had “retreated to the districts of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, Tadamon and Qadam, south of Damascus,” and that battles had broken out between ISIS and other rebels in those towns, where they have “a strong presence,” on Sunday.
“The opposition fighters want to end ISIS’s presence in the areas surrounding Damascus,” said Abdulrahman.
Ismail Al-Darani, a member of the Syrian opposition’s Revolutionary Command Council in the Rif Dimashq governorate, also told Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS had suffered severe setbacks around the capital, and said that fighters from ISIS were now under siege in the areas of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, Yalda and Babila.
He said the remnants of the organization are now present in just a few areas in southern Damascus, including Tadamon, after they were driven out of eastern half of Ghouta, a belt of agricultural land around the capital.
“The opposition fighters are pursuing them in all areas here,” Darani said.
The battle to expel ISIS fighters from large swaths of land in Ghouta began three weeks ago, after they had been “accused of executing car bomb explosions, including one in Douma,” an opposition source told Asharq Al-Awsat in reference to a number of bombings that have struck the rebel-held suburb in recent weeks.
The opposition rebels “are now devoted to fighting the regime at the entrances of Ghouta from the south,” the source said, adding that clashes had taken place in the Al-Melaiha area.
Meanwhile, Syrian activists said that opposition forces recently repelled an attack launched by the regime forces on the eastern outskirts of the Jobar district, a north-eastern suburb of Damascus, which they said remained under the control of the opposition.
While ISIS has continued to consolidate its control over parts of Iraq and eastern Syria, particularly in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, reports say it is facing increasing pressure in western Syrian from government forces as well as other rebels.
Prior to the recent battles around Damascus, the organization, together with other rebel groups, suffered a major defeat at the hands of government forces in the Qalamoun mountains, along the Lebanese border, in a months-long government offensive which ended in April.
ISIS fighters then moved to Ghouta, where some remnants of the organization were able to regroup for three months, before the battle for their expulsion began.
Jabhat Al-Nusra Reveals Its True Nature
By Abdallah Suleiman Ali
July 23, 2014
The true face of Jabhat al-Nusra has been revealed after it failed to conceal its true motives. This was due to pressure on the ground, which has put its existence at stake following a major loss in Syria’s eastern region.
The movement has made considerable efforts to compensate for the loss, even if the price was to drop its mask and show its real face — a face that is similar, to a large extent, to its archenemy the Islamic State (IS).
Reports suggest that Jabhat al-Nusra’s new policy of fighting other factions under the pretext that they are Mufsideen [evildoers] is similar to the general approach of al-Qaeda International. This has been applied in many countries depending on the developments on the field.
In the framework of a policy of confrontation, Jabhat al-Nusra continues its fight against other factions in the countryside of Idlib. In this context, yesterday [July 22] the group seized control of the city of Haram on the border with Turkey. The city serves as an important strategic location and as a border crossing to smuggle oil, among other products, following short and mild clashes with factions affiliated with the Syria Revolutionaries Front, which led to their withdrawal.
Jabhat al-Nusra also controls the towns of Salqin and Azmarin and had previously seized the areas of Hafsarjah and al-Zanbaqa, among other regions, in the western countryside.
Two weeks ago, the group started what it called a "campaign to cleanse the north of bandits and thieves"’ referring to the Free Army factions and those close to the National Coalition, which the movement sees as a collaborator with the United States.
However, the actual goal behind the campaign in the north is to fulfill Jabhat al-Nusra's search for funding to compensate for the loss of the oil fields in Deir ez-Zor.
Controlling the border crossings is seen as a relatively acceptable alternative because this would allow the group to control the entry of arms shipments and other products. This is not to mention the group’s desire to entrench its presence and control a separate area where it can apply Sharia, according to its vision, as claimed by its leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani.
Yet, the Ahrar al-Sham movement, surprisingly, did not show any objection to the statement of Golani regarding the establishment of an Islamic emirate. On the contrary, the group has been participating in Jabhat al-Nusra's military operations in the countryside of Idlib, with the support of other factions such as the Sham Legion and al-Safwa Brigade. This could suggest that Ahrar al-Sham has made up its mind to follow in the footsteps of Jabhat al-Nusra. However, the Army of Islam, which is the most prominent partner of Ahrar al-Sham in the Islamic Front, did not hide its doubts regarding the [proclamation of the emirate] by Jabhat al-Nusra and required them to provide further clarification to this effect.
It is expected that this new policy is likely to cause major confrontation between Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and their allies, on the one hand, and between other large factions on the other — mainly the Syria Revolutionaries Front and the Hazzm Movement. These confrontations are likely to take place along the lines of the clashes in the eastern region, as the same scenario could play out once again.
The explosion of the vehicle transporting leaders from the Hazzm Movement, on July 21 in the western countryside of Aleppo, killing three of them, has been seen as a prelude to these confrontations.
It seems that Jabhat al-Nusra's policy to fight "Mufsideen" is more than an analogy to the tactics of IS, as there are reports suggesting that this policy has been applied upon the directives of al-Qaeda International leaders.
In this context, it seems remarkable that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has announced a similar move in a statement, which read, “Warning the Mufsideen in the state of Hadhramaut,” in Yemen. This raises questions as to the position of al-Qaeda on the proclamation of the caliphate by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the moves he is planning on taking in this regard.
It seems that al-Qaeda is likely to take similar steps by establishing emirates in the regions under its control, which would reduce the margin of difference between al-Qaeda and IS, while for the past three years al-Qaeda has been trying to appear more moderate and less extremist than IS.
Are ISIS And ISIL Based On Religion Or Ideology?
By Laina Farhat-Holzman
When we hear the word ISIS, we usually think of the great Egyptian goddess of antiquity. Today's ISIS is not a goddess, but a resentful Islamic military cult that has no clue of what it wants, only what it doesn't. It does not want Western civilization, except for its weapons and medicines for their warriors and elderly leaders. Its only policies involve slaughter, amputating the limbs of thieves, and total enslavement of women. They love public whipping and executions, which their PR people consider promotions.
ISIS stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Islamic it is, despite all the protestations of the politically correct who do not want to tar Islam with such an offspring. But it is indeed Islam's baby. ISIL is a cousin cult, one with a more grandiose ideology — that they can become an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, their colorful way of saying that they have designs on the entire Levant, which would include Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and (most imaginatively) Israel.
Both are the violent spawn of the already violent, but much reduced, Al Qaeda, the Islamist cult that carried out the attacks on the United States, UK and Spain. There are alarming reports that these poisonous cults are spreading like cancers in Africa, with comparable growth in Pakistan, Afghanistan and even Indonesia. These are all part of the Al Qaeda franchise, with wannabes even in the United States and Canada. Do they have a future?
There is an old Greek saying that "Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad." Clearly, these franchises are like a fever that is on the threshold of crisis and self-destruction. These groups look more dangerous than they are because they lack the most important elements of ideological cults: reality. Like most cults, they have a very illusory vision of the brave new world that they think they will create.
It is much easier for cults to destroy than to create, which ultimately destroys them. Anarchists, the oldest of political cults, have always dimly imagined a brave new world, but considered their most important work the destruction of the existing order first. Their visions of the future are extremely thin.
The Nazis, for example, imagined a world run by themselves, enslaving the "inferior races" to serve them, and slaughtering various groups whose talents either challenged them (Jews) or people who did not conform to Nazi notions of superiority (defective, old and feeble). They imagined a thousand-year reign, and were short only by 988 years.
The Soviets, who also began as destroyers of the old order, had a vague vision of a perfect world in which government would melt away and people would wisely rule themselves. However, they found it necessary to step in with their superior wisdom and wisely rule the "people" with no end in sight. Their great vision of a Soviet world also fell apart, lasting only about 60 years.
Pol Pot's Cambodian fantasy was that his brave new world could only begin if he slaughtered the one-third of the population that was middle class. Peasants were his imagined good citizens. That cult collapsed after less than a decade.
What is the ideology of Western civilization, our own global culture? It appears to be one of certain guaranteed rights: participatory government, free press, private property, religious freedom (within the scope of mutual tolerance), and acceptance of gender equality under the law. Of course none of these values is being practiced perfectly, but they have had an enormous influence on a world in which life is better today than it would have been otherwise.
More people have been lifted from poverty thanks to this civilization and more people have autonomy to pursue happiness than any of these above cults have ever managed to provide.
Islam once created a respectable civilization before it closed its doors a millennium ago on thought, self-correction and a reformation in which religion loses its upper hand in dictating culture. Islam will reform or burn out, just as Islam's ugly spawn, ISIS and ISIL will.
Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of "God's Law or Man's Law"
Why Islamic State is no al-Qaeda Clone
By Mushreq Abbas
July 23, 2014
With the public appearance in Mosul of Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his self-proclamation as caliph of all Muslims, Baghdadi has declared a war on everyone inside and outside Iraq. The way Baghdadi’s organization controlled Mosul and other cities reveal that the occupation of these cities was no accident, and that the preparations to take over the land and establish a state go years back.
Thus, the main message that can be deduced is that the appearance of Baghdadi came after he had proclaimed himself as the caliph of all Muslims. This title entails many deep religious considerations, as the caliph in many stripes of the Islamic religion combines two powers, one temporal (spiritual) and the other spatial (political). The caliph ought to be followed, even if the various Islamic groups have different standards as to his caliphate.
In the context of the Sunni-Shiite difference regarding the standards of the caliphate, one main point ought to be highlighted, which is the issue of descent, meaning the holy lineage that can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad. The differences between Islamic groups on this issue are relative and not essential.
In the same vein, the Islamic State in Iraq was declared in 2006 under the leadership of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The organization was keen on meeting as much as possible the specifications of a caliphate model that are common between the different Islamic factions. Although the organization back then did not officially proclaim the caliphate, it introduced its emir as being “Abu Omar al-Husseini al-Hashimi al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi.”
Every single title or description of the emir is a reference to his descent, paving the way for the caliphate project, knowing that al-Qaeda with all its branches as well as the Taliban did not pay much attention to the lineage of the emir. However, the particular interest of the Islamic State (IS) to this detail can be explained in light of the specific societal fabric of Iraq, as the organization was trying to absorb all Iraqi sects and their different backgrounds. This also shows that the caliphate project is not new, as the Islamic State of Iraq had started discussing it since its establishment in 2006.
In this context, one can say that the caliphate's announcement by Baghdadi represented a complete rupture from the traditional al-Qaeda organization led by Ayman al-Zawahri. The ideologies upon which both organizations are based can only bear, even on the religious level, one leader who combines religious and political qualities.
The other indication that was signalled by Baghdadi's latest appearance — knowing that he was still referred to with the same descent titles of his predecessor — was the black turban he donned. This is another message that has many implications, as the black turban was donned by the last Abbasid caliph, and is also worn by senior Shiite clerics who are descendants of the prophet. However, it should be noted that the Ottomans who controlled most of the lands of the ancient Islamic state, had raised the banner of the caliphate and obtained some religious Fatwas as to this regard. Yet, they were not accepted by Sunni and Shiite clerics given the issue of the “descent,” which is why they did not don the black turban.
Baghdadi tried, through his speech, to make himself appear as an inspiring preacher, rather than a warrior. He wanted to stress that the announcement of the caliphate was not a sudden step for his organization and that he was destined to take up the platform in Mosul.
The way Baghdadi has been managing Mosul after its invasion on June 9 reveals that the preparation to take over the city had been ongoing for months, and even years.
This is not to mention the way IS was dealing with the region's residents, striking alliances with Baathist groups and tribal factions. Some former Baathist figures have been appointed also to managing posts in the city. The invasion of Mosul and most of the other Sunni cities entails economic and managerial plans, including the provision of fuel, food supplies, distribution of land and the search for funding resources from oil wells — the newly exploited and operating ones and those that remain under geologic studies.
Over the past two months, IS has refrained from completely entering the Beiji refinery, although the Iraqi military presence there is limited and is no different in substance from any other force the organization has fought before.
The truth is that IS is dealing with the strategic Beiji refinery and other oil and industrial facilities in the areas under its control as being its property, and part of its future system that needs to be funded. It seems that the organization is trying to control all these facilities without causing any damages that could obstruct their use in the future.
This is exactly the opposite approach of the organization’s traditional strategy, which was based on targeting the pillars of the state, destroying its infrastructure and oil pipelines.
The British newspaper Daily Mail revealed information confirming that IS is making around $1 million daily by selling Iraqi oil, while other data indicates that the organization is selling 150,000 barrels per day from Syrian oil fields.
IS is considered the richest armed organization in the world, and it has also taken over around $425 million from Iraqi banks in Mosul. All these funds are used to restructure IS from within. It thus started to act as a state, using the expertise of the former state figures who had ruled under the previous regime — including technicians, administrators and military men — while importing experts from abroad to highlight its new state and make it appear different than expected.
The threat of Baghdadi’s organization lies in its ability to plan in the long run, and invest all available means to implement its plans. The organization might change its rules and start dealing with secularists or nationalists, or even those who are in direct opposition with its ideology, thus adapting to all situations to achieve the higher goal of taking hold of the land.
Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side: In a Syrian City, ISIS Puts Its Vision into Practice
By An Employee of the New York Times and Ben Hubbard
July 23, 2014
When his factory was bombed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the businessman considered two bleak options: remain at home and risk dying in the next airstrike, or flee like hundreds of thousands of others to a refugee camp in Turkey.
Instead, he took his remaining cash east and moved to a neighbouring city, Raqqa, the de facto capital of the world’s fastest growing jihadist force. There he found a degree of order and security absent in other parts of Syria.
“The fighting in Syria will continue, so we have to live our lives,” said the businessman, who gave only a first name, Qadri, as he oversaw a dozen workers in his new children’s clothing factory in Raqqa.
Long before extremists rolled through Iraq and seized a large piece of territory, the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took over most of Raqqa Province, home to about a million people, and established a headquarters in its capital. Through strategic management and brute force, the group, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State, has begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.
In time, it has won the surprising respect of some war-weary citizens, like Qadri, who will accept any authority that can restore a semblance of normal life. Rebel-held areas of Aleppo, by comparison, remain racked with food shortages and crime. But there is a darker side to Islamic rule, with public executions and strict social codes that have left many in this once-tolerant community deeply worried about the future.
In the city of Raqqa, traffic police officers keep intersections clear, crime is rare, and tax collectors issue receipts. But statues like the landmark lions in Al Rasheed Park have been destroyed because they were considered blasphemous. Public spaces like Al Amasy Square, where young men and women once hung out and flirted in the evenings, have been walled off with heavy metal fences topped with the black flags of ISIS. People accused of stealing have lost their hands in public amputations.
“What I see in Raqqa proves that the Islamic State has a clear vision to establish a state in the real meaning of the word,” said a retired teacher in the city of Raqqa. “It is not a joke.”
How ISIS rules in Raqqa offers insight into what it is trying to do as it moves to consolidate its grip in territories spanning the Syrian-Iraqi border. An employee of The New York Times recently spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified to protect them from retaliation by the extremists who have hunted down and killed those perceived as opposing their project.
To those entering Raqqa, ISIS makes clear, immediately, who is in charge.
At the southern entrance to the city, visitors were once greeted by a towering mosaic of President Bashar al-Assad and Haroun al-Rasheed, the caliph who ruled the Islamic world from Raqqa in the ninth century. Now there is a towering black billboard that pays homage to ISIS and to the so-called martyrs who died fighting for its cause.
Raqqa’s City Hall houses the Islamic Services Commission. The former office of the Finance Ministry contains the Shariah court and the criminal police. The traffic police are based in the First Shariah High School. Raqqa’s Credit Bank is now the tax authority, where employees collect $20 every two months from shop owners for electricity, water and security. Many said that they had received official receipts stamped with the ISIS logo and that the fees were less than they used to pay in bribes to Mr. Assad’s government.
“I feel like I am dealing with a respected state, not thugs,” said a Raqqa goldsmith in his small shop as a woman shopped for gold pieces with cash sent from abroad by her husband.
Raqqa is a test case for ISIS, which imposed itself as the ultimate authority in this city on the Euphrates River early this year. The group has already proved its military prowess, routing other militias in Syria as well as the Iraqi military. But it is here in this agricultural hub that it has had the most time to turn its ideology into reality, a project that appears unlikely to end soon given the lack of a military force able to displace it.
An aid worker who travels to Raqqa said the ranks of ISIS were filled with volatile young men, many of them foreigners more interested in violence than governance. To keep things running, it has paid or threatened skilled workers to remain in their posts while putting loyalist supervisors over them to ensure compliance with Islamic rules.
“They can’t fire all the staff and bring new people to run a hospital, so they change the manager to someone who will enforce their rules and regulations,” the aid worker said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to endanger his work.
Raqqa’s three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have all been shuttered. After capturing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, ISIS removed its crosses, hung black flags from its facade and converted it into an Islamic center that screens videos of battles and suicide operations to recruit new fighters.
The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month. When ISIS’s religious police officers patrol to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers, the Christians must obey, too.
The religious police have banned public smoking of cigarettes and water pipes — a move that has dampened the city’s social life, forcing cafes to close. They also make sure that women cover their hair and faces in public.
A university professor from Raqqa said ISIS gunmen recently stopped a bus heading to Damascus when they found one woman on board insufficiently covered. They held the bus up for an hour and a half until she went home and changed, the professor said.
More pragmatically, ISIS has managed to keep food in markets, and bakeries and gas stations functioning. But it has had more trouble with drinking water and electricity, which is out for as much as 20 hours a day.
Perhaps realizing that the young extremists most attracted to its sectarian violence lack professional skills, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, asked in a recent audio address for doctors and engineers to travel to places like Raqqa to help build his newly declared Islamic State. “Their migration is an obligation so that they can answer the dire need of the Muslims,” Mr. Baghdadi said.
Hints of this international mobilization are already apparent in Raqqa, where gunmen at checkpoints are often Saudi, Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan. Raqqa’s emir of electricity is Sudanese, and one hospital is run by a Jordanian who reports to an Egyptian boss, according to Syrians who work under them.
After ISIS’s advance into Iraq last month, the Jordanian went to Mosul to help organize a hospital there before returning to Raqqa.
“He talked with an eager shine in his eyes, saying that the caliphate of the Islamic State that began in Raqqa would spread over the whole region,” one of his employees said.
An employee of The New York Times reported from Raqqa, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. Hwaida Saad and Mohammad Ghannam contributed reporting from Beirut.
Saudi Poll to Reveal Public’s Level of Sympathy for IS
By Abdullah Al-Duhailan, Rahma Thiab and Shaden Al-Hayek
July 22, 2014
The Sakina Campaign plans to carry out a scientific survey to determine the position of the Saudi public on the "caliphate" announced by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. This comes after the results of an opinion poll of Saudis were released on social networking sites, claiming that 92% of the target group believes that "IS conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law." Observers believe that in the current period, it is most important to "focus on the roots of extremism and to address and fight it."
Meanwhile, Saudi families refused to hold mourning gatherings for their sons who were killed in troubled places outside of the kingdom. The "confusion" that was sparked by IS' recent expansion saw the proliferation of websites selling shirts carrying slogans that called for jihad and glorified IS. Advisory Committee member Sheikh Abdullah al-Suwailem refused to classify those affiliated with terrorist groups as "criminals," claiming that pressure had led them to join these groups in the absence of guidance.
Some of the families of those killed fighting outside of Saudi Arabia expressed their "joy," refusing to show grief over the deaths of their sons. Preachers and sheikhs considered this ideology "the reason for terrorism," saying, "It harms the reputation of the Islamic religion." They stressed that those who go to these places of conflict are in violation of the religious authority, which must be followed. They therefore concluded that their deaths are not a form of martyrdom, as their families think. The families are overcome with emotion and distribute sweets and refuse to mourn, show sadness or cry, considering those killed to be martyrs.
Abdul Moneim al-Mushawwah, the director of the Sakina Campaign, which operates under the supervision of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Da'wah and Guidance in Saudi Arabia, told Al-Hayat: "In the coming period, the campaign plans to work on a manual survey, through which we can determine the extent to which the Saudi public sympathizes with what happened recently in Iraq, namely the declaration of the caliphate." He added: "This survey will target a specific segment in a particular time period, ranging between one and two months. It will be supervised by an academic to meet the required conditions."
In a related context, Sheikh Abdullah al-Suwailem, another Advisory Committee member, refused to classify those affiliated with terrorist groups such as IS and Jahbat al-Nusra as criminals. Suwailem told Al-Hayat: "The youth are languishing under various pressures, including some that are legitimate and brave. And excess and pressure are realities experienced by the youth, with little direction." He added: "We do not classify the youth affiliated with these groups as criminals. If we do this, we prejudice them and make them our adversaries."
"We must confront arguments with arguments, evidence with evidence. [We should] provide our youth with correct guidance, not criminalize them, so as to not further inflame the issue," he noted.
On the other hand, shirts with phrases calling for jihad and photos glorifying IS and extremist currents and calling for fighting were promoted on Internet sites and on the social media pages of terrorist organizations. The spokesman for Saudi customs, Issa al-Issa, said: "The importation of clothing requires a commercial registration that lists the activity of clothing trade. As for controls on clothing imports, [any imports] must conform to adopted standards. The customs authority takes a sample and sends it to registered laboratories to report on the extent to which it complies with specifications. Another stipulation is that [the clothing] does not have inappropriate phrases or images that contradict Islamic law."
Will The Young Britons Fighting In Syria Be Allowed To Return Home And Resume Their Lives?
By Boyd Tonkin
23 July 2014
Whenever the BBC needs a standby to fill a gap in its early-evening schedules, it turns to Dad's Army. David Croft and Jimmy Perry's much-loved Second World War sitcom has over the decades tickled audiences a lot younger than those who saw the nine series on their first outings between 1968 and 1977.
The Home Guard volunteers of Walmington-on-Sea have become national treasures, with the show's quirky comedy of character deepened by our knowledge that the real-life equivalents of these bumbling oldies did once stand in the front line of defence against Fascism.
The Home Guard, or Local Defence Volunteers, given official status on 17 May 1940 and stood down on 31 December 1945, had a remarkable birth. As fears of a German invasion grew in 1940, the force's architect had to fight his own campaign against the scorn and suspicion of military top brass and cautious politicians. But his idea for decentralised self-defence militias caught on fast. By July 1940, it had attracted 1.5 million volunteers. Not only did the Home Guard stiffen morale at a time when Britain had no European allies against Hitler; its members took an active part in conflict by manning anti-aircraft batteries and downing many Luftwaffe planes.
Tom Wintringham, the strategist who had agitated for a Home Guard since 1938, outraged the Colonel Blimps with his polemic How to Reform the Army. He kick-started support for "people's militias" when he opened a training school in guerrilla warfare at Osterley. The authorities tried (and failed) to shut down this nest of "Marxist hooligans", but its principles had already taken root. Wintringham never secured a regular army commission. In 1942, he founded the left-of-Labour Common Wealth Party. But what would have happened today to this oddball soldier who inspired our beloved home-front warriors? As a former "foreign fighter" in an overseas conflict, he could have been subject to a sentence of imprisonment for life.
Then a member of the Communist Party, Wintringham had commanded the British Battalion of the International Brigades at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. At "Suicide Hill", through an extraordinary combination of pluck and luck, the British volunteers played a bloodily decisive role in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. They were instrumental in holding back Franco's rebel forces in their advance on Madrid and so helped to safeguard the capital for the Republican government. Although Madrid would fall in 1939, Jarama arguably counts as the most significant armed rebuff for international Fascism until the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942. The human cost proved enormous. In Unlikely Warriors, his definitive account of British and Irish fighters in the Spanish Civil War, Richard Baxell calculates that "of the 630 men who had gone into action on 12 February, only 80 were left unscathed when the battle ended".
Heroes? Not, since 2006, according to British law. Some 2,300 British volunteers fought against Franco in Spain; more than 500 were killed. Although history tends to remember the writers and intellectuals – George Orwell and John Cornford; Ralph Fox and Laurie Lee – most were working-class trade unionists in their late twenties, with 200 Welsh miners among them. In 1996, the government of Spain paid the ultimate tribute to their contribution by proposing an offer of citizenship to every surviving member of the International Brigades.
A decade after that, and just before the grant of citizenship to every veteran entered Spanish law, Tony Blair's third administration passed the Terrorism Act 2006. Section Five, as presently interpreted by the Crown Prosecution Service, makes it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive". The legislation appears to forbid all training or action in a foreign combat. If so, its provisions would have criminalised every Briton who fought in Spain. It would have turned Lord Byron, whose commitment to Greek independence led him to arm and lead a raggle-taggle regiment prior to his death at Missolonghi in 1824, into an outlaw. As for the 6,500 veterans of Wellington's armies who went off after Waterloo to fight against Spanish colonial rule in the battles that led to freedom for Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, how could the courts have processed such a lawless throng?
The 2006 legislation currently targets UK citizens deemed to have fought with Syrian rebel groups. Estimates of their number vary wildly but a figure of around 400-500 has gained currency. At least eight have died. The fear of radicalisation, with any link to al-Qa'ida-allied units and above all to Isis treated as a communicable virus, has propelled the hard legal line. In January, 16 Britons were arrested after returning from Syria. Further arrests have followed since.
"Potentially it's an offence to go out and get involved in a conflict, however loathsome you think the people on the other side are," affirms Sue Hemming, the head of counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service (London Evening Standard, 3 February 2014). "Our Government chooses to have legislation which prevents people from joining in whichever conflicts they have views about. We will apply the law robustly." In May, Mashud ur Choudhury of Portsmouth duly became the first Briton to be convicted of "engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts" in Syria.
No sane observer will whitewash the motives and methods of the al-Nusra front or the newly rebranded "Islamic State". If, until mid-2014, some foreign recruits could dupe themselves into thinking that Isis stood for a dogmatic but authentic war for faith against Bashar al-Assad's dictatorship, then the surge into northern Iraq which began on 5 June has blown that façade clean away. Everywhere from Mosul to Tikrit and the gates of Baghdad, the forces of the "Islamic State" have massacred Muslims, prisoners and civilians alike. Now they threaten genocide to Christians. Yet this sectarian mass slaughter may make it more vital than ever to clear a path back to normality for the drifters, dreamers, malcontents and bedroom zealots once attracted by the Isis cult. The risk of an indiscriminate criminal stigma might give the doubters and waverers a reason to stick with the fanatics.
Here, the Spanish Civil War precedent may prove far from trivial. Most International Brigadiers espoused noble ideals. Yet they hardly served a noble organisation. The Brigades' incorporation into the Comintern and Soviet foreign-policy aims compromised its democratic credentials. Some dissidents – such as George Orwell – detested this assimilation into a Stalinist International. Homage to Catalonia records his disillusioned anger with the takeover. Orwell chose to fight with Poum, the autonomous revolutionary militia treated as an unruly Trotskyist splinter by the Brigades' leadership.
Objectively, British and other volunteers may have served the interests of Soviet policy at a time of political persecution in Moscow and Madrid. Subjectively, save for an atypical handful of ideologues, they took up arms for liberty and in solidarity with a threatened people. Their trajectory – fully documented in memoirs, interviews, films and histories – could still guide official reactions to the young British men who have again journeyed overseas to fight.
The Spanish parallel proves instructive on another level too. The Brigaders hardly came back to a heroes' welcome. Wintringham's frustration, as the Colonel Blimps kept him out of the Army in spite of his proven gifts of leadership, was commonplace. Before and after the outbreak of war in September 1939, recruiters were told to treat evidence of service in Spain as a marker of potential disloyalty.
In 1939, the Communist connection alarmed the authorities as much as an Isis affiliation now. These fears were mostly misplaced. Exposure to the Comintern power-grab in Spain, followed by fury at the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, had loosened the ties of many fighters to the party. Bitter experience turned them against would-be controllers. Could the killing fields of Iraq serve as the same kind of wake-up call for wannabe jihadis as the Moscow purges of the late 1930s? If so, this is no time for the state to block any exit route from barbarism.
Given Britain's plight in 1940, the blanket ban on Spanish veterans could not last. Some won commissions and many more served in the ranks. Bill Alexander, the final commander of the British Battalion, passed out first in his year at Sandhurst in 1942 before becoming a tank captain. Routine suspicion and discrimination did persist. When he learnt about battle-hardened ex-comrades from Spain wasted on backroom tasks, Wintringham scathingly wrote that "I sometimes wonder if the powers that run this country are determined to lose this war in their own way and without interference". But no one sought to exclude the veterans from society as proven "terrorists".
Young people volunteer for foreign combat for a variety of reasons. Heartfelt belief in the justice of a cause fires many, as does solidarity with those of a similar background or outlook. For others, a simple itch for adventure or boredom with life at home will supply the push. From Wellington's grizzled veterans in the Andes through to the last-ditch defenders at Jarama, British history gives us ample opportunities to understand the urge to go abroad to fight.
Yet today's security-led prism and its "radicalisation" model, with the automatic penalties in place for any returnee, appears blind to every nuance. One British volunteer in Syria tweeted a poster that read "Keep Calm, Support Isis": a spoof of the already much-parodied Second World War campaign to beef up morale. What are the chances that the kid who wrote that poster had watched Dad's Army? Pretty high. If so, he will be many things apart from a bloodthirsty future avenger dedicated to importing holy mayhem on to British streets.
The long-term significance of an overseas adventure for anyone may not be apparent to them, or to others, at the time. But every present or past volunteer in Syria now knows they bear an invisible brand marked "potential murderer", stamped by the agencies of surveillance. In a BBC radio analysis, one British fighter thought it a "slightly surreal" notion to "go back to the UK and start a jihad there". For him, at least: "As to the global jihad, I couldn't tell you if I'm going to be alive tomorrow, let alone future plans."
Just because you hear someone rashly cry "wolf" does not mean that wolves do not exist. Over the past six weeks, Isis in Iraq has shown to the world a savagery almost beyond belief. Its bloody stunts may have emboldened a few would-be butchers. They will have deterred many secret faint-hearts, already in too deep. However, if the near-certainty of UK criminal sanctions closes down your road to reintegration, why not rise to the fanatics' bait? What have you then got to lose?
Not many saints travelled from Britain to the Spanish Civil War – but not many thugs did, either. In both Spain and Syria, idealism, escapism and sheer youthful bravado will have been pretty evenly mixed. After such an episode, you would expect young men to develop in many ways. The Spanish volunteers did. One veteran of the International Brigades became a champion of neo-liberal economics and a mentor to Margaret Thatcher: Sir Alfred Sherman. Another would become Britain's most prominent mainstream trade-union leader: Jack Jones. A third quit all politics to flourish as a character actor: James Robertson Justice. It is hard to imagine a better way to kill off such varied careers than by marking every foolhardy youth, whatever their motives, with a lifelong criminal brand.
"The mountains look on Marathon," rhymed Lord Byron before he took up arms, "And Marathon looks on the sea; / And musing there an hour alone, / I dream'd that Greece might still be free;/ For standing on the Persians' grave, / I could not deem myself a slave." Not a slave, My Lord – but, under Section Five, most probably a terrorist. Just like the "foreign fighter" who dreamt up Dad's Army.
A version of this article appears in 'Critical Muslim 11: Syria', edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab, published by the Muslim Institute and Hurst Publishers (criticalmuslim.com)
Congress Split on Keeping Iraq Together
By Julian Pecquet
July 23, 2014
Lawmakers of both parties urged the Barack Obama administration to rethink its support for a united Iraq during a July 23 hearing on the threat posed by Islamist militants.
The rapid gains by the Islamic State group (IS) have rekindled calls for a reassessment of US policy in the country. Pro-Kurdish lawmakers say the time is ripe to back the Kurds' calls for greater autonomy and even independence, pointing to the Peshmerga militia's ability to keep militants at bay while the dispirited national army cut and ran.
"Maybe we have to give up on the idea, after 12 years of trying, of a strong, central, functional government that holds sway over the whole country based in Baghdad," Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said at the House Foreign Affairs hearing.
Ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said the administration was holding the Kurds "hostage" by continuing to back a strong central government that's plagued by political paralysis.
"I just don't feel that it's fair to hold the Kurds hostage, because we've, unfortunately, screwed up things in Iraq, and everything is falling to pieces," Engel said during the hearing. "We're essentially saying to the Kurds, 'You know what, you have to be the glue that keeps Iraq together, and therefore we're going to deny you your aspirations.' I'm not quite sure that's fair."
Several Republicans shared similar sentiments.
"Let me say that as far as I am concerned, the United States should not be having to … limit what solutions we can possibly have based on what the British Empire determined 100 years ago," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. "So with that said, I would hope that we would be open to situations like having an actual Kurdistan exist."
And Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., declared himself a "strong, strong supporter of Kurdistan."
"The point has been made that not one person, military person, was killed in Kurdistan," Cook said.
The calls echo a 2006 New York Times op-ed by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and foreign affairs expert Leslie Gelb advocating for partitioning the country into three "largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad." Under the proposal, the Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each have been responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security, with the central government handling border defence, foreign affairs and oil revenues.
Congressional leaders, however, remain unconvinced.
Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said the current crisis is fuelled by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian rule. With a unity government in charge instead, he said, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds could yet come together behind a Baghdad-based government.
"Everybody's making this case today because of frustration with Prime Minister Maliki," Royce told Al-Monitor. "But what's driving it within Iraq and internationally — what's driving the discussion of what's next — is the fact that he won't stand down. And this has created a crisis."
Witnesses for the State and Defense departments also made it clear the Obama administration still doesn't embrace Kurdish independence.
"Think about what that means in that neighborhood and territory that they're left in if you don't have a strong, capable government in Baghdad that's able to blunt those [IS] threats," testified Elissa Slotkin, who is acting principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
"They've got Syria, they've got the situation on their southern border right there. They've got Iran on the other side. That is a tough neighborhood," she said. "So, from a security point of view, the single best blunt, frankly, to both [IS] and to a strong, dominant Iranian influence in Iraq is a strong, capable federal government based in Baghdad."
Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, said the United States would be abandoning the Iraqis who voted in recent legislative elections if the government turns its back on a unified Iraq.
"Iraq just had an election; 14 million Iraqis turned out to vote, almost a 62% turnout, a higher turnout than most elections all around the world," McGurk testified. "That showed the democratic aspirations of the Iraqi people. We can't let them down."
Connolly said the administration's testimony amounted to an aspiration, not a policy. He said growing Turkish support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan should be an "important factor" in any reassessment of US policy. And he said that the US policy of opposing direct Kurdish oil sales to foreign clients without passing through Baghdad should also be reviewed.
"That flows from the precept that we favour a strong, central, functional government in Baghdad," Connolly said. "If, in a reassessment you realize, noble though that is, that's not achievable anymore, then I think you need to reassess that, too."
Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Lukeman Faily, attended the hearing. He told Al-Monitor in a brief hallway interview after the hearing that McGurk was doing a "great job" and that the Obama administration has shown no sign of giving up on Baghdad despite the mounting pressure for Maliki to step down.
"We have a federal government; we have a new parliament; likely a Kurdish president will be elected," Faily said. "So in that sense they're still an integral part of Iraq. We will keep that. As far as I know everyone is behind us on that."
Mosul May Mark a Critical Moment in the Region’s History
By Michael Young
July 23, 2014
The exodus of Christians from Mosul in recent days has provoked greater awareness of their plight in a rapidly changing Middle East. Yet, while the event was in itself deplorable, the decline of Christianity in Iraq and the region has been a reality for some time, with no signs that the trend will be reversed.
The Christians of Mosul left the city in response to a deadline set by the Islamic State group, giving them one of three choices: to pay a tax (or jizya), to convert to Islam or to be killed. The jizya was paid by religious minorities under Muslim rule until the 19th century in return for exemption from military service. It contradicts the notion of equal citizenship under the law in a modern state.
Long before Mosul, however, the Christian presence in Iraq was affected by the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003. Whether because they were caught up in sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, or because they were targeted by extremist groups, several hundred thousand Christians left Iraq. Estimates are that between 200,000 and 400,000 remain in the country, from a population of 1.5 million before the invasion.
At the best of times Christians throughout the Arab world, in Iraq, Syria and Egypt above all, have been tolerated minorities. In Syria and Iraq, Christians tended to back supposedly secular Baathist leaders, because these were seen as keeping the Islamists at bay. But there was little more: under both dictatorships, everyone faced equal oppression.
Today, with the conflicts in Iraq and Syria descending into violence and sectarian animosity, the long-term presence of Christians is seriously threatened. While Christian suffering is no less acceptable than that of non-Christians, we could be at a critical stage in the region, where effectively the centuries-old Christian presence will soon be no more.
In Syria, numerous Christian communities exist, but the continuing conflict has already forced many to flee the country. Aleppo, the city with the largest concentration of Christians, has been extensively destroyed, making their return highly unlikely in the near future. As the war continues, the possibility of recreating a Christian presence will diminish as Christians settle permanently elsewhere, especially in the West.
Underlying Arab Christian attitudes is a perpetual sense of doom, a feeling that events will be defined almost entirely by the Muslim majority. This has created a self-fulfilling prophecy that there is no future for Christians in the region. Such an attitude has pushed Christians in many countries to emigrate (if they are lucky) or to flee their country (if they are not), accelerating the process of regression.
Standing out as an exception, albeit an increasingly questionable one, is the destiny of Christians in Lebanon. These Christians, especially their largest community, the Maronites, have held genuine political power as a bloc, unlike Christians in other Arab countries. According to an unwritten agreement between the Lebanese communities, major posts in the state are divided along sectarian lines, with the presidency reserved for a Maronite and half of the seats in parliament set aside for Christians.
But even Lebanon’s Christians find themselves in a dire situation as demographics kick in. The higher birth-rate among Sunnis and Shia, coupled with Christian emigration during the civil war years, has reduced Christian numbers. Today, while there are no official population estimates, Christians are believed to make up around a third of the Lebanese population.
In parallel to this, Christian political power has eroded. The powers of the presidency, once paramount, were substantially curtailed in the last major constitutional rewriting in 1989. Politics have been increasingly driven by Sunni-Shia dynamics. While Christians still play an important role, their ability to set the national agenda continues to shrink.
In several Muslim-majority districts where Christians once had an active presence, their numbers have gone down. Making matters worse, Lebanon’s Christian – particularly Maronite – political forces remain perpetually divided, making it easier for the major Muslim parties to exploit their internecine rivalries.
And yet it is improbable that Muslims in Lebanon would welcome the disappearance of the Christians. Given relations between the Sunnis and Shia, Christians often play an essential balancing role between the two major Muslim sects. And many Muslims regard the more westernised Christian lifestyle as a key aspect of Lebanon’s culture, allowing them to pursue such a lifestyle themselves against their own radicals’ preferences.
There was a heartening reaction in Iraq to the fate of Mosul’s Christians. Condemnation of the Islamic State’s actions has been widespread – actions all the more embarrassing for being justified by a warped interpretation of Islam.
And yet mere words will not be enough to alter Christian behaviour. The only way Christians will remain in their countries is if pluralistic, democratic systems are introduced that allow minorities to feel secure, thrive economically, and enjoy an adequate level of political representation. Yet in most Arab states even Muslims have trouble achieving this.
That is why the problem of Christians in the Middle East has much more to do with the dismal reality of Arab societies than any specific sectarian challenges. Religious prejudice is on the rise, many Arab states are fragmenting, and all Arabs are paying a price. For Christians, however, this has taken on an existential quality, because once they depart, it is rare for them to return.
State fragmentation shows something else. Most Arab countries seem unable to establish social contracts that ensure communal coexistence.
The consequence is that states are breaking up into more cohesive sectarian entities, where minorities, particularly Christian minorities, are left by the wayside. Mosul was awful, but it may well be left by the wayside in the new Middle East.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut