By Thurayya Ibrahim*
The Islamic State’s (ISIS) destruction of Mosul’s ethnic diversity is more heart-breaking than the erasure of its architectural and cultural heritage.
Tuesday 2 December 2014
Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul
Coexistence and multiculturalism. These two terms are often used to describe London, as well as much of the Western world, as though this is an exclusive privilege that can only be found in these areas of the globe. But that is not entirely accurate. I knew the daily reality of living both concepts, as did my parents, grandparents and their ancestors. Iraq, and especially Mosul, embraced people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. In fact, the Iraqi nation is in itself a mixture of various groups.
Iraq’s population is predominantly Muslim, both Shia and Sunni, and the majority are Arab, although there is a sizeable Kurdish minority of about 6 million. Christians, including Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics and Armenians, numbered as much as 1.5 million before the 2003 US invasion, but today the population has dwindled to as few as 450,000. In addition, there are also the following minorities: Turkmen (approximately 2 million), Shabak (up to half a million), as well as a small number of Circassians, not to mention the Yazidis, Mandaean-Sabeans, Baha’is, Kaka’is (also called Ahl-e Haqq and Yarsan), and the handful of Jews who remain as a reminder of what was once the longest continuous Jewish presence in the world. Moreover, there are approximately 1.5 to 2 million black Iraqis, 100,000 Bedouins, as well as Marsh Arabs, Palestinian refugees, most of whom were born in the country, and Roma (Dom or Ghagar).
This was the beauty of Iraq, the cradle of civilisation. In addition to the major contributions Mesopotamia made to the world in science, medicine, literature, art and music, it also introduced the idea of living with others regardless of their background, ethnicity and faith.
This was the world I first opened my eyes to witness. My nanny was Kurdish (my favourite person at the time), I attended a Christian school that had its own church which I often visited with my classmates, while my best friend was Christian and, to this day, we are still very close. The teachers were Muslim, Christian, Kurdish and Yazidi, and all of them were equally respected and liked. I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, where the neighbours were mostly Armenians, and we would often visit each other and exchange gifts of food. Never did any of us question each other’s faith or background nor did we ever think that we were superior to one another. In fact I only discovered the words ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shi’a’ when I came to live in the UK, when people started asking me to which sect I belonged. Maybe my ignorance of the matter is not something I should boast about but it symbolises a simple concept that has plagued Iraq for more than a decade, sectarianism or division among one nation is an imported one.
That was the Mosul I knew and loved: a city that was like an umbrella that protected and embraced everyone. Today, to see the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) destroy one of the most important and fundamental elements of Mosul, its ethnic make-up, is more heart-breaking, for me, than seeing the erasure of the city’s architectural and cultural heritage.
When ISIS took control of Mosul, it carried out a large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing and murder. Its fighters ordered Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, Turkomen, Shia, and basically anyone who did not convert to Islam or who was not a Sunni to leave their houses and the city that is their home. Many of those banished were also robbed on the way out of Mosul, escaping with only the clothes on their backs.
Certain things can be forgotten or restored but how can all the people that were forced out ever feel safe again when (and if) they return? Will they be able to resume their previous lives? Can trust between people be restored after the division that was created by ISIS. Ironically, foreign fighters who shared nothing with the people of Mosul took it upon themselves to divide a population that had for centuries lived side by side. One middle-aged lady informed me how when she phoned her Christian co-workers in Irbil to ask of their well-being, she was met with verbal abuse and accusations of being an ISIS sympathiser, along with all Muslims. The lady was very upset and put down the phone in tears at how a relationship that had lasted more than 20 years could be destroyed in months.
A natural question which forces itself and many are asking is why the people of Mosul have allowed foreign fighters to dictate life in their city in this way? How can they stand by while their neighbours, friends and colleagues are persecuted and expelled from their own homes?
The answer is simple: fear of ISIS. One middle-aged man, a very respected lawyer, objected to the expulsion of his Christian neighbours and confronted ISIS, only to be arrested for obstructing the ‘law’. A few days later, he was found dead. It is also important to remember that many people had fled Mosul as soon as ISIS entered, some got stranded in tents while others struggled to cope financially, whether in Turkey, Jordan or Iraqi Kurdistan (before the Kurdish authority closed all its borders). The people who have opted to stay behind know that they are trapped and must adhere to ISIS rules in order to survive and ensure the safety of their own families.
Contrary to reports by the mainstream media, ISIS’s brutality is not reserved just for ethnic minorities but it extends to anyone who does not follow their draconian rules and guidelines, and to people who have worked with the central Iraqi government, including soldiers, police and local politicians. Just as Christians, Shabaks and Shia had a letter painted on their houses to indicate their affiliation, in a bid to ‘legitimise’ the act of taking ownership of the properties and adding them to the treasury of the Islamic State, the same thing was done to the homes of policemen, soldiers and political figures. The key difference was that these officials were not given the chance to leave as they were instantly imprisoned, tortured or killed. For instance, a female doctor and University of Mosul lecturer, Zeina Al E’nizi, who happened to be a parliamentary candidate in 2014, was executed on Friday 5 September. Another female candidate fled to another town in fear of being assassinated but ISIS fighters soon caught her and she was summarily executed. Even Mosul’s governor, Atheel Alnujaifi could not escape ISIS acts completely, despite fleeing, along with his family, to Iraqi Kurdistan the minute ISIS fighters entered Mosul. In his absence, all his assets, houses, horses and stable were taken and his father’s house was burnt down. Not many people sympathised with Alnujaifi’s loss, as he had lost the trust and respect of Mouslawis the minute he deserted them at the first sign of trouble, to face ISIS alone, without a leader.
ISIS’s invasion of Mosul not only changed the ethnic make-up of the town but caused a near-earthquake in its social structure. People who had the financial means or relatives and family outside Mosul left, as did many university lecturers, teachers and other professionals who sought jobs in other parts of Iraq.
There is a new shift in power as ISIS started recruiting people to their ranks offering a monthly salary of $5,000 to $10,000, plus accommodation (presumably one of the houses that ISIS took from the original owner) and a guaranteed wife, locals who saw the recruitment leaflets say. Suddenly, people who were imprisoned, criminals and thugs at the bottom of the social hierarchy, gained power they had never experienced before in return for growing their hair and beard, dressing as jihadists and declaring themselves ISIS fighters.
Whether ISIS leaves or not, and when, is not so much the issue. The real question is: can Mosul reclaim its identity? Will everyone return to their homes? Can people relearn to trust one another and live together? ISIS originally came to Mosul as foreign fighters. However, after months there, that is no longer the case, and many locals were lured by the incentives that are offered or brainwashed by a political ideology which I fail to understand. Mosul is not fighting a ‘foreign’ invasion anymore but its own people’s greed and division. Mosul is battling to survive one of the most difficult times in its modern history and to save its identity and people.
Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul
For more information about Iraq’s population, see the report by the Institute for International Lay and Human Rights entitled Iraq’s Minorities and Other Vulnerable Groups:Legal Framework, Documentation, and Human Rights.
*The author’s name is a pseudonym.