ISIS’s war on women in Mosul

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Before ISIS began targeting Iraq’s minorities and cultural heritage, it set to work veiling women in a new dark age, reversing decades of hard-won gains.

Despite ISIS' attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Despite ISIS’ attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

When I was growing up, the women of Mosul had the freedom to pursue whatever path they chose to follow. They had the right to work, study and dress as they desire. Women were empowered participants in the community. Growing up during the early 1980s in Mosul, I witnessed the freedom women had. Perhaps it was less than in the 1960s and 1970s, but certainly more than the current sorry situation. I was surrounded by female relatives who all worked after completing their university degrees. They drove cars, went out and travelled abroad alone and refused to get married, preferring the single independent lifestyle. Even at home, when I opened my eyes to the world, I saw my mother going to work everyday as a teacher. The stay-at-home woman was an alien concept to me as a child, and I assumed everyone had to go to work.

Mosul, unlike other Iraqi cities, was a blend of conservatism, tradition and modernity, a balance between the fairly modern and free Baghdad and Basra, and the strict and conservative Najaf and Karbala. Nevertheless, in all the years I spent in Mosul, I came across only one woman who wore a headscarf, one of my primary school teachers. I’m not sure whether the absence of the veil was down to Iraq’s secular rule or whether it reflected a more confident society not yet torn apart by economic sanctions, wars, occupation and sectarianism – all of which are contributing factors to the social change that began to take place in Mosul even before the ISIS invasion.

During the 1960s and 1970s, women were free to wear trousers, mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses. By the 1980s, this was beginning to change, and Mouslawi society started to be critical of such styles. Not everyone complied with the new conservative mores and some carried on wearing what they wanted but most decided not to become the talk of the town.

Just as the Islamic State (ISIS) has striven to destroy Mosul’s heritage and cultural diversity, the group has been working to devastate the position of women. Before the jihadist group began demolishing places of worship and archaeological landmarks, and before they started their campaign of ethnic cleansing, it issued new rules for women to follow, including a repressive dress code. ISIS recently imposed further restrictions on what women are allowed to wear – the new “Law” demands that women wear an almost tent-like cape which covers them from their eyes to their feet. There have even been reports of women falling and fracturing their legs as they struggle to walk in such attire.

Such codified restrictions were alien to a society where the long struggle for female emancipation scored many notable victories.  Iraq has always been at the forefront of female emancipation in the Arab world, with a wealth of famous women who have left a mark not only on Iraq’s history but on the world stage too. Figures like the writer and traveller Maria Theresa Asmar, who wrote a book in the early 19th century describing her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Armenian-Iraqi Beatrice Ohanessian was Iraq’s first concert pianist and one of the few women to become a director of the Piano Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Other prominent Iraqi women include Nazik Al-Malaika, considered by many to be one of the most influential contemporary Iraqi poets who was the first poet to use free verse in Arabic, Zaha Hadid, the renowned international architect, who is in fact originally from Mosul, and many more.

It seems ironic today that Iraq in the 1950s had the first female cabinet minister in the Arab region.  This remarkable woman, Naziha al-Dulaimi, was probably one of the most respected and recognised Iraqi women. An early pioneer of the Iraqi feminist movement and co-founder and first president of the Iraqi Women’s League, she studied medicine at the Royal College of Medicine in Baghdad and, at the age of 19, she was one of few female students at the Medical College. During her government career, al-Dulaimi was instrumental in turning the vast slums of eastern Baghdad into a massive social housing project and helped author the secular 1959 Civil Affairs Law, which was way ahead of its time in liberalising marriage and inheritance laws to the advantage of Iraqi women. She was also a prominent member of the international feminist movement and an active participant in the Iraqi and world peace movements.

It is hard to imagine how a country that has made such progress can be expected to to return the dark ages where women who do not meet ISIS’s requirements are often sold into slavery or forced to marry one of its fighters. The rest of the women who are not targeted for sexual/slave trade are segregated from men in all aspects of daily life.

Anyone who contravenes ISIS’s draconian rules faces heavy repercussions, but some locals are defiant, despite the risks. One friend witnessed a so-called “hisbah” patrol stop a woman who was with her husband because she was not wearing the “right” clothes. Within minutes, an ISIS member raised his baton to strike the woman when, in a fit of rage, the husband shouted: “In ten years of marriage, I have never lifted a finger against my wife. Do you think I will allow a fanatical foreigner to degrade and hit her?” The man my friend witnessed wrestled the baton out of the patrolman’s hand and started beating him with it.

To avoid such situations, many women have opted to stay at home and not venture outside or go to work. But not everyone can afford this luxury, especially with the soaring cost of living. Even girls as young as 11 cannot escape these draconian rules. Fearing for their daughters’ safety, many families have kept girls home from their schools and universities. One mother had no choice but to stop her 14-year-old daughter from attending school after an ISIS patrol stopped the chauffer-driven car that was taking the girl and her younger brother to their school demanding to know why the girl’s eyes were not covered. Apparently, the fact that her entire face was veiled was not enough. When the ISIS militant started to question the girl as to why she was out with “strange men”, the driver explained that the young boy was her brother, which provoked the patrol to ask who the chauffer was. By this point, the girl was so scared that she lied and said he was her uncle. The girl was so frightened that she told her mother she never wanted to leave the house again, even though she had been defying her parents to pursue her education despite the ISIS presence.

ISIS members have also prohibited female students from attending classes because their attire was considered “un-Islamic”. The only accepted attire for female students is the one-piece black burqa. And it is not just girls who are dropping out in large numbers. Boys reportedly are too.

It should be pointed out that there is significant local divergence within Mosul, in terms of rules, and how strictly or leniently they are applied, which often depends on the ISIS militants in the area. “I witnessed several women in the market areas without niqabs,” one local said. “[This] appears to be a change in strategy following a number of attacks perpetrated by disguised men in niqab.”

Iraqis, particularly women, are resilient and adaptable. Iraqi womenhad to endure years of wars without a man in the house, as often they were on the battlefield and many never came back. Women also had to improvise throughout the long years of sanctions to ensure their children and loved ones got fed. With the arrival of the US invasion, women faced a new challenge of protecting their family from foreign invaders. Similarly, despite all the atrocities and savage acts ISIS commits, people try to get on with life in Mosul. Women still go out – provided they are covered from head to toe – they drive to work (though at work they are segregated from men) visit each other and go to the shops. Beauty parlours and hair salons have been banned, and various cosmetic and hair products are no longer sold in shops, driving women to find alternatives when caring for their appearance. Despite the restrictions, three weddings took place last month, two of which were hosted by my old neighbours in Mosul. And that is the contradictory nature of the city, while some women are fleeing, others are being defiantly normal.

There have been reports of public executions of women, notably ones who were politically active. For example, two former candidates for the Iraqi parliament – Ibtisam Ali Jarjis on the Watanya list and Miran Ghazi, who was a candidate for Arab List – were sentenced to death by ISIS’s Sharia court.

According to officials from Mosul, the two candidates had repented in one of the ISIS mosques in Mosul to spare their lives, but the Islamic judge overruled their repentance and the two women were re-arrested. Isis militants also publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a leading lawyer and human rights activist, after she was seized from her home for allegedly “abandoning Islam”, whereas in actual fact her kidnapping took place after she had posted messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul. The militants then tortured al-Nuaimi for five days before killing her. Al-Nuaimi left behind a husband and three children. There are many more tales of women being publicly executed, such as the three female doctors who refused to treat ISIS militants. ISIS militants recently paraded two sisters and a man who were accused of adultery before stoning them to death.

Life under ISIS for the women of Mosul is unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history. But tough, patient and resilient as they are, these women will continue to resist.

 

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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The real battle against ISIS

 
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By Khaled Diab

If ISIS is a virus, then fighting it with the antibiotic of ill-conceived deadly force and repression could create ever-more deadly strains. 

Prompted by social media, pro

Monday 9 February 2015

The Abbasid caliphate was the stage for magical tales to fill a thousand and one nights. The Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS) “caliphate” gives us enough horrors to fill a thousand and one frights.

The latest graphic atrocity committed by the Islamist death cult was the apparent burning alive of felled Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, whose execution reportedly took place in early January.

The brutal murder has triggered horror and condemnation around the world. The news has hit home hard in Jordan, with disbelieving Jordanians stunned by the cruelty of the murder. Spurred on by an angry public mood, Jordan has promised swift retaliation.

“Our punishment and revenge will be as huge as the loss of the Jordanians,”  vowed Jordanian armed forces spokesman Mamdouh al-Ameri. And within hours, Jordan began executing jailed ISIS militants, including death row inmate Sajida al-Rishawi.

For his part, Jordan’s King Abdullah declared “relentless war” against ISIS. “We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles,” he said, vowing to “hit them in their own ground”. Towards that end, Jordan claims it has already carried out dozens of airstrikes against ISIS targets

Although the impulse for revenge is overpowering and it may even appear sweet at first sight, it leaves a bitter aftertaste and carries serious consequences.

Fighting fire with fire could very well backfire. Instead of neutralising the threat, the ill-conceived use of force could ignite a wave of violence in Jordan, which is high on ISIS’s hit list.

In addition, with the strain caused by 1.3 million Syrian refugees, Jordan is already teetering on the edge of instability. Despite the fact that this latest atrocity is bound to chip away at the limited popular support ISIS enjoyed in Salafist Jordanian circles, all it requires is a small band of dedicated sympathisers to wreak havoc.

If ISIS is a virus, as many contend, then fighting it with the antibiotic of violent repression might well only succeed in creating ever-more deadly strains. In fact, ISIS thrives on brutality. “[ISIS] believes not only in maximum but creative retaliatory and deterrent violence,” Hassan Hassan, a Syrian journalist and analyst who has co-authored an in-depth book about the Islamic State, told me.

One item of required reading among many ISIS militants, Hassan explains, is Idarat Al-tawahush (The Management of Savagery)  by Abu Bake Naji which makes the case that “Jihad is not about mercy but about excessive violence, and that the rest of religion is about mercy”.

Where did ISIS pick up such a nihilistic interpretation of Islam? A part of the answer is the cauldron of brutality in which it was conceived. “One cannot understand the violent mindset of ISIS members without recognising that Baathism is one of the ingredients that formed that mindset,” notes Hassan.

This was on full display during the 1982 Hama Massacre ordered by Hafez al-Assad and the past four years of carnage masterminded by his son, Bashar.

In neighbouring Iraq, Saddam Hussein – who bucked no dissent and believed in summary “justice” – used chemical weapons, with US acquiescence, against both Iranians and his own citizens. Add to that the vacuum left by the “shock and awe” of the US invasion which wrought devastation on a scale unseen since the Mongols in the 13th century, and your left with a perfect storm.

In fact, times of such calamitous ruin are often incubators for virulent extremism. Some eight centuries ago, while the Mongols were laying waste to much of the Middle East, Ibn Taymiyyah formulated a highly influential concept of Salafism and Jihad. These were to have a profound influence on the region, corroding the rationalism and free thought upon which Islamic civilisation’s golden age had been built.

What all this highlights is that, though ISIS needs to be fought on the battlefield too, the main battlegrounds are ideological, political, social and economic.

In order to dry up recruits, effective ways need to be devised to show how ISIS’s ideology and its self-styled “caliphate” are ahistorical and run contrary to the spirit that once made Islam robust and enlightened.

The socio-economic inequalities, the impunity of elites, their serving of foreign powers more than their own citizenry, and widespread corruption – all major recruiting platforms for radical groups – must be combated decisively.

In addition, it is high time that Arab societies properly defend freedom of belief and thought, in order to inoculate themselves against religious radicalisation by self-appointed defenders of the faith, whether they be individuals, groups or the state.

Those Arab countries which theoretically recognise such freedom need to implement it properly and consistently. Those which do not, such as the Gulf states, must start respecting pluralism and diversity. “So long as [Arab governments] shy away from a clear commitment to freedom of belief, their stance helps to legitimise the actions of groups such as [ISIS],” argues Brian Whitaker, the Guardian’s former Middle East editor.

More importantly, the region needs to address its democratic deficit. Despotism from above can and does breed tyranny from below, drawing in the disillusioned and disenchanted.

In short, to prove that violent Islamism is the illusion, we must make freedom, justice, equality and dignity the solution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 February 2015.

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The language of Arab (dis)unity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The romantic myth that Arabs share “one heart and one spirit” led pan-Arabism to talk unity while walking the path of disunity.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Given how widely it is spoken and understood, Arabic is one of the UN’s six official languages, alongside English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Spoken by some 300 million people as a native language, Arabic is also used liturgically to varying degrees by the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

The Arabic language gave us not only timeless contributions to philosophy, the sciences, literature and art, but also to the formation of modern Arab identity and nationalism. “Every Arabic-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab,” claimed Sati al-Husri (1882-1968), an early Arab nationalist of Syrian extraction who, ironically, grew up in a well-to-do family which was closely linked to the Ottoman Empire.

Al-Husri believed that this common linguistic heritage gave Arabs “one heart and one spirit” which, in turn, qualified them both as a single nation and a single state. This romantic notion was central to efforts to create secular Arab nationalism, from Baathism to later Nasserism. Michel Aflaq, one of the founding fathers of pan-Arabist Baathism, believed that both language and history were unifying forces for Arabs.

But surveying the current state of destructive disunity plaguing the Arab world, one might be excused for wondering if Arabs truly are of “one spirit”, why it is they have failed so dismally to  beat together as “one heart”.

Not only did the dream of a single Arab nation collapse many years ago, even the individual nation states so despised by pan-Arabists are crumbling before our eyes, with the two strongholds of Baathist ideology, Syria and Iraq, lying in smouldering ruins.

How did we arrive at this sorry state?

Diehard pan-Arabists place the blame squarely with (neo-)imperialism, with the conservative Arab regimes and with the failure of the revolutionary regimes to implement pan-Arabism properly.

Some old-school Arab nationalists with whom I’ve spoken portray Syria as having been the last bastion of pan-Arabism and the last hope for the Arab nation, and that is why the West conspired to bring it down. Even the Islamic State (ISIS) is seen by some as being part of an elaborate Western plot.

The trouble with this theory is that Syria had long stopped even trying to pay lip service to pan-Arab ideals. In addition, the rot and corruption within had so weakened the state that when Bashar al-Assad decided ruthlessly to cling to power at any cost, it sent Syria into a reeling tailspin and meltdown, leaving it wide open to become a multinational battleground.

Moreover, placing the bulk of the blame at the outside world’s feet facilitates a dangerous level of self-deception. It also curtails an honest analysis of why pan-Arabism failed.

While it is true that, in its heyday, pan-Arabism, such as the Nasserist model, had many foes, both regionally and in the West, it also contained many of the seeds of its own downfall.

One major failing was the utopian idea that just because millions of people spoke the same language, they somehow constituted a single nation whose nature was unity and, so, any discord was seen as going against the natural order. This is in spite of the fact that, like in Europe until recently, the Arab world has never been unified except at the point of a sword – and often simultaneously under the control of competing empires or dynasties.

But even linguistically, Arabs are not unified. While some dialects of Arabic are mutually intelligible, others are so far removed that, in other contexts, they would be classified as separate languages. For example, even after years of exposure to Moroccans in Europe, I, as an Egyptian, still do not understand their darija.

The reason these dialects – which can be about as mutually intelligible as the Romance languages are to each other – are classed as “Arabic” is more political than linguistic.

This is why Arabs from different countries often resort to fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) to make themselves mutually intelligible, in a phenomenon known as diglossia. However, not all Arabs can speak fusha and those who do communicate with it use it as a second language.

And just like linguistic diversity is concealed under the umbrella of “Arabic”, social, cultural, economic and political diversity has traditionally been glossed over in pan-Arabist discourse, as if it were an inconvenience rather than a reality.

Despite some common features between clusters of Arab societies in terms of culture and history, there is a mind-boggling array of differences not only between Arab states but also within them. This clash between ideology and reality is one factor behind pan-Arabism’s efforts to suppress diversity rather than to accommodate and celebrate it.

To complicate matters further, Arab countries have and had radically different forms of government, levels of wealth and degrees of development. Even for the best-thought-out integration projects, this is a major challenge that requires years of serious planning and preparation.

But the idea that speaking the same tongue makes us “one” has reduced the concept of Arab unity either to hollow slogans or to disastrous marriages that were rushed into hastily and impatiently, such as the damaging United Arab Republic (Syria and Egypt), the United Arab States (the UAR and North Yemen) the Federation of Arab Republics (Libya, Egypt and Syria) or the still-born Arab Islamic Republic (Libya and Tunisia).

That does not mean that the principle of pan-Arabism is necessarily a bad idea or an unattainable ideal. In certain respects, it was an unsurprising product of its times. The increasingly feverish and intolerant Turkish nationalism which accompanied the decline of the Ottoman Empire led Arab intellectuals, activists and reformers to grope around for an alternative.

Pan-Arab nationalism was an attempt to square the circle of gaining independence from Turkish repression while maintaining the advantages of  a frontierless region bestowed by the Ottomans. That partly explains why Egypt was not an early convert to this ideology, because it had already removed itself from the Sultan’s sphere of influence.

El-Qawmiya el-Arabiya also recognised that, alone, each Arab state would be weak.

Today, as much as a century ago, the region desperately needs to find a way to rise out of the ashes of conflict and weakness and towards a future of co-operation and strength. This time, the utopian dreams and hollow slogans of yesteryear are gone.

In their place, an organic, bottom-up process of common identity building is taking place, spearheaded largely by young people. From pan-Arab TV hits like Arab Idol to the previously unthinkable level of interaction facilitated by social media, Arabs are discovering their rich diversity as well as the shared features of their identities and common causes.

This loose sense of a common plight and a common destiny was reflected, exactly four years ago, in how the spark of hope lit in Tunisia spread like wildfire across the region. In the early days of the Egyptian revolution protesters borrowed Tunisian slogans and chanted “We are all Tunisia”, while activists exchanged tips for dealing with police and teargas.

Despite the ongoing collapse of the current Arab order, this grassroots route to greater co-operation offers some hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 20 December 2014.

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Top 10 of 2014: Jihadists v atheists

 
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In 2014, readers of The Chronikler focused the lion’s share of their attention on two polar opposites: Arab jihadists and atheists.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

Thursday 1 January 2015

In 2014, readers of The Chronikler were most taken by the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the status of atheists in the Arab world. The year’s most popular article was a satricial guide on how to construct a successful caliphate which highlights just how far ISIS’s vision is from the actual historic reality of that institution.

ISIS also comes in at number six with an on-the-ground account of the battle for Kobani and at number seven with a piece on how ISIS’s conception of the caliphate is an a-historical illusion.

As ISIS’s antithesis, the Arab world’s increasingly visible but embattled atheist community feature at number two, three and ten.

Completing the top 10, we mix booze with religion and look at the driest month for Muslim drinkers, Ramadan (4), and the surprising status of alcohol in Islam.

On gender issues, readers enjoyed reading about the Arab myth of Western women (5) and the naked prejudice behind Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic (8).

  1. A successful caliphate in six simple steps
  2. إعترافات ملحد مصري
  3. The Arab world’s rebels without a god
  4. Ramadan for drinkers
  5. The Arab myth of Western women
  6. The Syrian Kurd who went blind because he’d seen too much
  7. The caliphate illusion: “Restoring” what never was
  8. Sexual harassment: Undressing naked prejudice
  9. A drinker’s guide to Islam
  10. Is atheism Egypt’s fastest-growing ‘religion’?
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The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

With ISIS’s destruction of Mosul’s heritage, it is no longer the “Pear of the North”. But it’s people will rise up and reclaim their ancient city.

Hadba-16207v

The leaning minaret of Mosul which stands at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Wednesday 24 December 2014

In my previous article, I focused on the social and ethnic changes that have been forced on Mosul by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), which will undoubtedly have long-term repercussions on the whole of Iraq and not just Mosul. ISIS has sought to radically reconstruct Mosul in every respect, razing, in the process, the previous social, political and economic structure.

The destruction of churches, mosques and other holy sites understandably received huge media attention internationally due to their symbolic importance. However, ISIS has also been systematically destroying much of Mosul’s cultural heritage but this has not received the same amount of coverage.

Nineveh was the largest city in the world and the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib (705-681BC). Its ruins are located near the banks of the Tigris, where it once blossomed as an important trading city between East and West. It is believed to have first been settled in 6000 BC. Various conquerors — Persians, Arabs, Turks and others — have come and gone, each leaving an imprint that remained for centuries until the day ISIS chose to launch their operation of  “cultural and historical cleansing” in Mosul.

Major historical sites that stretch back millennia are being systematically wiped away. The determination to destroy the cultural and religious heritage is not enough for ISIS. There are also reports of looting of archaeological sites and the imposition of a “tax” on smugglers moving stolen artefacts. According to the head of the Baghdad Museum, Qais Hussein Rasheed, who was speaking at a UNESCO conference in Paris last September,  the largest example of looting so far took place at grand palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II which dates back to the 9th century BC. “Assyrian tablets were stolen and found in European cities,” he said. “Some of these items are cut up and sold piecemeal,” he added, in references to a tablet of a winged bull.  ISIS took over Mosul’s Monuments Museum which fell under their full control and has been shut to the public. Some locals have claimed that ISIS militants destroyed archaeological monuments at Mosul (Nineveh) Museum, including the famous winged Assyrian bull.

It is a frightful thought that such an ignorant and violent group are in charge of one of the world’s richest archaeological treasures. With at least 8,000 years of continuous habitation, Mosul is considered a jewel that embraces many heritage sites belonging to numerous religions and sects, with almost 2,000 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites being located there. In the first month of their invasion of Mosul, ISIS arrested the head of the Archaeology Department, Musa’ab Muhammed Jasim, for unknown reasons, though sources claim that he tried to defend the department from looting while some local residents have said that he was only detained for questioning and was released a few weeks later. These acts are clearly part of the same strategy of redefining Mosul’s cultural identity whilst profiting from its rich heritage. How ironic it is that ISIS, which demolishes historical and archaeological sites and artefacts for being heretical and supposedly against Islam, have no qualms about profiting from them.

ISIS has a unit called Katayib Taswiya (the Demolition Battalion) whose job is to identify what they view as ‘heretical’ mosques and sites for destruction. The battalion razes to the ground any mosques or churches built on tombs. If a graveyard has been built after the mosque’s construction, then they will destroy the graves. Even this was not enough for ISIS. Graves that have headstones that are not level with the ground have all been bulldozed, and even the dead did not escape these atrocities. The demolition battalion unit drew up a list of sites and statues that were deemed unsuitable for an ‘Islamic state’ and were to be destroyed. Among them were the much-loved statue of a figure representing an old Mosul profession: a man selling a liquorice drink, for which the city is famous. Until a few months ago, men walked the streets with a pouch of the drink slung over their shoulders and clanged copper goblets to advertise their presence, and sell the drink to people. This was soon stopped by ISIS as they forbade the practice of selling the drink, declaring the consumption of liquorice a sin. Naturally, the statue also had to go. The sculptor who made the statue in 1973, Talal Safawi, was distraught to see the liquorice seller statue, whom he regards as part of his body, destroyed.  This statue had survived four decades during which there had been three wars, a US invasion and wide-scale looting, yet it finally succumbed to the brutality of ISIS.

Other statues destroyed by ISIS included Mullah Othman al-Musili, a beloved 19th-century musician and poet, and the famous statue of a woman carrying a urn. Another was Abu Tammam, the famous Abbasid-era Arab poet, born in Syria who then lived and died in Mosul in the year 845AD, who ironically was a Muslim convert born to Christian parents. Another important shrine which was levelled to the ground is the much-talked-about ‘Girl’s Grave’ or ‘Ibn al-Atheer’s grave’. The ‘girl’s grave’ again is a very important feature of Mosul and for centuries it has been the subject of widespread speculation concerning the story behind it, as no one can be certain of the events that led to its creation. There are claims that the grave is that of the famous historian Ibn al-Atheer who died in Mosul in 630AD. However folktales say that centuries ago a pious girl in Mosul would go out caring for her goats and lambs, and one day she was surrounded by thieves and street bandits who wanted to rape her. After resisting their advances and calling out to God to take her and save her honour from being tarnished, the ground suddenly opened to swallow the girl as happy tears rolled down her face. People tried to pull her out but failed and she died instantly. The ‘girl’s grave’ became a symbol of God’s miracle and the piety of Mosul’s women. Perhaps ISIS did not want a monument that symbolised resistance, especially that of women. But no matter what they do or how far their brutality reaches, the people of Mosul will revolt and fight their tyrannical leaders.

The signs of resistance are slowly emerging. When ISIS indicated that it would be toppling the city’s ancient leaning minaret, which is older than the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy and is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar bank note, the people of Mosul were outraged. “The leaning minaret has no religious significance and is not a statue to be regarded as a heretical idol, so why are these foreign militants determined to wipe away Mosul’s cultural identity?” asked a local medical student who cannot be named for his own safety.  Residents gathered at the minaret and confronted ISIS, which has put a stop to the demolition of the minaret, at least for the time being.

Many have wondered why it took the people of Mosul so long to finally reject ISIS’s orders and why they defended the Leaning Minaret yet failed to do so with all the other mosques and churches. It is puzzling but I think the speculative climate of swirling rumours that Mosul has been living under for the past four months prevents them from knowing what is fact and what is fiction. Furthermore, they never would have imagined that a group that calls itself “Islamic” would ever destroy places of worship.

The biggest shock to the people of Mosul which signified a turning point in their attitude was the day ISIS destroyed the Prophet Jonah mosque (Jonah’s tomb). The imam of the mosque pleaded with ISIS to give him time to donate the rugs, fans and refrigerators to the poor people of the city rather than have blown up but he was met with firm refusal.  Residents treading through the ruins of the building found torn and burnt pages of the holy books, which they had been unable to save, scattered amongst the rubble. “They claim that having graves inside mosques is heretical but what about the Quran, why did they not remove the Quran from the mosque before destroying it?” a local resident asked.

What international media failed to understand is that the Prophet Jonah mosque is of vast value to all the people of Mosul and not just Muslims. It is more than a mosque but a place visited by all sects and religions. A Christian man who had to flee Mosul was in tears when he heard that ISIS had demolished the mosque: “When my wife and I were trying for a baby and failed, we visited Prophet Jonah’s tomb and prayed for a child. A few years later, we were granted a son. They have destroyed a place that gave me hope when I was at my lowest.”  The mosque was a place that almost every resident of Mosul had visited or contributed to. It was like a grand house which gathered everyone, regardless of their differences.  My own family had donated rugs to the mosque, as well as regular financial donations to help maintain it.

One of the names that are given to Mosul is ‘the city of the whale’ in reference to the Prophet Jonah, whose tomb has now been destroyed. Other names given to Mosul are al-Faiha (“the Paradise”), but now it has become a hell on Earth, and al-Hadbah (“the Humped”) due to the leaning Minaret. It is also known  al-Khaḍrah (“the Green”) in association with al-Khidr , a mystical figure (possibly St George) who is described in the Quran as a righteous servant of God possessing great wisdom or mystic knowledge and is  believed to have been last seen in Mosul.  It is sometimes described as “The Pearl of the North”, which helps explain why ISIS invaded the city in order to exploit its riches.

All these names are no longer indicative of the city’s reality. Sadly, it seems that ISIS have succeeded in redefining Mosul to the loss of its inhabitants and the world.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

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*The author’s name is a pseudonym.

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Mosul’s lost diversity

 
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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.

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*The author’s name is a pseudonym.

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The ISIS disease in Mosul

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

For those who have refused to flee the Islamic State (ISIS), formerly close-knit Mosul has become a dangerous city robbed of its diversity and dignity.

Monday 20 October 2014

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Mosul, the first city I opened my eyes upon, the place that witnessed the early years of my childhood with all its memories, the nostalgic home I often long to see again suddenly became a place that is alien to me, one that lacks Mosul’s real essence, devoid of its culture, customs, heritage and tradition.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply the Islamic State as it likes to be described now in a betrayal of its widening ambitions  – overran Mosul, Iraq second-largest city with its 1.7 million inhabitants, in a matter of days. How and why is still unclear and many aspects remain shrouded in mystery but one fact speak for itself: ISIS is like Ebola – it attacks your body at a shocking speed and as you struggle to discover the cause you must also find a cure.

Like hundreds of thousands of Mouslawis, I am baffled as to how and what caused this disease. Is it hereditary or is it something we caught like a virus, and can it be treated without us knowing its nature and origins? Surely, a disease must be identified and understood before a course of treatment can be applied and more importantly how can we be sure that it won’t return with deadlier consequences.

Although most of the media’s attention has focused either on the destruction of holy sites or on those who fled the murderous group, it is also important to learn what life under ISIS rule is like for the residents of Mosul who opted to stay.  This short series about Mosul’s fall will address the changing identity of Mosul, the position of women in ISIS society, and young people’s dashed hopes of a brighter future. It will also tackle the existential struggle between ISIS and the Iraqi government and the battle to reclaim the city.

ISIS’s invasion of Mosul and other Iraqi towns did not just spell the end of the Iraqi government’s control of these large swathes of territory but it also brought an overwhelming change to the ethnic make-up of Mosul and northwestern Iraq, as well as their historical, cultural, and traditional ways of life.

The news reached me about a possible attack on Mosul through a phone conversation with relatives who wanted to assure us of their safety on that fateful day of Thursday 5 June.  As it was narrated to me, events began to unfold at approximately midday when everyone in Mosul was told by the police to leave their work and return home for security reasons, with a curfew imposed on the city until further notice.

People left their work and rushed home, many had to walk for hours, as there was sudden panic and no taxis or public transportation could be found. One 60-year-old woman had to walk for nearly three hours from her workplace, a health organisation, to reach her home. “A journey that in normal circumstances would take me 35 minutes maximum turned into hours, as I struggled to find a way home after my regular taxi driver dropped me half way fearing he would get stuck as the police were closing the roads, so I had to walk the rest of the way in the blazing heat of 48 degrees Celsius,” she said.

This lady was one of many but at least she was an adult with the ability to walk the distance. Some children were trapped in schools waiting for their parents to come and collect them, while patients with serious conditions were stuck in hospitals awaiting their fate. No-one knew what was happening, there were rumours that “militants” were about to attack the city. Despite the animosity people felt towards some of the Iraqi police and army, they still had some faith in their ability to defend the city and the curfew order further assured people that the authorities were in control and probably had a plan to deal with these insurgents.

But as the days passed, alarming rumours began to circulate, with some claiming that the army had deserted the city and fled to the Kurdish-controlled area in the north, while others swore that the police had abandoned their weapons and uniform and gone into hiding. There was also talk that foreign fighters had entered parts of the city, announcing that they had arrived in Mosul to liberate the people and save them from the “evil sectarian government of Iraq”. Ordinary Mosulawis were extremely scared. They sensed the danger that surrounded the city, despite reassurance and pleas from the militants that they had no reason to be afraid. But a nation that had gone through long bitter wars, invasions and terrorist attacks for more than 35 years knew full well what lay ahead – they had seen these faces before, be it under different names and guises. A retired lecturer at the University Of Mosul who has lived through and witnessed many political and social changes throughout Iraq’s modern history told me: “No good can ever come from such a group, very few can understand the demographic and social make-up of Iraq and that is why so many have failed in ruling the country.”

In fewer than four days, Mosul fell completely under the control of ISIS. On the night of 9 June and under heavy fire (unknown to this day between whom) many people locked their houses, took their most valued possessions and headed out of their beloved city into the unknown. The risks of being shot or stopped by ISIS fighters were as high as staying at home. The fall of the security forces led to a sense of chaos and anarchy, which was not helped by all the rumours and speculation. Escape was the only option in the eyes of some. After all, even the governor of Mosul had run off and left the city to its unknown fate, along with other officials. This terrified the younger generation more, as the adults had seen so many things befall Iraq that they had almost become immune to whatever will come. One 15-year-old told me: “I keep asking baba to leave Mosul. We are in grave danger. I mean what hope do we have when all our supposed ‘protectors’ have left, but he won’t listen.”

With its rich and diverse patchwork of communities, Mosul had always been one of the more conservative cities of Iraq, but it was also simultaneously a close-knit society. Almost everyone is related to one another and if not then they are connected through a friend or work. My own neighbours were all cousins or relatives of some kind and your family name was always enough to identify your entire history. I recall as a child growing up in Mosul knowing that I could never cross the line or break the rules because it would reach my mother before I got home. Unsurprisingly, you can always spot a stranger in Mosul.  For the locals to wake up and see various Arab fighters – as well as Afghans, Chechans and Pakistanis – ruling the city and walking the streets as though they owned the country was not just an invasion but an insult to every principle, belief and view held by the ordinary Mouslawi – it was an attack on their honour. A 31-year-old accountant was in tears because she was forced to push her two toddlers from her house to her parents area where there were fewer fighters. “Who on Earth are these people to interfere in our country? They don’t even speak our language or know anything about Mosul,” she said angrily.

The first few days under ISIS rule were filled with uncertainty and anticipation. Those who had taken flight were hoping for a quick end to this invasion, while the people who stayed behind were initially terrified to venture out onto the streets.  People had heard what ISIS had done in Syria and they were prepared for the worst but gradually there was some activity on the roads, as young men, with the help of ISIS fighters, began removing the road blocks and the barbed wire that had divided Mosul, which the Iraqi authorities had put in place in a futile attempt to thwart terrorist attacks but which mostly succeeded in making people’s lives a complete misery and degraded them on a daily basis. As the streets were cleared and people were free to come and go as they like without being stopped or questioned, the people of Mosul were lulled into a false sense of security and hope, especially as the kidnappings, assassinations, suicide bombings and terrorist attack seemed suddenly to have stopped.  People began to dream and think that life might return to how it was before the American invasion, oblivious to the fact that ISIS are no different to any other invading force, just more deadly.

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

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*The author’s name is a pseudonym.

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The death throes of Arab thuggery

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab civilisation has not collapsed but the thuggish political, economic and religious mafias dominating the region are dying violently.

Prompted by social media, pro

Prompted by social media, pro

Friday 17 October 2014

In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilisation.

“Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”

Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: from the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.

“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.

But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilisation, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: they all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords are local masters.

In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.

When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: that of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.

Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, domestically, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or eliminating moderates.

Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.

This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation in America for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist. For example, Nasserist Egypt not only banned the liberal nationalist al-Wafd party in 1953 but also carried out a harsh crackdown against leftists and communist critics. This was partly out of distrust of Moscow and partly to maintain their claim as the sole representatives of progressive values.

In Iraq, the communist party was, for decades, one of the most influential opposition currents, yet was not tolerated neither by the “liberal” royalists nor the “progressive” Free Officers and Ba’athists which came later. The most brutal anti-communist crackdowns were probably those carried out by pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in the late 1940s and in the 1960s following a failed anti-Ba’ath coup attempt. Saddam Hussein also dealt ruthlessly with the party, both as head of security and intelligence in the late 1960s and on the eve of becoming president in the late 1970s.

Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of the ranks of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.

This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernisation became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.

This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.

To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.

For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.

Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: the Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the US-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.

The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.

But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.

What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilisation which has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.

Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilisation kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order.

This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of the a-religious, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.

Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2014.

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The Syrian Kurd who went blind because he’d seen too much

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

From the man literally blinded by horrors to the girl whose dream is to read books,  we meet the Syrian Kurds fleeing the ISIS onslaught on Kobani.

A Kurdish boy in a mosque in Suruc. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

A Kurdish boy in a mosque in Suruc. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 7 October 2014

During the day, the hill on the Turkish-Syrian border had been as desolately sandy as its surroundings. The night’s downpour had turned it into a pile of muddy goo. As I approached the border fence, a crowd of Kurdish men was observing the battle between the Kurdish defenders of Kobani and the Islamic State (ISIS) fighters. The Islamic State militia units were attacking backed by heavy artillery. The Kurds were responding with automatic-rifle fire and an occasional home-made rocket.

An abandoned Turkish military post on the border with Syria. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

An abandoned Turkish military post on the border with Syria. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Some soldiers of the Turkish army were also observing the action taking place on the Syrian side of the border. They were mostly doing it from the safety of their armoured vehicles ‒ which seemed like a good idea, since there weren’t all that many of them around. Their mood was one of wary apathy. As the battle grew in scope and ferocity, one could see some hundred Kurdish refugees lined up along the barbed wire separating the two countries. It was heartwrenchingly obvious they were hoping the Turks might still let them in. As things stood, they were caught in the crossfire.

Yet another haunting image from this desperate struggle, yet another reminder of the savagery of Syria’s civil war. As I watched, the whole bloody mess seemed so wretchedly complex that any solution granting safety to the civilian population seemed all but foredoomed.

A brief respite

Along with fourteen relatives, Omar Issa, 67, reached Turkey about a week ago. His pitiful expedition, hailing from the border-town of Karacha, has pitched a tent on an open field crossed by a muddy creek.

The tent provides a modicum of protection for no less than 18 families. Less than a kilometre to the west, a vicious firefight between the Kurds and the ISIS militiamen was raging on. Ignoring the explosions, the children were merrily frolicking around the creek. The women were catching up on the laundry, while the older men – pretty much everyone who could fight remained back in Syria – were sitting on plastic chairs, smoking and drinking tea. There seemed to be no end to the political debates.

“As soon as the Islamic State was formed in Syria, I knew that sooner or later they would be coming for us, the Kurds!” Omar told me. “To them, we are worth less than animals. We had to run, you understand? They’d already taken over all the neighbouring villages. Can you imagine our horror? So we packed what we could and drove here, to the border.”

“Then it took them two whole days to let us pass, the Turks,” he recalls. “Yes, we do feel safe here. But the housing situation is horrible, just horrible. It’s cold and it’s wet, and the winter is approaching fast – all of us can feel it.”

I spent quite a long time speaking with this traditionally dressed Kurdish elder, who only a few weeks ago used to grow olives and tend his flock. During our conversation, Omar revealed that two of his sons had stayed home to fight. He expressed great concern that the city of Kobani was about to fall. In his opinion, it would mean a great disaster for the Kurds and many others beside. “Under Bashar al Assad’s regime, we were safe, but we had no freedom,” he mused softly. “It was very very hard for us. And now… Well, now we are free men, but we are trembling for our lives.”

The consensus among the refugees seemed to be that they were entirely dependent on the help of their relatives on the Turkish side of the border. “They have helped us a great deal, and we are very grateful to them,” said one of those who had taken flight across the border. “But it is obvious we will not be able to hold out for much longer. We left everything behind. We are now left entirely at the mercy of the international community. There is, of course, no lack of promises; but we are now desperate for some actual assistance.”

Kurdish refugees. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Kurdish refugees. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

The majority of the Kurds that did manage to cross the border took refuge in nearby Suruc. With every day, the situation there grew more volatile. The people in the streets were visibly exhausted, some were openly raging at the sheer monstrous inhumanity of their predicament. Only a few kilometres away, their loved ones were being massacred, and they were powerless to help. Yet some also admitted it was little wonder Turkey had decided to close the border. After all, over the last fortnight the population of the filthy, down-trodden town of Suruc has more than doubled.

No-one really knew the exact number of the inflowing Kurdish refugees. All available housing was bulging at the seams, and many of the refugees were left with no recourse but to sleep in parks and darkened underpasses. Quite a number of them have pitched improvised tents in the surrounding fields. All of them were left entirely to their own devices and whatever help the locals were able to supply. At the time of my arrival, precious little actual humanitarian relief had managed to reach Suruc, a town that was visibly tottering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

“The ISIS men were sure to kidnap us and sell us into slavery”

Naima Khalil, 19, introduced herself to me as a Syrian Kurd from Kobani. In the chaos that had become her existence there by the Syrian-Turkish border, she longed for the safety and stability provided by her school and a small collection of books she had to leave behind.

Accompanied by her mother, father, brother and five sisters, she fled eight days ago. The ISIS militiamen have been tightening their grip on this thoroughly besieged city, until Naima’s father decided they could no longer run the risk of staying put. The father was all too aware what happened to many others who failed to flee the Sunni extremist elsewhere.

“Our father was afraid for us, women,” Naima explained with a diffident shrug. “The ISIS men were sure to kidnap us and sell us into slavery. It’s what happened to so many girls in Syria and Iraq. So what could we do? We gathered what we could and ran for our lives. You know, there’s been no electricity or running water in Kobani for a while now. We suffered there for three years. We had to dig our own well. But we knew that in the surrounding villages, things were even worse.”

This swarthy nineteen-year-old, Naima, was talking to me in commendably fluent English. Back in Syria, she and her family have managed to survive three years of constant war. It wasn’t always the case, but in Kobani, the Kurds had opted to join the Syrian revolution. During the first months of the insurgency against the Assad regime, a few peaceful demonstrations took place in Kobani. The government forces arrested a number of people, but for some reason they didn’t bring their heel down as brutally as they did in Homs or Da’ara. The summer of 2012 saw a “tactical” retreat of Assad’s forces from the Kurdish territories. The Kurds wasted little time in forming their own local authorities and setting up their own dedicated, if rather tiny, army. They declared an autonomous Kurdish zone and decided to name it Rojave.

For Naima, this meant the end of her schooling. It also meant an end to her hope of going on to study medicine – something she’d dreamt about throughout her entire childhood. The road to Aleppo, where the university is situated and where she was meant to take her entrance exams, became “impassable”. In reality, this means the road became one of the focal points for the clashes between the various insurgent groups, the government forces, the Kurds and the burgeoning ISIS.

There is no getting around the fact that the situation is mercilessly complex. The sudden rise of the ISIS’s fierce, hate-crazed militiamen can be defined as the illegitimate offspring of decades of American foreign policies, Saudi funding and the Turkish fear of the Kurds getting organised. The Islamic State fighters first decisively destroyed the Syrian insurgency against the Assad regime, then they crossed the Iraqi border to establish what they call a “caliphate”. After that, they wasted little time to get on with their business of rooting out all dissent to their militant creed. After the Yaezidis, the Kurds were next in line. Over the course of the last two weeks, over a hundred Kurdish villages were taken by the militiamen. Some 130,000 Kurds were forced to flee to Turkey via the nearby border, which was proving increasingly porous. With every passing day, the chaos only intensified.

Naima Khalil is just one of the countless innocent souls caught up in the lunacy. “I am angry and I am sad,” she admitted. “The Turkish children here are set on frightening me by telling me the Islamists are coming here to murder me, while the grown men want only to humiliate me. Most days, I can barely gather the courage to step out of the house where we live along with three other families.”

And how did Naima manage to find this accommodation? “Oh, one of my father’s acquaintances sort of lent it to us for 10 days. The bad news is that the day after tomorrow we have to leave, and then we’ll be left to the streets. We simply don’t know what to do. There’s no money left. My parents spent what little we had on getting us out of there alive. Perhaps… Perhaps we’ll be forced to go to Istanbul. To live on the streets. I’ll start looking for work as soon as we get there.”

“There is nothing I want more than to go back to school, but I guess that’s not going to happen, huh,” she added, before breaking down into heavy sobs. Then Naima summoned what courage and optimism she had left and asked me if I had a book in English. “Anything, anything at all,” she pleaded. As far back as she could remember, all she really wanted to do was read. “My father, he wants me to grab any chance at education life gives me. Even when I was not able to go to school, I studied all the time ‒ I studied at home, where else?” she described. “I read everything I could get my hands on. I don’t want to be like most of my friends: their parents married them off to make sure they were safe but losing them their freedom in the bargain. I simply couldn’t do that. Not for all the safety in the world. After all, my mother Najaf has always been a fierce advocate of women’s rights.”

This last bit allowed Naima to regain some measure of composure and even pride. As we talked, we stood amid a vast crowd of Kurdish refugees who’d gathered here for the lentil soup. This brackish-looking concoction was being distributed by Turkish humanitarian workers from titanic aluminium vats. In this dusty, anxiety-ravaged town of Suruc, Naima told me, she felt more trapped than anywhere before. “These local men, they are staring at me, and they are staring and staring, and I am always looking away… And every day, I get more afraid of them, of what they might do to me. You know, this… This is not my world. This should not be my world.”

Mohammed Chechu: Blinded by tragedy. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Mohammed Chechu: Blinded by tragedy. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Mohammed Chechu, a Kurdish refugee from a village near Kobani, lost his sight some 18 months ago. He claims it was because he had seen too much horror. Along with his family, he left Syria for the border town of 12 twelve days ago. His village – just like all the other Kurdish villages in the region – was taken over by the Islamic State.

“Since I can’t see, I hardly ever left the house. One day, I heard shouting in the streets. People were very frightened. They were telling each other that in the neighbouring villages, the Islamists were slitting throats and rounding up the women to sell them into slavery,” he recounted. “My greatest fear was that my blindness would make me a burden for everyone. I was determined to stay in the house, come what may, but my family convinced me to help them gather a few things and flee. We had to leave behind everything we worked for so hard. Our house, our car, our animals, our life.”

I spoke to Mohammed inside a mosque, where at least 300 Kurdish refugees have been crammed together for the past fortnight. He told me that it took his family two whole days to make the trip. They spent a night at the Turkish border, then the Turkish soldiers decided to let them pass.

Many of Mohammed’s relatives stayed back in Kobani: cousins, nephews, even many of his friends who have never before as much as lifted a walking stick in anger, let alone a Kalashnikov rifle. But they knew enough to know their fate was entirely in their own hands. No help has yet been given to them, and they have learned to expect none. The coalition was mostly bombing oil refineries – its priorities couldn’t be more clear. Meanwhile, the Kurds were perishing by the thousands, and hardly for the first time. Given the long brutal history of this proud, self-reliant people, it is no wonder so few of its members are willing to place any trust in the international community. The vast majority claim they would much prefer to die valiantly in battle. But perhaps their greatest problem is that, at this crucial moment in history, there is precious little unity between the 25 million Kurds of the Middle East, let alone a focused political agenda. So far, none of their brothers have come to the aid of the Syrian Kurds in the Kobani province. They have their own battles to fight.

“It’s hard. The worst part is that my blindness prevents me from taking care of my family,” Mohammed went on. “Instead, they have to take care of me! I’m completely useless. Like myself, my wife also used to be a teacher in our school. But as soon as I lost my sight, she had to drop all that and devote herself fully to the needs of our family.”

Mohammed’s unseeing eyes have honed other forms of sight and insight. “For this past week, all I’ve done is sit around and listen to people talk. I also smoke a lot and think, think, think. I may be blind, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the human pain and suffering all around me. So many people are forced to sleep in the streets. We are so cold – but there is no help in sight. Winter’s coming, and things are only going to get worse. I’m afraid that there will come a point when they will simply decide to trample us into the ground… I’m very grateful to Turkey for letting us in, but now someone else should step in and help, too!«

In this most unfortunate exile, Mohammed is accompanied by three sons and a daughter. The youngest of his sons is 12 and has recently been diagnosed with a very serious type of diabetes. “No medicine is available for him here. And we also have no money for the treatment. I know he got sick because of me. And because of the war.” Throughout our conversation, Mohammed fought valiantly to keep his emotions in check, but this is where he lost control, and tears came pouring out of his dark, sightless eyes.

I want to teach again.”

The last time Mohammed stepped in front of a class was two years ago, when the government forces temporarily left the Kurdish areas, which enabled the Kurds to organise their own schools. Even then, his eyesight was starting to fail. He is convinced that the stress was the main cause. He had seen so many atrocities, perpetrated both by the regime and then the various Islamic militias that started to brutalise his homelands. The viciousness kept mounting and mounting, much like the war itself. Mohammed finally went blind about a year and a half ago.

“For a while, all I could see were shadows, and then not even that,” he recalls. “It was… It was like a sort of death. But I didn’t lose hope. After a few weeks, I regained at least some of my spirit and convinced myself that there will come a day when I would see again, and then I could once more step into a classroom of happy children, all of them willing to learn.”

But one needs considerable foresight to see that distant day through the heavy fog of conflict. “You know, Syria is now seeing a generation of children who had to leave school altogether – an uneducated, traumatised generation… It is the worst thing that could have happened.” From the quiet, plaintive way he spoke, it was clear that Mohammed still hadn’t come to grips with all the horrors that recently befell him and his people. But in spite of his blindness, his deep dark eyes kept staring right at mine, and I was startled to note that at times those poor sightless eyes were still sparkling – and with, of all things, hope.

Almost the entire territory of Syria has been ravaged by war, and the roads connecting the major urban centres have been the most dangerous parts of this fallen country… Nevertheless, a few months ago, Mohammed’s wife still decided to gather the last of their savings and take her husband to a renowned neurologist in Damascus. One day, she simply started the car and set off toward the capital. At every checkpoint, they were stopped and questioned, and the surly men with machine-guns often made very explicit threats to boot. They were stopped by the government troops, the ISIS militiamen, the members of the Free Syrian Army and a number of unidentifiable ruffians, all of these warlords the new rulers of the divided state. All in all, it took them thirty-six hours to reach Damascus. They spent the night in their car, in the middle of the desert.

“My wife was able to get some sleep. I didn’t. I was much too terrified,” Mohammed said of the nerve-wracking journey. “All the time, I was listening to the various noises, wondering what each of them meant. A few times, panic almost had me by the throat. But I was also looking forward to seeing the specialist. I was really hopeful that he could help me.”

Hope remains

When they arrived, the neurologists saw Mohammed straight away. He examined his eyes very assiduously, and to the patient’s great surprise he declared there was nothing wrong with them. The problem is of a purely neurological nature, that much is now certain. According to the specialist, the blindness was caused by some elaborate glitch of the nerves in Mohammed’s brain. The patient found himself much heartened by the news, since the neurologist openly told him that there was an excellent chance of him regaining his sight if proper treatment could be secured.

“The return trip may have been just as dangerous as the drive to Damascus. But this time around, I was warm all over with a feeling not unlike happiness,” Mohammed remembered. “The very mention of the possibility that I might see again cheered me up no end. On my return, I was a different man, full of hope.” But this hope lies at some considerable distance in space, time and opportunity. “The [doctor] from Damascus told me that a certain clinic in Spain specialises in the exact form of dysfunction I was diagnosed with having! But he didn’t tell me its name or location, and in all the excitement I forgot to ask. I’m glad to say that I have a relative in Spain, who promised he would help me find this clinic… But I have no idea how I’m going to get there. I have neither the funds nor the necessary papers.”

Mohammed Chechu also sent the results of his examination to a Palestinian doctor in Jordan. He is still waiting for the reply. But these last few weeks, his eyes have regained a small semblance of their former function. He cannot exactly see anything, but he can sometimes “feel” movement in front of his eyes, he says – and now and then he finds himself sensing a shift in the quality of the light. If he places his palm directly in front of his eyes, he can sometimes convince himself that he can discern a few of its features. But if an object is placed more than 10cm away, he cannot see it at all. “All the time I hope and pray. I want to be a man again, someone who can take care of his family, my poor beloved wife and children, who had been so traumatised by this senseless war,” he expresses his yearning. “In my opinion, only someone who is able to serve others can fully appreciate the marvel of what it means to be human.”

Mohammed ends our conversation by apologising for being so “selfish”. “I do apologise for going on like this, for focusing almost entirely on my own problems. This unspeakable tragedy, well… The truth is we’re all in it together, and our pain is only growing worse. Please help us.”

____

Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter: @bosthi

His website is: bostjanvidemsek.com

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The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

 
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By Khaled Diab

Inflammatory rhetoric and a solely punitive approach to Western jihadists is only likely to make matters worst, and could threaten multiculturalism.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

Monday 15 September 2014

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has unveiled a controversial raft of measures which he claims will help counter the threat posed by British jihadists fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. These include barring these citizens from re-entering the UK, seizing the passports of suspects before they depart and internally exiling radicals. Other European countries are also considering similar measures. Norway, for example, has announced that it is studying mechanisms for revoking the citizenship of Norwegians who take part in terror operations abroad or join foreign militaries, which would potentially also include Jews volunteering for the Israeli army.

“Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “It is a duty for all those who live in these islands so we will stand up for our values.”

A “duty”, it would seem, if you are a member of a minority, but not if you are a posh Tory. Then, you can ride roughshod over these values and the principles underlying the British legal system, and grant the government even more arbitrary powers to encroach on civil liberties. Fair trials and the presumption of innocence are surely sacred British values, or is Cameron proposing a return to the medieval Germanic practice of  “guilty until proven innocent”? His home secretary certainly is, having stripped at least 37 dual nationality Britons of their citizenship with the stroke of a pen, without any kind of due process.

Fortunately, the British establishment has balked at Cameron’s demagoguery, forcing him to backpedal somewhat from the strident statement of intent he gave on Friday 29 August.

Moreover, “it absolutely sticks in the craw”, to borrow one of the prime minister’s own expressions, and beggars belief that Cameron himself posed a far greater threat to British values and the safety of British citizens than a handful of jihadistst. After all, Cameron supported the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, against the will of millions of Britons. And this disastrous enterprise,  which triggered serious blowback, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalise some Muslims towards Britain, could not have gone ahead without his party’s support.

Should Cameron voluntarily hand over his passport for so recklessly having undermined British values and the security of his fellow citizens? Should he refuse the jet-setting Tony Blair re-entry into the UK and exile him to the Hague?

The rank hypocrisy of politicians and bigots aside, I understand and sympathise with European anxieties, especially following the murder of a third Western hostage held by ISIS, British aid worker David Haines. I witnessed, in the 1990s, the disruptive influence of returning Egyptian jihadists – then from Western-sanctioned Afghanistan. As an agnostic-atheist who believes in secularism and multiculturalism, I observe with alarm the rise, in Syria and Iraq, of violent Islamists who make al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Their murderous brutality, historical ignorance and cluelessness about religion is worthy of the highest contempt and mockery. But they are a catastrophe for the Middle East, not the West.

That said, Europeans fighting in Syria and Iraq do pose a potential threat to their home countries. However, the British legal system is already equipped with all the legislation necessary and the security services possess the power – too much power – to protect citizens against this threat and to punish perpetrators of atrocities, but this must only occur as a result of free and fair trials.

Moreover, a solely punitive approach is far from useful. In fact, radicalisation experts say it is counterproductive and dangerous. “Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists… risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. “It may sound tough, but it isn’t likely to be effective.”

Why? Because “their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group,” explain Maher and Neumann.

In the fog of war, it is not only unclear just how many foreign fighters there are in Syria but also who they are fighting alongside and to what end. An ICSR report from the end of last year emphasised that the group affiliations for foreign fighters were known in only a fifth of cases. Of the remaining four-fifths, it is impossible to know how many are of the headline-grabbing ISIS variety of grizzly mass murderers, and how many are young idealists drawn to fight against a murderous dictator with moderate rebel groups, like generations of Europeans before them.

Even among those who go to wage jihad, many experience a change of heart once their abstract dreams are replaced by the gruesome reality. “We’re forced to stay and fight, what choice do we have? It’s sad,” one disillusioned jihadist who was afraid to return home admitted to ICSR.

This is the situation many disenchanted Arab jihadists found themselves in when their home countries stripped them of their nationality following the war in Afghanistan, forcing them further down the road to extremism and providing the nascent Al Qaeda with a core of fighters it would otherwise have been deprived of.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have since drawn lessons from this. Rather than banishing jihadists, they have put in place de-radicalisation programmes. Effective de-radicalisation initiatives can reap a threefold benefit in Europe: regaining productive citizens, mitigating a terrorist threat and providing the best advertisement against the lure of jihad for would-be hotheads.

Moreover, radicalisation is not something that only afflicts minorities. Segments of the European majorities are also being radicalised by economic and social insecurity, demagoguery and false narratives, just like Muslims, as reflected by the extremely troubling rise of the far-right and neo-Nazism.

In addition, radicalisation is partly generational. After an implicit post-war social pact in which youth expected to lead better lives than their parents, we have reached an impasse where young people are both worse off than baby-boomers and have dwindling prospects, with rampant unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, unaffordable housing, few pension prospects, etc.

And rather than sympathy, the plight of youth has brought them contempt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not older Europeans who are the worst victims of ageism but those under the age of 25 –  a problem that’s particularly acute in the UK and Scandinavia. This has led to huge disillusionment among youngsters, some of whom turn to various forms of radicalism. Minority youth have the additional burden of racial and cultural discrimination.

This reflects how vital it is that the problem of foreign jihadists, troubling as it is, is not blown out of all proportions by vested interest groups and bigots. No more than 500 Brits, by Cameron’s own estimate, have taken up arms in Syria (and mostly for unknown reasons). Yet the prime minister claimed outlandishly that this disparate group, which would barely make up a battalion in a regular army, was the single greatest threat facing the UK, bizarrely overlooking Ukraine and other major crises affecting Europe.

This kind of rhetoric, which panders to the far right and Islamophobic elements in European society, is reckless and potentially perilous. Stigmatising and vilifying minorities or certain ethnic groups can lead to ugly repression and persecution, as Europe’s own history shows and many parts of the contemporary Middle East are currently illustrating. In fact, what history seems to tell us is that when there’s a “problem” with a minority, one should look to the majority first because that’s where the real problem usually lies.

Although some critics are well-meaning and well-intentioned, many of the loudest voices declaring the failure of multiculturalism and demanding that minorities assimilate are those who never bought into diversity in the first place and harken back to an idealised, mythological past in which society was purer and nobler.

But multiculturalism hasn’t failed. Despite its many enemies and its learn-as-you-go approach, it has been generally a roaring success. Only two or three generations ago, western European countries were largely homogenous. Today, they are a cultural kaleidoscope of diversity in which disparate groups manage to live together in peace and relative harmony.

As the once-diverse Middle East increasingly sheds its cultural variety and persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religion grows, Britain and western Europe should cherish and safeguard the beauty of their newfound multicultural reality.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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