The ISIS Onslaught and a View From Inside Iraq

This perspective is personal and from inside the battle for survival during the Islamic State onslaught in Iraq.

Dear Friends and Family:

I have heard from a lot of people over the past week, and I thought I would offer a longer set of comments on the issue of persecution of religious minorities in this region where I have been serving on and off for the past ten years.    America has clearly been in the mood to retreat somewhat from our international commitments, and especially from this region where we have faced one costly disappointment after another. Believe me, having witnessed many of the disappointments from a position of closer proximity, I too am disappointed and I too often feel that sentiment. 

With that as background, I was struck by how emotional some of the e-mails were I received as events unfolded: like, “where is our government” in the face of this horror?  There is nothing like vivid non-stop CNN coverage of an unfolding disaster to grip people’s conscience.  It was the TV coverage that showed the face of human suffering and conveyed the stark reality that these were innocent victims of the terrorist horror, people just like us.  From my experience, the overwhelming majority of ordinary people in this region, whatever their religion, simply want to raise their families in peace. They are not only not inclined toward violence but are horrified by the religious extremism.   It is all too easy for Americans to see a region crawling with barbaric terrorists and not see the faces of Moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, kids and even newborns — who in this case had to abandon their homes and travel great distances on foot to escape the Islamist’s sword.

We can’t carry all of the world’s burdens of course, but neither can we shirk our responsibilities as the lone superpower — that is, if we still believe that at the moral center of our society we hold that all human beings everywhere deserves rights and dignity.   One pattern I have watched with my own eyes is that when America stops caring, the rest of the world cares even less.    Or, as I have said on various occasions, when America’s lights dim, they go out in much of the world where the oppressed huddle in fear for their lives.   That’s the case with dictators, terrorists, corrupt warlords, human traffickers — you name it. Tyrants watch us carefully, and are emboldened when it appears we are losing our moral conviction or nerve.    

That just happens to be true.  And I believe the appearance of America turning inward emboldened ISIS (the terrorists).  ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State because of its success in creating the first terrorist state, is tapping into one of the most primitive visions of Islam to justify its reign of terror against literally anyone who disagrees or stands in their path, including fellow Muslims who are either of the Shia sect or are of moderate point of view and thus resistant to religious dictatorship.  But one of the first groups on their short target list after conquering Mosul, the second most populous Iraqi city, was Christians, many from a unique ethnic groups called the Assyrian Christians.  The City of Mosul and the Nineva Province are rich in Biblical history and it was clear from the beginning that ISIS was determined to exterminate the Christian faithful and all remaining archeological reminders of history.  The black shirts proceeded to mark Christian households with N for Nazarenes followed by a multiple choice presentation of grim options: convert immediately to Islam, pay a religious tax (at $400 per month, beyond what many even earn), or die.  Priceless artifacts were destroyed, including the tomb of Jonah, respected by Muslims and Christians alike.  And an untold number died: the fleeing were forced to witness unspeakable crimes against innocent people, including reports of beheadings, crucifixions, and the violation of women.

After consolidating its hold on Mosul, ISIS shocked the region and the world over the past week by gobbling up dozens of villages and towns that were home to large numbers Christians and Yazidis in the border area of Kurdish territory, which had been protected by the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military forces that were renowned for their fighting prowess.  On August 7, the “Pesh” were routed, outmaneuvered, out gunned, and forced to abandon the front they had established to protect these vulnerable people.  Two hundred thousand people poured out of these towns, a majority heading into Erbil the Kurdish regional capital.   I witnessed a relatively stable and peaceful region transformed by the arrival of refugees, clogged traffic, shortages, a government stretched to the breaking point and out of money.     

Having finished their deed, the ISIS pronounced on social media “All Christian villages are now empty.”   I thought that one statement characterized the events of the past week well, serving as a wakeup call to what is happening.   Not only has the U.S. responded, thankfully, but there has finally been a remarkable outpouring of press reports focusing on the scale of religious persecution that has been systematically carried out in recent years.  For example, in an editorial called “Christians at the Mercy of Jihadis,” the Financial Times described “the spectre of an east Mediterranean  empty of Christians” and the steady uprooting over the past ten years of a 2,000 year old heritage where Christianity was born. .     

The harm that has come to Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq in the wake of Saddam’s removal is as paradoxical as it is painful to observe — speaking of great disappointments.  Soon after Saddam’s removal in 2003, Christians got caught in the cross fire as the age-old schism between two Muslim sects came to boil.   Assyrian Christians, mostly Chaldeans, faced a barrage of attacks that reduced their numbers from 1 million to 300,000.  This is arguably the most ancient group; in some locations Assyrian populations speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, as a dear Aramaic speaking Iraqi-American friend often reminds me.  

I have never believed that we should stand and be heard only when our group is singled out for persecution. That is neither right nor effective.   All of mankind must stand for the rights and dignity of all, whether they be Christians, Jews, Muslims, or any number of religious minorities such as Azidis whose views are regarded by many as strange (in case you haven’t noticed, Christian beliefs are viewed by many as strange).   No group should enjoy favored protection and neither should any persecuted group be ignored, as I believe Christians in the Middle East have been for far too long.

A good example of this even-handed advocacy of religious non-discrimination was on display in another remarkable piece that received wide circulation — and which I recommend you read in its entirety below.   A growing number of Rabbis are speaking out against this trend in persecution that has gone either unnoticed altogether or known and ignored, in no small part because of the perceived Cultural dominance of Christianity in the minds of many western secularists, as the article itself points out.

A final observa 8/11/2014tion concerns the latest mantra that I hear repeated even by close friends, which is “there is no military solution” to the problems in the Middle East, which is of course generally true.   My belief is that the region is in the middle of an historic transition from one governing model to an unknown one, and that this would be happening whatever American chose to do or not do.   The great difficulty is that as old-styled dictators (like Hussein and Mubarak) are thrown off in favor of something new, the resulting vacuum creates a wide opening for Islamic extremists and terrorists.  Indeed, radical Islam is one of those governing models that is competing for attention, as we saw in the disastrous and brief rule of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt. 

But if there are severe limits to what the U.S. can do militarily, it can also be asserted that sometimes “military action is the only solution,” such as I observed in the Kurdish region over the past week — unless, that is, we are all resigned to abandoning thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims to either the sword of ISIS or to death by starvation or thirst in the 110 degree afternoon heat, huddled and hoping for outside help in the crevices and ravines of Sinjar mountain.   Yes, women, children, grandmas and grandpas.  And it took U.S. military power to stop the advance of ISIS which had already gobbled up dozens of small towns and villages, and had reached to within 20 miles of Erbil, where many expats work and where I have spent most of the summer.   No other force could have done that. 

My patriotism has never been of the chest-thumping variety but rather a quiet gratitude for how an imperfect nation is able to be a force for moral good, providing unmatched freedom and opportunity for its own people, and on many occasions bringing justice to the oppressed around the world.  Basically, to be a beacon of hope for humanity.    So I close by describing the relief I felt when I observed the first U.S. C-130 cargo plane taxiing down the runway at Erbil International Airport, sailing off into the bright evening sky to deliver its load of food, water and humanitarian supplies to these desperate people.   I felt relief and I felt patriotic gratitude.  

Feel free to circulate.  And thanks for your prayers and many expressions of concern.

D (Name withheld to protect author)


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