Extremism is dangerous, but it is more dangerous to let it flourish and manifest itself the way the terrorist organisation known as the Islamic State group has been allowed to. The problem with allowing extremism to grow unchallenged is that it will eventually drive rational parties into extreme reactions in order to combat it. Thus, more innocent civilians will inevitably suffer in the process, as the problem becomes too big to contain.
Recently, Islamic State seized Mar Behnam, an ancient monastery near the predominantly Christian town of Qarqosh, to the southeast of Mosul. The militants expelled the monks, allowing them to take only the clothes they were wearing and preventing them from saving any of the monastery’s relics. A few days earlier, Christians in Mosul were given an ultimatum to convert, pay a religious levy, or face death. Their response has been a mass exodus that left the northern Iraqi city empty of Christians for the first time in its history.
The Islamic State has been engaged in a vicious campaign of abductions, murders, and expulsions of minorities in all the areas they sweep through. In practice, they exemplify the very reason why fighting, i.e. armed jihad, was permitted in Islam, which was to combat the oppression of aggressors like the Islamic State:
“Those who have been attacked are permitted to take up arms because they have been wronged – God has the power to help them – those who have been driven unjustly from their homes only for saying, ‘Our Lord is God.’ If God did not repel some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, where God’s name is much invoked, would have been destroyed.” [22:39-40]
This verse in the Quran is recognised by Muslim scholarly authorities to contain the primary reason for armed jihad in Islam, which is the repelling of unjustified aggression against oneself or others due to difference in belief. Moreover, a corollary that is implicitly understood from it is that non-Muslims living in Muslim lands must be protected and it is impermissible to unjustly expel them or destroy their houses of worship. In their treatment of Iraqi Christians, Islamic State fighters flagrantly commit the very acts abhorred in Islamic teachings.
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Religious violence is quickly metastasising. After seizing Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State are stepping up their attacks in Baghdad. The recent wave of Baghdad bombings exercised by the Islamic State targeted mostly Shia Muslim areas, the victims of which have been overwhelmingly civilians. If this is an indication, we can expect that should Islamic State take over Baghdad, we will witness a genocide of an unfathomable scale if the militant group continues to be unchallenged.
In June, the Islamic State militants staged mass executions, advertising afterwards that they had killed in one report 1,700 Shia soldiers in Tikrit. It is not for nothing that in every case the executed have been men. According to the Islamic State’s bastardised conceptualisation of Islam, Shia are not even Muslims, and therefore once they are conquered, they can kill the men and enslave the women and children. Thus, it is not far-fetched that we may soon hear of slaves sold in public markets of northern Iraq and Syria where this group operates.
In response to the eminent threat from the Islamic State on the Iraqi capital, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s highest-ranking Shia Muslim cleric, issued a fatwa summoning the country’s Iraqi Muslims, regardless of sect, to take up arms and defend the country, its people, and its holy sites. However, Sunnis, who remain divided on where they should pledge their allegiance, do not consider Ayatollah Sistani’s call authoritative. The impetus for them to join the army, remain neutral, or even fight among the ranks of the Islamic State is largely determined by prospective political gains that depend on their specific tribal or geographical context, and how they feel about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government.
One the other hand, a number of different Shia militias have sprung up, and Baghdad is increasingly on edge as it prepares for war with the Islamic State. However, it seems that among these militia groups are fringe Shia militants exercising their own brand of terrorism, killing 25 women in Baghdad who were accused of prostitution. The region is thus falling deeper into lawlessness.
The extreme anti-Shia sentiment harboured by the Islamic State militants did not develop in a vacuum. BBC World Service recently released a documentary titled “Freedom to Broadcast Hate” in which they investigated the proliferation of TV channels in the Arab world, spreading sectarian religious and political messages that deepen the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In some cases, TV evangelists sensationally invoked God in prayer to destroy their counterparts, whom they view as an existential threat to Islam as a whole, and entice their viewers to do the same. Most of the recruited fighters for the Islamic State are products of a TV-raised generation, having their religious and political opinions formed through watching such sectarian programmes.
The Islamic State’s policies of persecution are not limited to minorities of Shia Muslims and Christians. Recently, the militants carried out a public execution, stoning to death a woman in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa after she was handed this sentence for allegedly committing adultery. Hadi Salameh, one of the activists in the province, said that residents are “terrified” of the Islamic State, but fear the consequences of speaking up.
In addition, Amnesty International has documented several abuses by the Islamic State against local civilian populations, including children in areas under their control. These include flogging with rubber generator belts or cables, torture with electric shock, or being forced to adopt painful stress positions. This is not to mention an enforcement of a religious law that sees as many as five executions per week.
Prophet Muhammad’s warnings
In all their abuses and atrocities, the Islamic State claims to be merely implementing Sharia under their alleged caliphate. However, a reading of history and an understanding of Islamic law would quickly reveal that the Islamic State group is either grossly misinformed, or knowingly engaging in abuses they deem necessary to gain firm control over the population.
The leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is alleged in a published biography to be a descendant of Prophet Muhammad and his tribe, Quraysh. While this may be an attractive quality to his supporters pursuing their delusional caliphate, the Prophet Muhammad would definitely differ as his transmitted statements indicate. Prophet Muhammad said, “The destruction of my people will be at hands of young men from Quraysh.” In another Hadith narration he said, “There will be a widespread tribulation that will include everyone, the stirring of which will be by a man from my household, claiming he is of my lineage but in reality he is not, for my people are God fearing.” In fact, Prophet Muhammad implores people to fight such an individual and his group when possible in order to stop his mischief in the land.
Although Baghdadi’s group has been widely condemned by numerous Muslim scholars, the danger lurks in the fact that average young Muslims in the area may be swayed by his rhetoric. In his released sermon after taking control over Mosul, Baghdadi carefully reiterated statements made by the first caliph after the passing of Prophet Muhammad as he urged Muslims to join in what he called a jihad. Combined with what seemed like a sweeping victorious takeovers of major cities, such a presentation can be very attractive to enthusiastic Muslim youth.
We are no longer dealing with al-Qaeda militants in caves in the mountains of Afghanistan. As the Islamic State has been allowed to claim more land and power and become more organised, we have witnessed more suffering and death. It is disconcerting that we might reach a point of no return, and have more suffering and casualties.
Mohamed Ghilan is a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada, and a student of Islamic jurisprudence.
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