More than a year ago I wrote regarding the Syria conflict that ‘when a narrative appeals to you, that is the point at which you must be wary, for we rarely accept unappealing falsehoods, it is those that appeal that slip through the cracks in our incredulity.’
It is an example of a failure of this wariness that spurred me to write again.
Today I write about Iraq, and about one of the groups that was made by that conflict, though it existed before. The Islamic State (tIS), the group formerly known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) has made, with the aid of a broad coalition of local Sunni tribes, serious gains in the North of Iraq. In the wake of the capture of Mosul the group made the bold move of declaring the Khilafa, ‘crowning’ their leader as ‘Caliph Ibrahim’.
Now I don’t need to tell you, dear brothers and sisters, the appeal that the office of khilafa holds for many Muslims, though many have so far been unimpressed with its tIS manifestation. However this declaration also holds much fear, especially for those whose interests were already in conflict with groups like tIS.
The corollary of this fear has been the spread of appealing falsehoods; news stories that confirm and justify already deeply held anxieties.
As images emerged of churches in Mosul burning, a story of a massive bank heist spread like wildfire. Yet both stories turned out to be entirely false. These tall tales exaggerate and emphasise both the power of tIS and its targeting of Christian communities in Iraq. They gain such purchase because they feed upon that fear, and feed into a narrative around tIS that easily finds confirmation.
The same was true of the recent report that claimed that the Caliph had ordered that ‘FGM’ be carried out upon all female residents of Mosul.
This story was suspicious from the start, to anyone familiar with either tIS’s brand of Islam or with any contact with their supporters. To such people the likely falsehood of such a story was obvious, but our protestations came too late.
It was spread rapidly and published by news organisations from the BBC to the Guardian and al-Arabiya. Pre-existing perceptions of tIS acted as a stand in for evidence, despite calls for scepticism and confirmation.
If one goes on twitter, the occasional person will have their profile picture or avatar punctuated with the letter ‘ن’. This letter is the sound ‘n’ in English, and comes from a report which emerged from Mosul soon after tIS captured the city. The story goes that tIS fighters were marking all the houses of Christians with the letter ‘ن’, which was short for ‘Nasrani’ (Christians) in order to mark them out to be dealt with later.
The origins of the story, as far as I can tell, lays with an announcement by the Patriarch of Baghdad, Mar Raphael Louis Sako, on the 17th of July, which additionally claimed that ‘ر’ (short for ‘Rafiḍah’) marked Shia houses as well.
This image, of minority houses marked upon sectarian lines has much currency in a post-Nazi world. The picture of the Star of David painted upon shops in a ghetto in Germany is an arresting and evocative one. That cultural currency is strikingly illustrated by the aforementioned twitter trend, the image has spread rapidly, and Muslims, Christians and other groups have resoundingly adopted it as symbol of solidarity with Mosul’s Christians.
However how much do we know about the truth behind it? Having asked fighters and tIS supporters alike, one finds little clarity, which brings us to an important point.
tIS isn’t ashamed of what it is. What tied together the stories of Church burnings and FGM was that they were ultimately never confirmed or spread by members or representatives of tIS itself. Yet one finds that they are not at all afraid of spreading the news of those Mosques and Shrines they do destroy, or of the rulings they do enforce in areas they control.
They have, for example, no qualms about issuing details of the ‘jizya’ (tax upon their Christian subjects), issuing ‘urgent clarification’ of its amount and nature. The ‘urgency’ behind the clarification is not clear, but one could well argue that a Christian exodus from tIS controlled areas could have something to do with it.
They also do not shy away from posting publicly about their killing. Indeed in a response to a tweet saying exactly that, one of their supporters sent me an image of a severed head…
Accompanied by a smiling emoticon.
While one has to rely on third hand information for much of what occurs on the front lines in Iraq and Syria, when it comes to tIS policies, there is a remarkable amount of clarity, which is pretty easily attained through what is, for such a group, a pretty slick media operation.
When it comes to the marking of Christian houses and an impending genocide against Iraqi Christians, there is little such clarity. Asking members I was met with a number of contrary replies, all of which said it was either rare or faked. Some asserted that it was sprayed on those houses who had paid the jizya (and thus were under the protection of tIS) and others said it indicated empty houses, abandoned by Christians and therefore property of tIS. Early reports of the practice seemed to confirm the latter, but that idea soon vanishes from the reports.
Of course this is not definitive, but what is clear is that the claims of an impending genocide are arguably far exaggerated by media to whom it appears a certainty. Indeed those tIS affiliates I spoke with were eager to argue that they had no problem with the Christians, as long as they paid the tax… and that the option on not paying it was not death, but rather expulsion. The latter claim should be taken with a large grain of salt.
At the beginning of the Iraq war, Mosul’s Christian population numbered between 30 and 50 000, by the beginning of this year, that number was 10 000. Many media outlets now report that almost no Christians remain. Regardless of the realities on the ground, the impression of impending ethnic violence has been sufficient to clear the city of most of its Christian residents. This flight must surely have been enhanced by the writings of the Patriarch of Baghdad who, along with making the claim about ‘ن’, called upon Christians to abandon areas in the control of tIS.
The steady flow of information and misinformation is itself an actor in Iraq and Syria. The impression of tIS’s policies towards minorities is far more effective at ethnic cleansing than any reality. The truth or falsehood of the claim itself remains to be shown, but what remains is that the fog of war obscures much.
In such times of uncertainty, relying on the stories we already believe will often only lead us further astray. The desire for a strong, easy, ‘truth’ often outweighs even an experienced reporter’s doubts. In the sake of brevity I have focused on one ‘muddy’ truth about the situation in Iraq and Syria but there are a multiplicity of similarly curious claims that are thrown out in reports by even the most mainstream of news organisations, many of them contradicted by other reports from the ground.
So scepticism remains an imperative.
I wish you all a blessed Eid, and may Allah bring clarity to us all.
And Allah Knows Best.
Note: Shoutout to @naza_kat and @prohairetic on twitter as well as Mohamad Tabbaa on FB for the conversations which spurred this post and their contributions to its form. I would have liked to have footnote it fully but this format is tricky for that and many of my sources, for obvious reasons, are unnamed.