How Iraq Decimated ISIS By Also Taking It On Ideologically

Iraq’s religious leaders issued a statement in March 2020 repudiating and condemning the violence of ISIS while underscoring the terror group’s crimes impacted members of all religions

Iraq’s religious leaders issued a statement in 2020 condemning the violence of ISIS while underscoring the terror group's crimes impacted all

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Sheikh Abdul Mahdi Karbalai, who leads Friday prayers at the shrine of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain in Iraq’s Karbala, had survived assassination attempts twice. In the middle of the civil war after the American invasion, a bomb hit Karbalai’s convoy near a checkpoint in Karbala and left him wounded and his two bodyguards dead in 2008.

Four years earlier, he was injured in a blast near the shrine in 2004. As a survivor of terrorism, Karbalai felt strongly about it. The sentiment was most pronounced inside the opulent and ornate shrine, where cleric Karbalai was the first among the senior clerics our group of journalists covering the war on ISIS met in February 2016.

Karbalai spoke to us in Arabic. He began by emphasising they had invited us to convey a message to the world that they were fighting the war against ISIS for peace. Karbalai acknowledged the media’s important role. But he quickly regretted some of the media were mostly projecting the war to be that between Shias and Sunnis. He insisted that was not the case.

The Sunnis, Karbalai added, have suffered at the hands of ISIS and were fighting shoulder and shoulder with the Shias. He said they were carrying forward Hussain’s mission and highlighted how the Imam influenced many world leaders including Gandhi.

Karbalai was among the signatories to a statement Iraq’s religious leaders issued in March 2020 endorsing the need for justice and the rights of victims and survivors of ISIS. The statement was issued following an engagement of the UN’s Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIS (UNITAD) with Iraq’s religious authorities including Christians.

The leaders repudiated and condemned the violence of ISIS as ‘completely contrary to their respective faiths.’ They underscored ISIS’s crimes impacted members of all religions across Iraq and that all survivors must be supported in their efforts to continue their lives within their communities.

The statement recognised acts of heroism in which members of their respective communities rose up in defence of those from other religious and ethnic backgrounds.
‘…the religious leaders spoke with one voice in acknowledging the tremendous suffering members of their communities had endured as a result of sexual and gender-based violence and in underlining their commitment to ensure that survivors of such crimes are fully supported and do not suffer from any form of stigmatization,’ a UN communique on the statement said.

The communique said the critical importance of ensuring that ISIL (ISIS) members are held individually responsible for crimes committed, through fair trials in a court of law, as well as the investigation of cases of those who disappeared and were abducted by ISIL, was further underlined in the statement. ‘In this regard, all religious authorities expressed their strong collective support for the work of UNITAD.’

Karbalai echoed many of these comments during his interaction with us. He repeated the common refrain we heard from the clergy in Iraq that people across religious and sectarian divides were responding to cleric Ayatollah Ali al Sistani’s call and defending the entire world.

‘ISIS has killed a lot of Sunnis, who are battling them. ISIS’s violence has affected all Iraqis—Shia, Sunni, and Christians—and we are fighting together,’ said Karbalai, who wore a white turban and black flowing robes.

Karbalai added they cannot allow ISIS to have its way and kill whosoever opposes them. He insisted Iraqis were fighting the real jihad against ISIS on Sistani’s call to defend their country against barbarity.

The Iraqi clergy resented the practise of calling terrorists jihadis and repeatedly highlighted the Arabic word jihad means to struggle with the bigger being the struggle against evil within. The smaller and the real jihad, it argued, entailed self-defense they were involved in against ISIS.

Jihad appears in the Quran 41 times and dissuasion from fighting, qital or harb, 70 times. The clerics we met in Iraq insisted people involved in terrorism are terrorists and not jihadis as the killing of innocent people is anything but a struggle that jihad literally means.

They repeatedly cited the Quranic verse, which says the killing of an innocent is as good as slaying the entire humanity. The clerics said calling terrorists jihadis legitimises terrorism and the twisting of Islamic doctrines.

The clerics said the resistance against ISIS terrorists was what the real jihad was for and tens of thousands of Iraqis signed up voluntarily on Sistani’s call. They credited successes against ISIS to Sistani’s call for lesser jihad symbolically from one of Islam’s holiest shrines—Caliph Ali’s mausoleum in Najaf.

Iraqi journalists, who were present at Karbalai’s briefing, echoed the arguments over cups of sweet black tea and filo pastries dipped in honey before we met cleric Syed Afzal al-Shami at the shrine.

Shami more or less echoed Karbalai. He spoke about Sistani’s call for resistance against ISIS and credited it for the successes against the group. He made it a point to underline Muslims were ISIS’s primary target and emphasised there was not a military solution alone to the problem and added its ideology has to be taken on both militarily and intellectually.

Syed Saduddin, director of the secretariate of Imam Hussain Shrine, was very aggressive in his pronouncements, unlike the softspoken and measured clerics. ‘The fight is now been fought between sons of Ali, grandsons of Yazid and the Wahabi,’ he told us, using a pejorative term for the dominant Salafi school of thought in Saudi Arabia.

‘…during our pilgrimage to the shrine, we say to ourselves that wish we had come to fight for Hussain. This is the power we bring into our hearts. This is what drives us today against ISIS,’ said Saduddin, who wore a suit and tie and sat behind a table full and racks at his marbled walled and carpeted office.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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