After IS, Iraq's Christians face extremist Shia threat

After IS, Iraq's Christians face extremist Shia threat
Comment: Although his rhetoric directly mirrors Islamic State group extremists, Shia cleric Alaa al-Mousawi will receive no major condemnation from a hypocritical international community, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
6 min read
31 May, 2017
Christian militias may respond to Mousawi's incitement, and the violent spiral will continue [AFP]

It seems like only yesterday that Islamic State group extremists were charging across Iraq, claiming new territories to add to their self-proclaimed and illegitimate caliphate.

It also feels like only yesterday that the world rose up in great outrage at the treatment to which Iraq's Christians were being exposed at the hands of IS barbarians, including expulsion from their homes and their communities.

Now, as the death knell sounds on IS' territorial holdings in Iraq while church bells ring once more in Bartella and other Christian towns recaptured from the extremists, Iraqi Christians can now surely breathe a sigh of relief that disaster has been averted - or can they?

IS and Shia jihadism

Though the world has largely been silent, Iraqis have been outraged over the past week after one of the country's most senior government-appointed Shia clerics gave a religious sermon saying that "the People of the Book" - Christians and Jews - should face a jihad in order to compel them to embrace Islam.

Alaa al-Mousawi, the head of Iraq's Shia Endowment fund, said that if Christians and Jews did not accept Islam, they ought to be killed or else forced to pay the ancient and archaic jizya tax, levied on non-Muslims.
Christians in towns and cities under IS control must either convert to Islam or pay the jizya - otherwise 'they will have nothing but the sword'

When discussing how to deal with Iraq's already-persecuted Christian community, Mousawi added that the Sabians and Zoroastrians should also be fought in a jihad and treated in the same way as "the People of the Book".
Graffiti seen in the predominantly Christian town of Bartella,
east of Mosul, reads 'Property of the Islamic State'
and carries the Arabic letter "N",
for "Nasrani" - Christian [AFP]

Mousawi is not unique in his views against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. After all, the rhetoric that he has used is almost identical to that used by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's IS brigands.

Not long after the fall of Mosul in 2014, and under Baghdadi's orders, IS issued a proclamation within its new "caliphate". The edict said that Christians in towns and cities under their control must either convert to Islam or pay the jizya - otherwise "they will have nothing but the sword".

IS extremists were then seen going around Mosul and other Iraqi towns with Christian populations, daubing the Arabic letter "ن", or "N", on the shops and homes of Christians. The "N" stood for "Nasrani", one of the many Arabic words for Christian, and marked the property for seizure should the Christian owner fail to comply with the mad, illegitimate caliph's directions.

Immediately, much of the global Twitterati adopted the "ن" on their profiles in a show of solidarity with Iraq's persecuted Christians, and in a reversal of IS' attempts to use the Arabic letter as a mark of discrimination against them.

Notable personalities who adopted the trend included senior religious figures such as Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who maintains it on his profile to this day.

While the show of solidarity with Iraqi citizens was touching to all Iraqis, irrespective of their faith or sectarian background, it is bewildering that IS received such a strong reaction while government-backed Shia clerics such as Mousawi openly advocate the same barbarism.

With such flagrant discrimination and incitement to violence, if we can brand IS as Sunni jihadists, then we must also brand people like Mousawi and those like him who call for the deaths of Christians and other vulnerable communities as Shia jihadists.

i Christian militancy

What is truly frightening about Mousawi's comments is that it was made by a senior cleric backed by the Iraqi government, a major western ally in the fight against IS.
IS did to the Sunni cause what it does best - it took what was good and just, and warped it into evil and tyranny

If this is the standard that the west expects from its allies, is it any surprise that IS existed in the first place?
It was former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's rampant sectarianism and violence against the Sunni Arab community that tilled the soil of so-called Sunni jihadism in Iraq, and opened a backdoor for IS to infiltrate the just cause of a brutally persecuted people.

Christians have been returning to their places of worship after the ousting of IS, but many fear fresh sectarian violence [AFP]

IS then did to the Sunni cause what it does best - it took what was good and just, and warped it into evil and tyranny while excluding the original victims.

This in turn engendered extremism amongst Iraq's Christian community itself. In February, Salman Esso Habba - the commander of the Christian Mobilisation militia - was caught on camera threatening to commit an ethno-sectarian cleansing campaign against the Sunni Arabs of Nineveh, the home province of Mosul.

If Habba had this sort of reaction to Sunni Arabs who have nothing to do with IS, what kind of reaction would he and militant Christians like him have towards a government-sponsored Shia cleric actively inciting against Christians, Jews and others? One can only imagine that the cycle of extremism will intensify, not subside.

Politicising Christian suffering

Meanwhile, powers such as the United States - who claim to be intervening in Iraq in order to protect minorities including Christians - have shown themselves to be barefaced frauds when it comes time to demand action against their ally's senior cleric and rhetoric that could easily lead to the deaths of Christians and Jews.

Rather than criticise Mousawi's brazen incitement, Al Jazeera reported on Friday that Vice-President Mike Pence instead devoted time to claiming that global Christendom was facing an IS-perpetrated "genocide".

While it is certainly true that IS want to do harm to Christians, to characterise it as a genocide is a political move. Such moves ring hollow when placed alongside the fact that Washington cannot seem able to bring itself to condemn people like Mousawi, or even the Tehran-backed but Baghdad-sanctioned Shia militants of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) who were accused by Human Rights Watch of looting Christian homes after IS had been forced out.
Trumpian Christian politics is as deaf, blind and dumb as Trump himself

This shameless politicisation of Christian suffering perhaps made itself shown best when the American Christian Liberty University introduced President Donald Trump at its commencement ceremony as the man who "bombed those in the Middle East who persecute Christians".

Aside from the fact that this was in reference to Trump bombing Syria last month, the audience appeared to believe that the American leader had bombed the tired stereotype of anti-Christian Muslim Arabs rather than a secular Baathist Assad regime, backed by Shia Iran and a newly woken Russian bear.

If that is what we can expect from the man in the White House and his advocates, then we can safely say that Trumpian Christian politics is as deaf, blind and dumb as Trump himself. It condemns one jihadist group while allying itself with - and providing air support to - another.

However, while we can expect such callous pragmatism with Christian lives from the Trump administration, it is truly sad that senior Christian and other international figures have failed to take a stand and condemn this incitement towards Christianity's embattled adherents.

Attacking IS is both easy and expected. Holding an ally to account for rhetoric which effectively mirrors IS, on the other hand, shows the extent of one's principles and divides people between those who pursue what is expedient, and those who promote what is good and right.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.