Fleeing Mosul

“We were constantly at war,” a young Sunni Arab man told me, describing life in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. He had lived in the eastern part of the city for three years, the whole time under the watchful control of the Islamic State. Just weeks before I met him, he seized an opportunity and had fled.

When I talked with him in February he was in a makeshift refugee camp near the town of Hassan Sham just outside East Mosul. The town, like most of Mosul, had been utterly destroyed in the fighting. Now he and his family were crowded into a city of 20,000 refugees, living in tents supplied by UNICEF and staffed by generous donors from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

I was brought to the refugee camp by colleagues associated with the Kurdistan university that had co-sponsored my trip to the country in February, 2017. They knew that I was interested in meeting refugees who had recently fled the control of the Islamic State, and through their contacts I was able to secure permission to one of the newest camps, constructed just a couple of months ago on territory that was formerly controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Daesh, an acronym for the Arabic phrase for the movement which happens to spell out a word similar to “bullies” in Arabic).

I was interested in finding out what life was like under ISIS rule, and it was as harsh as I had expected. The Sunni Arab guy described it like living in a prison. Since he was not willing to join ISIS he was fired from his job in the government-controlled water works. For over two years he had been out of work, doing odd jobs and selling family mementos to make ends meet. Though he was in the preferred religious and ethnic group from the rulers’ perspective, he was not the image that they had in mind for a perfect Muslim. When he was caught smoking a cigarette, for instance, he was put in prison for forty days.

One of his friends joined our conversation and explained that he too had been out of work. He previously was in construction, but under ISIS no new buildings were erected, so he sold his car and then various articles of furniture to survive. But at least he was alive. When ISIS found out that he had previously worked as a security guard for the Iraqi army he was forced to march to an open field with twenty other men accused of various offenses. Then to their shock the ISIS guards started firing their weapons at them. People were killed right beside him, the young man told me. He fell down as if he was dead, lying still next to the corpses of those who had been shot. For hours he lay there until he thought it was safe to sneak away. He then hid until the liberation forces came and he was able to spirit his two wives and seven children away from Mosul and out of ISIS controlled territory.

Fleeing Mosul was not an easy thing, as it turned out. My ideas about how wars end come from old World War II footage where the troops triumphantly march down the middle of the street and the jubilant population cheers from sidelines, waving flags.

The war with ISIS is not ending like that. In fact, in many cases it is not clear exactly when or whether the fighting has ended, since ISIS fighters and supporters have infiltrated the houses of ordinary civilians, some of whom may have been tacit supporters and others not. Even their neighbors do not know. All the residents were intimidated by ISIS as long as it had control. When things changed, no one knew whom to trust.

The liberation troops entered the areas of Mosul carefully, taking fire from ISIS on all sides, and wary of landmines and booby traps. The liberation troops were Iraqi Army or Sunni tribal militia; Kurdish Peshmerga troops and Shi’a militia were also fighting ISIS in the region but were not supposed to be in the vanguard of combatants that enter into the inner city. When they thought that they had liberated an area—say a city block of apartment houses—they often retreated to their encampments for the night, only to find the next morning that ISIS had retaken the block. In some cases the ISIS fighters had never left; they had found secure hiding places or tunnels in the buildings and were waiting for the chance to reassert control.

This meant that those civilians who were desperate to leave, such as the two fellows with whom I spoke, had to make several split-second decisions. They had to decide whether their neighborhood was truly free of ISIS soldiers, and whether the time was right for them and their families to make their getaway.

In both cases, therefore, the two men with whom I spoke decided to sneak out in the middle of the night. They chose a time when they thought that the liberation forces were near and ISIS security guards would be busy fighting them. When they and their wives and small children escaped in the cover of darkness, carrying only as many family possessions as they could hold in their hands, they had only a vague sense of where to go. They headed east, towards Kurdistan and freedom.

Soon they encountered checkpoints, and these presented problems. They had to make quick decisions about whom to trust. A roadblock manned by what may have appeared to be Iraqi Army might in fact be ISIS loyalists pretending to be part of the Iraqi Army. Making the wrong calculation about whom to trust could lead to deportation back to Mosul. Or at worst they would be killed on the spot.

For this reason they avoided checkpoints, scurrying around them and behind houses, until they were far from the city. At that point, when they felt reasonably secure, they identified themselves as refugees to what they hoped were units of the Iraqi Army. Mercifully, they were safe. A truck then brought them to the refugee camp where they were assigned a tent and for the first time in years could breathe sighs of relief.

They had arrived at the camp only weeks before I talked with them, and what was surprising was how ordinary it all seemed, how manner-of-factly they told their stories of escape. Part of the reason was that they have not had much time to reflect on their ordeal, since they have had to adjust to a new life, and figuring out how to survive in a refugee camp with tens of thousands of others.

One of the first things one of the men did was to trim his beard. He did not become smooth shaven, since the style for men in Iraq is often to keep some semblance of beard. But he did not want the bushy Muslim beard that ISIS required of all men. He also began to listen to rock music on the little portable radio he carried with him, blasting its tunes from a Kurdistan radio station. In Mosul he also had the tiny portable radio, but he kept it hidden. Now he could listen to rock music in the open, and smoke cigarettes whenever he wanted to. These were small symbols of freedom, but important ones to him.

Both men wanted to return to Mosul to rebuild their lives. That is not possible at present, of course, since the city is still a war zone. Moreover, even when the last ISIS fighter has been killed or captured, the city will be left in shambles. I passed by several villages that on the outskirts of Mosul which, like many parts of the city itself, have been utterly destroyed. In the villages I saw, not a single building was still habitable. And even if they could rebuild, the infrastructure of water, electricity and sewer lines will take months if not years to reconstruct. And then there is the fear of landmines and booby traps that the ISIS fighters have left behind.

To rebuild all of this will take money and civic will. Without monetary support from the Iraq government or from the international community, the civic resolve may wither as well. Already there are reports that the Iraq city of Fallujah, only recently liberated from ISIS control, may again slip into the hands of ISIS given the frustration and desperation of the residents of the city who are having great difficulty in rebuilding their lives. As horrible as ISIS control may be, it has provided a kind of civic order and funding to maintain a city’s infrastructure.

To the fellows with whom I spoke in the refugee camp at Hassan Sham, these were problems for the future. Right now they were happy to breathe freely and imagine the possibilities of an improved life, even if that road to rehabilitation will be as perilous as the journey that they had just made in fleeing Mosul.

My thanks to Rebeen Fadhil, a journalist and social activist with the Harmony project in Erbil, Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq, for arrangements and translation assistance.

Why Are You Christians So Selfish?

With fellow speakers at a conference on countering religious extremism held by the Muslim Clerics Association of Kurdistan, in Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan in February, 2017

“Why are you Christians so selfish?,” I was asked by a bearded Mullah in the city of Sulaimaniya in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. I had gone there to give the keynote address to a conference of 400 Muslim scholars and clergy from the region who were convening on the topic of religious extremists and what to do about them. For “extremist” they used the Arabic term, taqfiri, which refers to any pompous religious person who accuses others of heresy, thereby pretending to be better than they are.

With the presence of the Islamic State just a few miles from the conference site, they had plenty of examples of taqfiri to worry about. In my keynote address, however, I could assure them that this taqfiri attitude was not just a problem for Islam. All religious traditions have their taqfiri, I said, and the recent presidential elections in the United States brought out the Christian taqfiri in droves.

This brings us back to the question that he raised, about why so many Christians seem so selfish. What he had in mind was the refusal of Americans to take in refugees from Iraq and Syria who were fleeing from the persecution of the Islamic State (also known in the West as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and called Daesh by Iraqis who despised them, since this word that is an acronym of the Arab phrase for the movement also sounds like the Arabic word for bullies or thugs).

The Mullah’s question was followed by a diatribe against the ban that had recently been proclaimed by the newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump, prohibiting people from trying to enter the US, many of them refugees, from seven Muslim countries. Though I agreed that it was a pointless and insulting policy, I said, it can also be seen as part of a larger mood of nationalism around the world. I tried to explain this fear of refugees by the global mood of anti-globalism, linking the vote for Brexit in the UK to the nationalist xenophobia in the US. In both cases immigration and entangling trade alliances were issues that voters pointed to in their surprise upset votes for Brexit and Trump, respectively.

But the Mullah in Sulaimaniya was having none of it. This was not a universal response, he thundered. He pointed out that Kurdistan was a tiny little country (everyone in Kurdistan describes it as if it were already independent from Iraq), and a poor one at that. It is now overflowing with perhaps two million refugees, a third of its population, the Mullah said, adding that there is not a whimper of rejection of them from the Kurdish Muslim population. Just the opposite, he explained, the Muslim Kurds are eager to help however they can.

I knew what he meant. I had visited several refugee camps in the region where tens of thousands were encamped. Though UNICEF and other international agencies provided much of the material support, the relief centers were run by Kurdish NGOs with funds provided from the region itself. Though most people in the Kurdistan region were Sunni Muslims by religious affiliation and Kurdish by ethnicity, the people in the camps were Christian and Yazidi as well as Muslim, Arab as well as Kurdish. They were all treated with respect in the camps.

In addition to the established refugee facilities, I also saw makeshift huts in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where refugees were crowded into vacant lots and half-built buildings. At one of these impromptu settlements I found that the Kurdish neighbors in comfortable middle-class houses were helping the refugees set up their tents. They helped them tap into the power lines so they could have electricity, and they provided them with water, food and blankets.

Millions more refugees from Syria and Iraq have flooded into Turkey. That Muslim country, poor by European standards, has welcomed the same people who then tried to move onward to European Christians countries and were often rudely rebuffed.

The Mullah I met wanted to link these two contrasting attitudes to religion–the Muslim theme of hospitality and service, compared with what he saw as Christian selfishness and individualism. “No Muslim,” he said, “would turn away a stranger in need.”

I was tempted to argue with him. After all it was the intolerance of ISIS taqfiri that created the refugees in Iraq and Syria in the first place. And Turks have hardly been the world’s model of hospitality for all ethnic groups–surely Kurds of all people should be aware of that. The current regime in Turkey has resisted the Kurds from having a voice in the nation’s political life and is waging war against Kurdish militants in the eastern areas of the country. In the past hundred years, ever since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of Turkey as an independent nation, Armenians and Alawites as well as Kurds have been treated as second class citizens.

But I didn’t argue with the Mullah, not only because I didn’t want to enter into a sparring match, but also because he had struck a sensitive chord. I felt that he was, in part, right. Some of the most vicious inhospitality of Islamophobia and anti-refugee attitudes in the United States have come from within the Bible belt of America’s Midwestern and Southern states. It has sometimes been Christian church leaders who have raised the anti-immigrant slogans most loudly. It as if they had never read the biblical words commanding the faithful to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and admonishing those who have not loved their neighbor whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.

But as a sociologist I know that religion is not just about belief and creeds, it is about how people think of their relationship to specific communities and cultures, and how they defend them with religious zeal. My own experience of being raised in the religious milieu of the American Midwest taught me that much of the Sunday morning identities of church were about establishing we-they communities of faith, the religious clubs of small town American churches that are exclusive by their very definitions. Taqfiri attitudes are built into the very social fabric of American religiosity.

That is not the whole story, fortunately. My family’s religiosity is testimony to another strand of Midwestern religion that comes from an immigrant past, a more hospitable and tolerant attitude reflected in the 19th century missionary movement that was largely about world service rather than simply saving souls. The several missionaries in my own family would return on furlough with great stories about the schools and hospitals they had established, and the poor they had helped to lift up to better roles within society. Our house was open to people from other countries whom we regarded as very special guests. My older sister brought home three Iranian women she met in college, and I remember thinking of them like Magi from the East, wise people from foreign cultures who could teach us something special about the world.

So yes, we Christians can be selfish. But like the Muslim tradition that can embrace both hospitality and taqfiri, the story is complicated. The same religious tradition that can be a resource for intolerance can be a basis for acceptance as well. Though Christianity can become the shield of clubbish and nationalist sentiments there is still the haunting image of the legendary birth events of a child who was born into a refugee family who could not find a room to accept them. It’s good to know today that at least some Christians would have taken them in.

My thanks to the Union of Islamic Clerics in Kurdistan for the invitation to the conference and to Prof Ibrahim Anli of Ishik University, Erbil, for arrangements and translation assistance.