Tawfik Bensaud leading a pro-democracy protest in Benghazi
When he was 15, Libyan student Tawfik Bensaud began organizing social media campaigns and street protests in Benghazi in pursuit of democracy for his country. His activism included youtube videos urging people to vote, launching peaceful protests for democracy and improved security, and promoting free speech online. The young activist was unafraid of the threats against him and the violence surrounding him. He even lost his father and his home to the chaos that had engulfed Libya, yet he still carried on.
Last September, when Tawfik was 18, he was shot and killed in an attack by suspected Islamist militants who wanted his voice silenced. His best friend and fellow activist, Sami El-Kawafy, was also killed.
Libyans mourned the devastating loss of two bright young people who wanted to change their country for the better. The senseless murders, part of a very violent several days in Benghazi at the end of September, were decried internationally. Human Rights Watch called it a potential crime against humanity. In times like these, the easiest and most obvious option seems to turn to hate and revenge, to give up on peace. But Tawfik’s friends, and every young Libyan on social media who shared his ideals, found another way to react to the deaths, and it was born where Tawfik’s ideas had formerly taken flight: social media.
In a move of defiance, those carrying on Tawfik’s vision created the #IAmTawfik campaign, described on its twitter page as “a daring, peaceful message to all those who kill our dreams.” You can find the hashtag all over Twitter, as thousands have come out in solidarity, taking pictures of themselves holding signs that read “#IAmTawfik” both to mourn the loss and to continue his fight.
The #IAmTawfik Facebook page has almost 10,000 likes. The Libyan Youth Movement, which has over 159,000 twitter followers, tweeted “Nothing will deter those using their voices against violence #IAmTawfik #Libya.” Libyan diplomat Loay Omran tweeted, “You have to understand something… Every day a new Tawfik is born in #Libya. #IAmTawfiq #Benghazi.” Colin Townson from the Canadian Embassy in Libya tweeted, “#IAmTawfik because freedom of expression and freedom from are fear are essential to democracy.” An #IAmTawfik solidarity event was even organized in London, and featured youth activists, politicians, and a major news channel editor as some of the speakers. Find out more about it and read excerpts of the speeches from the event at Libyan Youth Voices.
Tawfik’s cousin, Houda el-Khoja, now lives in London and actively works on the #IAmTawfik campaign, continuing to spread its message from abroad. “Are you doing all of this because you miss him?” a reporter asks her in a video about Tawfik published by the BBC this week. “Absolutely I miss him,” replies Houda, her voice a bit shaky. “I miss him and I love him so much. His voice was strong while he was alive, and it’s even stronger now.”
Online intimidation continues, but activists have been combatting it with their hashtag of hope despite increased fighting and assassinations in the country. Tawfik’s death was not in vain. His dedication to democracy and human rights succeeded in inspiring so many others to carry on his message. So whenever you think of a hashtag, remember that it has more power than we realize—it is keeping the memory of a young democracy hero alive whose vision of a free and peaceful future cannot be stopped.
You can see more on the I Am Tawfik Official Twitter page, whose latest tweet from roughly 24 hours ago reads, “Even if it seems as if there is no more hope, never give up. #IamTawfik #Libya #Hope.”
A family of voters on election day in Tunis, Tunisia. Photo: Natasha Turak
“To anyone pronouncing the end of democracy in this region, I strongly suggest they visit Tunisia.” These were the opening words of Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, at a press conference for the international election observer missions that came to the country to monitor the voting process.
Last weekend, the country where the Arab Spring began proved that democracy is possible in a region all too well known for conflict and corruption. Three years after ousting longtime dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in a popular revolution triggered by the self-immolation of an impoverished street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisia’s official democratic transition is close to completion–but not without huge obstacles along the way. Since 2011, the country’s economy has plummeted, terrorism and crime rates have gone up, and the government has suffered frequent deadlock. But since the adoption of a new Constitution in January of this year, widely praised by international governments and human rights groups for its commitment to equal rights and the rule of law, hope for a stable and strong Tunisia has largely been restored. The 2014 legislative election, the country’s second free election in its history, was yet another milestone in its revolutionary journey. And I was there to witness it.
I have been living in Tunisia for ten months now, and began working as a journalist for Tunisia Live, the country’s only English-language news source, two months ago. The work, in addition to being Euphrates’ publications director, has given me the most amazing opportunity to discover Tunisia politically and culturally, most recently as I visited polling stations and neighborhoods in different parts of the capital Tunis.
On the morning of election day, the streets were filled with a quiet anticipation. Flags adorned the palm-tree lined boulevards and I could hear the word intikhabet (Arabic for ‘elections’) everywhere I went. I visited polling stations in upscale suburbs where voters spoke French, wore tank tops, and donned designer bags, and I visited poorer neighborhoods where dilapidated schools housed polling stations, residents spoke only a local dialect of Arabic, and pockets of the community were said to be supporters of ISIS. Regardless of the territory, everyone I spoke to in the polling stations seemed eager and excited to vote. “This is our chance to make our voice heard, and achieve what we want as citizens, without fear,” Asma, a 26 year old master’s student, told me.
You can check out some of my photos from the historic day here!
Anticipating potential terrorist attacks aimed at derailing the democratic transition process, Tunisia’s government mobilized 100,000 security forces including the army, police, and national guard, all of which carried out their jobs in a very calm and professional manner. Going in as a journalist, I was never denied access or forbidden to take a picture–another very positive sign.
After polls closed I spent the evening at the National Election Press Center to await results. The next several days moved so quickly, with interviews, stories, press conferences, and new vote counts coming in constantly. It was exausting, but so exciting. In the end, the result came as a surprise to everyone–the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, who won the 2011 post-revolution elections with a sweeping majority, came in second after Nidaa Tounes, the main secular opposition party. Both parties reacted to the news with grace and professionalism, expressing their gratitude toward and faith in Tunisia and its democratic trajectory. Rached Ghannouchi, head of Ennahdha, told a crowd of supporters following the results’ release, “Today we are celebrating freedom, and Tunisia’s successful democracy. Tunisia is dearer to us than power and is dearer to us than Ennahdha itself.”
Politicians and voters alike expressed a willingness to work together, and praise was given especially to the civil society groups and independent media that have been so vital in ensuring transparency and fairness. Mehdi, a young business consultant from Tunis, told me this was “a huge win for progressives in Tunisia,” and that his confidence for the country’s future lay “not in the politicians themselves, but in Tunisia’s civil society and the media,” which, he said, were the true indicators of democracy. Mohamed, an English teacher, stressed that “the winning party urgently needs to reform the government institutions, secure the country, lower inflation and unemployment and get confidence back to foreign investors.” Nidaa, the winning party, he told me, “is well capable of achieving those goals and taking Tunisia to the next level.”
Independent international observer groups noted sporadic irregularities during the weekend’s election process, but expressed broad positive feedback overall, with 92% of all polling stations recorded as fully compliant with legal regulations. The National Democratic Institute hailed it as an “extraordinary accomplishment”, and the International Republican Institute described it as potentially representing “the most successful democratic transition in the Arab world.” IRI North Africa Director Scott Mastic congratulated Tunisians on carrying out a process that was “credible, transparent, and genuinely competitive, especially during difficult times and under threats of violence.” An American representative from the Carter Center remarked that for its second free elections ever, Tunisia’s performance was “absolutely astonishing.”
Sunday’s vote represents the second free elections in Tunisia’s history. It follows the ratification of the new Constitution in January of this year, widely praised by international leaders and human rights groups for its commitment to equal rights and the rule of law. The culmination of the 2014 election season marks the completion of Tunisia’s official transition to democracy, which started with the Arab Spring and will end with the country’s presidential election, to be held on November 23.
While many challenges remain, and a successful election is by no means the end of the road, this represent an incredibly important milestone. I can say from personal experience that the people of Tunisia are resilient, inspiring, and hopeful, and I for one am fully confident that they will only go up from here.
Something you learn while studying countries in conflict is that while suffering often creates bonds, it doesn’t necessarily eradicate divisions, even when those suffering hail from the same places. Finding common ground is a crucial pursuit not only among warring factions, but also among the ordinary people caught in the crosshairs, who can still fall guilty of prejudice and discrimination. I have seen it here in Tunis—over a million Libyans have come across the border to Tunisia to flee the violence in their country, and they are often faced with harsh discrimination. Palestinians living in Jordan and Lebanon regularly deal with prejudice, having lived for generations in countries that aren’t their true homes. Even my Syrian friends have met unfriendly or offensive comments while traveling in other Arab countries, especially those that host high numbers of refugees.
On top of that, my Arabs friends coming from conflict countries tell me that they can rarely agree with one another on the root of their countries’ problems, how to deal with them, and how to move forward.
Despite all this, there is a way forward, a way that all parties can find their common ground and approach solutions to their ills. That way is dialogue, and it is a pivotal first step.
The Search for Common Ground, an international non-profit promoting and pursuing non-violent conflict resolution and cooperation, recently helped produce three great videos to promote the breaking down of prejudice and barriers. Four cartoon artists from countries in conflict—one from Yemen, one from Syria, one from Libya, and one from Tunisia, came together for a workshop in Tunis to talk about what they felt were the biggest problems in their countries and what might be the solutions. They quickly found that they couldn’t agree on what to point the blame to—was it poverty and unemployment? No, it was terrorism! Was it the influence of religion? No, it was corruption in the government! And are our countries ready for democracy… or not ? Before they knew it, the four cartoonists were fighting amongst each other—and they were on the same side! Watch the video to see their depiction of the conversation, which they illustrated in cartoon drawings.
Here in Tunisia, I see Tunisians arguing over what is the source of their country’s problems and what should be done about it. Some say that Islam should play a role in the country’s government, while others passionately oppose it, even going so far as calling conservative Muslims “terrorists”. Some hail democracy and the new leadership, while others say the old autocratic regime of Ben Ali was better. And these differences have led to polarization in the country. The space for dialogue, however, facilitated by an environment of unprecedented speech and press freedom in the country and easy communication through social media, has helped ease some of these tensions.
Check out SFCG’s video by a Libyan cartoon artist on the importance of choosing peace. The courage and hope that the artist in the video reveals–knowing that his homeland is being torn apart yet still staunchly choosing peace–is beyond inspiring. Then watch this beautiful video put together by Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian artists calling for and end to divisions and the breaking of barriers within the Arab world. Its message: Conflict and differences are inevitable. Violence is not.
Whether it’s different political views within the same country, or different countries within the same conflict-ridden region, it’s time to look at the bigger picture—and that is the common goal of peace and security. It may seem hard to move forward together in tough times, but alone, it is impossible. United, the impossible becomes possible, and the power of peace can be realized.
For the last ten days, Euphrates has been on the road discovering the amazing stories of global peacemakers in the cradle of the world’s most ancient religions. If you missed it, you can find out all about the first few days of our journey here, and be sure to check out our short videos to really get a feel for these breathtaking spots!
Day 4 of the trip was particularly special—it was Euphrates’ last day in Jerusalem, the spiritual home of all the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Here we met Lee Ziv, an absolutely inspirational woman who co-founded Musaique, an Israel-based non-profit NGO that uses music to break down cultural and religious barriers. Musaique was founded in 2008 by Lee, from Israel, and Jamil Sarraj, from Jordan, during a United Religions Initiative conference. Their projects include bringing together musicians from a variety of different faiths, countries, and backgrounds and organizing workshops. Musaique’s mission is to “promote trust building between its members, to create a bridge through music that is inspired by peace and brings peace to others, and to learn about the different religions and people in the region through workshops, personal stories and grassroots work”. You can find out more about Musaique and watch a video of their music on youtube!
Our team also had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, who runs a school for Palestinian children in Israel. Dalia is actually one of the characters around whom Sandy Tolan’s award-winning nonfiction book “The Lemon Tree” is based! The book takes place in Israel and tells the story of a young Palestinian man and a young Israeli girl—Dalia Eshkenazi—who meet in 1967 and form a unique friendship amid war and conflict. In 1991, Dalia opened a kindergarten in Israel for Palestinian children called Open House, which operates as a peace and education center. According to its website, Open House works to be “a place of encounter and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in the Ramle area [in Israel] through our Center for Jewish-Arab Coexistence.” If you haven’t read The Lemon Tree yet, be sure to put it on your list. You can also listen to Dalia talk about opening the center in her TED talk, “Deciding to Open the Door to The Other”.
Day 6 was International Day of Peace, which we spent in Hebron. It was a beautiful day—we visited the Holy Tomb of the Patriarchs, one of the holiest sites for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. We visited a local women’s cooperative on the Palestinian side and listened as Palestinian locals shared their stories of hardship under the Israeli occupation. We then went to the Israeli side and talked with Rabbis who explained to us why these sites are so important to Jews and their heritage. Check out our video montage of the day’s explorations!
A few days later, on Day 8, we had a visit with Palestinian Antoine Saka, deputy director of the Holy Land Trust. The Holy Land Trust is a non-political organization based in Palestine’s West Bank working with interfaith leaders, grassroots organizers, and women’s groups to deal with past trauma and societal narratives in order to envision a future of peace and possibility. Prior to founding the Trust, founder Sami Awad, also from Palestine, asked himself, “Where is the voice of the majority of the people on both sides, who demand freedom and peace?”
Euphrates’ media director Ricky Schaberg described Saka as “a breath of fresh air with his de-emphasis of politics and narratives, and his focus on the work that his organization is doing to bring healing and deep transformation to individuals’ lives.”
So what does the Holy Land Trust do to pursue meaningful progress in its community?
“This project basically targets religious leaders of the three communities,” Saka told Euphrates. “We want them to heal themselves and go heal others. Moving from there to dig back in their theology—what does the Bible say, what does the Torah say, what does the Quran say about loving the enemy and how to treat the other in times of war—by preaching love and preaching out of love, not out of hate. And so if those are the people who will lead the communities in the land, if we have the sheikh and the imam and the priest and the rabbi all preaching out of love instead of out of fear, then that’s what we need to start creating some magic here.”
Take a peek at our latest videos to share in our awesome visits to Galilee, the Dead Sea, and Masada, the hideout of the infamous King Herod! Taking the time to reflect at the homes of the world’s oldest monotheistic faiths, and meeting the people who continually work toward bridging those faiths today, we really saw how the spiritual and human stories and histories came full circle. And the awe-inspiring presence of the ancient sites, still standing and still beautiful after thousands of years and countless wars, seemed to resonate with our central theme of peace and resilience. Despite generations of fighting, the physical manifestations of human faith look on quietly, as if in silent wisdom. Or maybe they’re just saying, “Are you guys done yet?” Either way, it is worth lauding and actively supporting the tireless work of our partners and brilliant peacemakers in the place where so many faiths meet. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” could not be more significant.
Keep up with our discoveries! Watch our daily video blogs on our Youtube channel and be sure to subscribe!
Check out our BRAND NEW Instagram account—see stunning pics of the Holy Land at @Euphrates_Institute and add us on Snapchat, Euphrates14, to see what we’re up to in real time!
And as always, you can find even more articles, videos, pics, and information on Twitter @EuphratesTweet and on the Euphrates Institute Facebook page.
Sunday, September 21st is theInternational Day of Peace, recognized worldwide for the day theUN General Assembysigned the Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace. This year, the world will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Declaration’s signing, offering an opportunity to reaffirm its principles and the mission of the UN—and all governments and peoples—to actively pursue peace and human rights for all.
International Peace Day comes at a very important time for us here at Euphrates—we are currently on a two-week trip through Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, meeting peacemakers and inspiring civil society leaders in a part of the world that is direly in need of brave and different thinking. And we are very excited to share with you our new video blogs—check out ourYoutube channel, where you can follow our journey!
Check out ourvideo blog from Day One—we met with members ofCombatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters who have given up their weapons in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. The story ofBassam Aramin, Palestinian founder of Combatants for Peace, is an incredible one. When he was 17 years old and living in the West Bank, Bassam was arrested for planning an attack on IDF soldiers and subsequently sentenced to seven years in an Israeli prison. When he was finally released, he did not have hate for his Israeli captors, but compassion—developing a friendship with an Israeli guard who protected him from beatings, and discovering that Palestinians and Israelis were both victims of a history of abuse and disenfranchisement, he realized that he and his apparent enemy had much more in common than not. He began to meet in secret with former Israeli soldiers who shared his vision, and before long, they had formed what would be the foundation for Combatants for Peace.
Euphrates founderJanessa Gans Wilderpraised CFP, saying, “These are people who have realized, through their own experience, that violence is not going to end the conflict.” At the meeting, the former fighters from both the Palestinian and Israeli sides shared their stories and how they came to pursue peace and common ground rather than conflict. “They took the time out of their schedules to meet with us… they desperately want the American public to be more informed about the situation.”
“That’s why you’re here, to see it for yourselves,” Janessa continues, “because the media does not paint a representative picture of what is going on. To hear their stories, to see it firsthand, and to meet people like this who have experienced the conflict… and also people who realize it can’t continue the way it is. There has to be a change, there has to be an end to the cycle of violence. And as Americans, we have a particularly important role to play by spreading the word—to the public, our friends, but also to our leaders in Washington that we don’t support this continuation… America can exert political pressure.” The video shows footage of a CFP speaker saying during a speech, “We want that all children live together in peace. Not with revenge and hate in their hearts, but with forgiveness and love. There is no military solution to our conflict.”
On Day Two of the trip, the Euphrates team got the chance to meet withEncounter, a Jewish-American non-profit focused on teaching Jews and Israelis the cultural history of Palestine, and facilitating dialogue with the Palestinian people. The group believes that Israelis and Jews should take greater responsibility in being agents of positive change, and that face-to-face encounters are the way to go, especially since so many Jews around the world have never actually met a Palestinian before. Encounter actually organizes tips in the West Bank to enable these meetings and dialogues to take place. Janessa tells us, “I’ve always been so amazed at how committed this organization is to educating Jews about what life is like for the Palestinians, so that they’re more informed and aware about the policies they choose to support.”
Watch ourregularly updated videosto see snippets of our visits to some of the holiest religious sites in the world, including the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher! Already a breathtaking combination of ancient world-renowned monuments and rolling gold and green landscape, the vision for peace and the mission to enact change are making this trip something momentous and unforgettable. Be a part of it.
Our Travel Study group just spent their first day in Israel. Janessa and Rick talk about their meeting with members of Combatants for Peace– former militants fighting on both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
President Obama addressed the nation with a short speech announcing his intent to destroy ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—the organization that recently beheaded two American journalists.
Stressing the threat the terrorist organization posed to American and Allied interests, Obama stated that he would ramp up airstrikes and send in additional troops. Though he promised that the US would not get involved with another ground war in Iraq, the President made it clear that he would pursue ISIL forces into Syria, where they are firmly entrenched.
The President also said that a coalition of neighboring and allied states would aid the effort to destroy ISIL—providing financial, military and humanitarian assistance. US Secretary of State John Kerry is gathering support for the coalition in the Middle East.
Urging congress to approve arms and training for moderate Syrian militants he said, “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL, but I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Obama has been heavily criticized for his seeming hesitancy to engage ISIL, but his decision to act has been met with acclaim from both sides of the aisle in Congress.
The Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team getting ready for training in Bamiyan. Photo: Mountain2Mountain
When you think of Afghanistan, what image comes to mind? We’re willing to be it’s not that of a woman on a bicycle. Regularly ranked as one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman, Afghanistan faces tremendous barriers in the way of social change and gender parity. While not technically illegal, riding a bike–among many other activities–is a taboo for women, and is not accepted by the vast majority of Afghan society.
But three years after becoming the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan in 2009, Mountain2Mountain founder Shannon Galpin discovered that alongside the Afghan Men’s National Cycling team, there were women and girls who were riding bikes too. Named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year, Shannon has been working in Afghanistan for seven years now with her non-profit Mountain2Mountain, which works to empower women and girls through biking in conflict zones where they have little or no voice. It was there that she and Let Media began producing Afghan Cycles, the incredible and inspiring story of Afghanistan’s National Cycling team. The feature-length documentary focuses on 4 of the 12 team members, how cycling has changed their lives, and how they are in turn changing Afghanistan.
“These girls aren’t just racers. It’s not about competing–it’s how do you use the bike to make change. And these girls in Afghanistan are proving with every pedal stroke that change is possible,” Shannon says of her work in this short video from Let Media. Independence and mobility, particularly in the form of athleticism, has been practically nonexistant for women in Afghanistan as deep-seated traditional and religious beliefs designate women to a specific place in society. But by giving women the means to ride bicycles, Afghan Cycles and its sponsor, Liv Cycling, are enabling them to create possibilities for themselves and to become more empowered than ever before. For Miriam, one of the team’s cyclists, she is pushing her society’s boundaries because she loves the freedom that the bike gives her; “the bike equals freedom.”
“These girls aren’t trying to be revolutionary,” says Shannon. “They’re riding the bikes because they feel they have the right to.”
Do the girls face danger or opposition? Absolutely. The girls and their families have been taunted, threatened, and harrassed by conservative elements of their communities who do not see their behavior as appropriate for a woman. But the girls are not swayed–they remain as dedicated to their passion as ever. “Biking with fear and trembling doesn’t work. When getting on a bike, one must throw these feelings to the wind,” Miriam tells the camera. With the encouragement of their families and coaches, as well as support from Liv Cycling, which has been providing bicycles and equipment to the team ever since it discovered Shannon’s program, Afghanistan’s female cyclists have started to spread their movement organically. “This culture does not exist here, but we want to bring it to Afghanistan”, one team member says.Their team is Afghan-born and Afghan-led, and has been pivotal in empowering girls around the country to embrace their right to get on a bike and ride.
“Bikes can be used as a vehicle for social justice–through the sport of cycling, these girls are going to normalize bikes for the rest of the country, enabling young girls to go to school on bikes, midwives to access rural parts of the community on bikes… bikes literally can change lives.” Five days ago, on August 30th, Mountain2Mountain held its first Global Solidarity Ride, where people around the world cycled in solidarity with the women defying the rules in Afghanistan. Over 70 rides took place in 19 countries, raising thousands of dollars for the women’s team. Among the international cyclists was 4-time Ironman winner Chrissie Wellington, who rocked the Afghanistan jersey while dedicating her Alps cycle to the Global Solidarity Ride!
It’s hard for us to imagine not being able to do something like riding a bicycle simply because of our gender. So to recognize the bravery of these women and their resilience in the face of adversity is to celebrate their growing sense of pride and empowerment. “Working with these women is so inspiring because they are literally risking their lives for the joy of riding a bike,” one Afghan Cycles filmmaker said. “These girls are sparking a revolution.”
Shannon shares in the team’s pride, and focuses on the resonating effects of their accomplishments on a much larger scale. “That feeling of freedom when we ride bikes is at the core of creating change, at the core of women’s rights. And so for me, and the work I do with these women, it constantly comes back to freedom.”
Afghanistan has a long way to go before reaching anything that approaches gender equality or an infrastructure capable of providing opportunities for women. But some of the biggest changes start small, with focused determination and passion. And the girls pedaling across Afghanistan are the voices of that change. “To get my country out of this darkness, I want to raise my country’s flag through my sport and show that Afghanistan has people like this living here,” one rider says. “We cannot become a hero by sitting at home.”
Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers after recapturing Mosul dam from ISIS fighters overnight. Photo: Andrew Quilty, FP
***The Euphrates Institute is deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic killing of American journalist James Foley, who dedicated his life to exposing the suffering of the Syrian people. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, and may he rest in peace.***
The crisis in Iraq has grown deeper and more complex since the sweeping incursion of ISIS militants through nearly a third of the country over the last eight months. Recently, however, we have witnessed some positive developments in the form of military and humanitarian aid and high-level international cooperation to bolster local forces and save the lives of those at risk. Amid the myriad religious sects, alliances, charged narratives, and rapidly-shifting combat climate, it’s hard to stay up-to-date and accurate–so we’ve outlined the basics for you.
What is ISIS?
ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), is a former Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda that in April 2013 splintered off and expanded thanks to the crisis in Syria, spilling over the Iraqi border and recruiting thousands of Syrian rebels. Estimates number them at anywhere between 10,000 and 17,000 fighters. The group adheres to a hardline interpretation of Islam influenced by the Salafi movement, attacking, threatening, and murdering religious minorities and those who do not conform to their ideals.
Now estimated to have around $1.4 billion in money and assets, the Sunni fighters have been called the world’s “richest terror organization”, having obtained their funds from extortion, smuggling, looting, capturing oilfields, robbing banks, and seizing American military equipment given to the Iraqi army. This money helped their sweeping takeover of several Syrian cities from Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as well as the Iraqi cities of Fallujah last winter and Mosul—Iraq’s second-largest city—in June. Amid the chaos, the Iraqi army fled Mosul and its residents were left to run or face ISIS’s brutality.
ISIS has killed thousands of innocent people already, and continues to gain strength as it pursues its goal of an Islamic emirate comprised of Syria and Iraq. The group has not only defied the demands of Al Qaeda’s leadership to focus on Iraq and leave Syria to the extremist Al-Nusra front, it has also taken up fighting against Al-Nusra itself and other rebel groups. In the latest developments, ISIS has captured territory surrounding Mt. Sinjar in Iraq’s north, where it trapped thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority. Evidence has revealed brutal killings of Yazidis as well as Christians and Shi’a Muslims. These groups are in grave danger, and as of recent months, the international community is mobilizing in efforts to rescue these threatened communities and prevent more killings.
Who are the Yazidis?
The Yazidis are one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities, founded in the 11th century by an Ummayyad sheikh. Predominantly ethnic Kurds, there are about 700,000 Yazidis worldwide, and those in Iraq are concentrated in the north. Their religion takes on elements of Christianity, Islam, and ancient Zoroastrianism (the world’s first monotheistic faith), yet they are regarded as heretics and labeled “devil-worshippers” by Al Qaeda and ISIS, who call for their indiscriminate killing. The Yazidis have been subject to persecution for centuries, suffering numerous massacres while under Ottoman rule. Yet they have always been a peaceful people, isolated from their neighbors and tenacious in keeping their faith alive against repression and threatened extermination.
Iraq’s religious and ethnic composition is incredibly rich and diverse, and underlies the loyalties, rifts, and complex alliances and conflicts we see determining Iraq’s politics today.
What is at stake?
The long-term fear of Western officials is that ISIS will follow Al Qaeda’s trajectory of attacking overseas targets. However, one of the most crucial problems right now is the vast recruitment and eventual return home of tens of thousands of trained jihadists. The Syrian conflict is now host to the largest concentration of foreign fighters of any conflict in the Muslim world’s history, including that of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. An estimated 12,000 people have left their home countries to fight in Syria, and at least 3,000 of them are from Europe or the United States. And like Afghanistan under the Taliban, ISIS-controlled land will be a haven for terrorist activity.
ISIS threatens anyone who opposes its control and religious ideals, but especially Shi’a Muslims and religious minorities like the region’s numerous Christian sects and its ancient Yazidi population. Basic human rights for millions of innocent people are under attack and will continue to be eroded as the chaos spreads. Over 500,000 Iraqis have already been displaced from their homes as they flee ISIS’s terror.
The dissemination of fighters and weapons across Syria and Iraq threatens to dismantle any semblance of structure or government control that remains, culminating in the perfect conditions for ISIS to completely dominate the region. This is a terrifying thought for the international community and especially for the region, as the fighting could easily spill over to neighboring countries, continuing indefinitely and with irreversible damage to future generations.
How is the international community taking action?
While the conflict on the ground is very grim, we’ve seen some positive developments in the push against ISIS on both military and humanitarian fronts. Nearly two weeks ago, President Obama authorized US airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Iraq. Since then, Kurdish and Iraqi military forces have been able to push ISIS out of Mosul, securing the highly strategic Mosul dam and protecting the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
At the same time, thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar in Iraq’s north and surrounded by ISIS fighters managed to escape unharmed thanks to Kurdish Peshmerga forces, American airstrikes, a secret team of Marines and Special Operations forces sent directly to the mountain, and significant humanitarian airdrops. The United Nations just began a four-day airlift of humanitarian supplies like tents, medical aid, and food from Turkey and Jordan to the half-million Iraqi refugees in need. The World Food Program has already delivered over one million meals to people since the offensive against ISIS began.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards called the recent efforts a “very, very serious aid push and one of the largest I can recall in awhile.” Britain and France have agreed to send arms and munitions to the Kurdish forces fighting to protect Iraq’s north from ISIS, and Germany has promised shipments of nonlethal aid like trucks, tents, and bulletproof vests.
Amid all the chaos and killing, Iraqi gains against ISIS and the cooperation of international governments has sent a jolt of motivation to our allies in the region. The likelihood for prolonged involvement is high, but we are grateful for these successes and are hopeful that precise and targeted missions will continue to save innocent lives without slipping into mission creep.
This is not about Muslims versus Christians.
Too many “news” sources out there publish headlines and story titles juxtaposing Islam with Christianity as if the conflict were a simple binary. The narrative of the evil Muslims out to get Christians is simply wrong—to bunch all Muslims together as if they were a monolith is misleading and dangerous. These suggestions are loaded with sectarian sentiment and employed to elicit fear. For one thing, Christians are themselves are comprised of many different sects in Iraq, and they are not the only faith facing danger right now. Furthermore, ISIS is in no way representative of Muslims as a whole.
“I join the chorus of Muslims worldwide, Sunnis and Shi‘ites, who oppose al-Baghdadi and ISIS as a whole. The killing and oppression of innocent people and the destruction of land and property is completely antithetical to Islam’s normative teachings. It’s as pure and as simple as that.”