How Our Pointless Wars Made Life Hell for Religious Minorities
Six years ago, the Islamic State appeared well on its way to creating a modern “caliphate,” or Islamist nation-state. The jihadist message of murder and mayhem drew thugs and cretins from around the world. They sought to serve Allah by murdering, kidnapping, and raping their way across Iraq and Syria.
Unfortunately, Washington made it easy for ISIS. Iraq suffered through a sectarian war triggered by the U.S. invasion. The Bush administration removed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, allowing the Shia majority to take control. Shiites enjoyed their new position atop the political order, oppressing the once-ruling Sunnis. Sectarian governance and conflict fueled a murderous insurgency. After demonstrating that it was far better at destroying the old order than creating a new one, Washington withdrew. Fearful Sunnis turned for protection to the Islamic State, a group seemingly based in the 6th century.
The 2011 Arab Spring triggered protests against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He was no friend of the West, but he was a secular dictator and allowed his nation to become a refuge for Christians and other religious minorities fleeing Iraq. Nevertheless, the Obama administration backed the opposition and demanded his ouster, discouraging both sides from negotiating. The U.S. and West inexplicably favored an affiliate of al-Qaeda, which had attacked America, over the Assad government, which had not. Washington fueled the Islamist-dominated insurgency, which naturally spurred the growth of the Islamic State throughout Syria.
Eventually the U.S. intervened against ISIS, which has since been largely defeated. Although some loyal fighters remain active, the organization no longer threatens to destroy entire nations. The Islamic State is opposed by virtually every government in the region, while the Syrian Civil War no longer diverts resources and attention from combatting the wannabe caliphate. Nevertheless, the vile philosophies behind its rise continue to poison the region, encouraging a veritable religious war against minority faiths.
Indeed, second only to the group’s desire to create a caliphate was its determination to destroy all the religious minorities in its path. The Islamic State’s 2014 advance across Iraq was catastrophic for “the least of these brothers and sisters,” as Jesus referred to those in need.
The Islamic State spread its depredations widely, expelling and exterminating non-Muslims. Some 135,000 Christians were driven from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. Iraq’s Yazidis suffered even greater harm: more than 5,500 were killed in the summer of 2014. Another 6,300, mostly girls and women, were enslaved; half of them remain missing. As many as a half million Yazidis were displaced by the murderous conquerors, and hundreds of thousands still live in camps, most in Kurdistan.
Yazidis also suffered from ISIS attacks in northern Syria. Turkish invasions in 2018 and 2019 displaced many more, along with Kurdish Muslims. Ankara employed insurgents who tended toward the radical, leading to brutal occupation practices. According to the Wilson Center’s Amy Austin Holmes: “More than half of the sacred Yazidi shrines in Afrin have been destroyed or desecrated since the Turkish intervention, making it virtually impossible for Yazidis to openly practice their faith. Some of the militias in Afrin have kidnapped Yazidis and forced them to renounce their religion.”
The barriers to returning home are many. In Iraq, where organized fighting has ceased, mundane bureaucrats and radical Shiites alike block progress. For instance, Iran-backed Shia militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces now control many towns and neighborhoods where religious minorities once lived. The Iraqi Christian Foundation noted problems of “rampant oppression and religious discrimination, including forcible land theft.”
Reintegration remains vital. There was growing international fatigue over taking refugees displaced by the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts even before COVID-19 interrupted international cooperation. Moreover, people should not stay in camps for a lifetime. Those displaced want to return to where they belong. Even if they are well-fed and housed in camp, it isn’t the same.
Their communities need them. The presence of faiths that predate Islam greatly enriches the Mideast. Their role in daily life also humanizes members of minority religions in a region where violent intolerance continues to flourish. Reviving cooperation and strengthening respect among different faiths after the recent cataclysm would offer a powerful model for contending sects elsewhere.
Although resettlement is the preferred outcome, the region currently lacks security. Robert Destro, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, said bluntly: “Safe returns are not yet a reality.” Of course, the West should be generous in accepting religious minorities who no longer believe they can safely return. However, the U.S. and European governments should press local authorities to make protection of and support for religious minorities a priority.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi appears to have good intentions, promising to help displaced citizens and protect minority faiths. In August, he said: “Iraq is the country for everyone, and that Christians are the original children of the country, and there is no difference between the people of the same country, as everyone is a partner in building the future of Iraq.”
However, the ongoing sectarian conflict, which dates to the disintegration of the largely secular regime of Saddam Hussein after the U.S. invasion, has not yet burned itself out. The government faces other daunting challenges. Perhaps most crucially, it is caught in between the U.S. and Iran, both of which essentially demand a declaration of allegiance. For instance, the Trump administration is putting additional economic pressure on Baghdad, shortening the length of waivers for dealing with Iran’s energy industry—this on a government struggling, like many others, with continuing violence, economic crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic.
To the good, recent public protests demanding systemic political reform in Iraq and Lebanon drew people from different faiths and classes. To the bad, none of these movements have yet overturned highly sectarian political systems. Religious minorities—most notably Christians, Yazidis, and Mandeans—are not inclined to trust their future to systems that failed in the past without evidence of significant change. Moreover, even good intentions do not ensure the sort of competence and commitment necessary for even middling government performance. And violence continues. Recently Islamic State fighters have targeted Iraq’s small Kakai community, whose members practice the ancient, syncretic faith of Yarsanism.
The problem runs far beyond Iraq and Syria, alas. Christians do not even feel safe in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey, which often are dominated by radical Islamist insurgent groups. The persecution of Coptic Christians remains a serious problem in Egypt, even though the Coptic Pope ostentatiously endorsed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s 2013 brutal coup. Al-Sisi’s later calculated appeal to Copts has not ended continuing daily discrimination and violence.
Palestinian Christians long have suffered from the territory’s awful economy, as well as under Israel’s onerous and often brutal occupation, leading many to emigrate. Reported Christianity Today’s Jayson Casper: “In Bethlehem—the little town of Jesus’ birth—only one in five residents today are Christians (22%). A decade earlier, more than four in five were believers (84%). The steep decline is reflected in other traditional Christian cities in the Holy Land. In Beit Jala, the Christian majority has fallen from 99 percent to 61 percent. In Beit Sahour, it has fallen from 81 percent to 65 percent.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly Islamist and nationalist orientation has made Christians targets. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warned: “Religious minorities in Turkey expressed concerns that governmental rhetoric and policies contributed to an increasingly hostile environment and implicitly encouraged acts of societal aggression and violence.” Only in Sudan is the regional news good for religious minorities, with the transitional government deciding against maintaining Islam as the established faith.
Nevertheless, what set apart persecution by the Islamic State was its routine use of deadly violence, revival of sexual slavery, and essentially genocidal commitment to eradicate historic faiths. In this, it shares the mindset of Nazism, which attempted to wipe out Europe’s Jews.
For most Americans, religious persecution evokes images of ancient Rome, with Christians killed for sport. However, widespread religious persecution occurs today. Although enemies of religious liberty are many, violence has been most persistent and visible in the Middle East. Six years ago, the Islamic State began its devastating run across Iraq.
Unfortunately, Washington’s misguided invasion of Iraq both created ISIS and gave Islamic extremists an opportunity to ravage minority religious communities, especially Yazidis, throughout the region. The U.S. dramatically demonstrated that its ability to intervene for good is far exceeded by its tendency to promote harm, in this case widespread murder and mayhem.
The next administration should make protection of religious minorities a practical as well as rhetorical priority. That means seeking to redress past harms. And taking the Hippocratic Oath as its mantra for the future: first do no harm.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.