The scenes and reports coming out of Iraq are harrowing.
Some 500 members of the Yazidi minority reported executed. Hundreds of women kidnapped.
Thousands starving on a mountain having fled their villages.
For months, the march of the militant Islamic State organization was ignored by the international community. It wasn’t for lack of knowledge. Islamic State bragged about its atrocities, posting videos of its fighters loading Shi’ite men onto trucks and making them dig their own graves. They bragged about stoning women for “adultery” and posted gruesome photos of executions and crucifixions.
Savvy in social media, many European members who had journeyed to the region live-tweeted their battles with Syrian army units and their sweep across northern Iraq.
The deafening silence from the West was similar to that which has greeted previous genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan, where lip-service was paid too late for crimes that could have been prevented. The reticence to use the word “genocide” and admission by Western politicians that it would obligate them to actually do something created a legacy of shame.
With Iraq, the situation has almost been repeated. Muslim regional powers, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran have proved callous in the face of the Islamic State, despite the fact that it threatens all of them. US President Barack Obama decided on August 7 to launch air strikes on Islamic State targets, concentrating on defending US diplomats and advisers serving near Erbil. He noted that “as the request of the Iraqi government, we’ve begun operations to help save Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain. As the Islamic State has marched across Iraq, it has waged a ruthless campaign against innocent Iraqis.” Yesterday, a US State Department spokeswoman confirmed that they would supply the Kurds with arms.
Obama’s actions have created a backlash in some US circles. Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby, argued that while humanitarian assistance to suffering minorities might be laudable, “[if] the history of the past 20 years teaches us anything, it is that forceful American interference of this sort just makes these problems worse.” Walt said “it is time to walk away and not look back.”
America is right to be disillusioned with high hopes for change in the Middle East. But that is no reason to abandon the dream to a Hobbesian nightmare of the mass murder of minorities. The Islamic State is continuing a tradition of murdering groups considered “infidels” by radical Islamists.
From Nigeria to Kashmir, Christian groups such as Copts, Chaldeans and Assyrians, religious minorities such as Yazidis, Zaroastrians and Bahais, as well as Sikhs and Hindus, have been targeted for terrorist attacks and ethnic cleansing. Shi’ite groups such as the Hazzaras in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Sunni ethnic minorities like the Kurds have also been targeted by the Islamic State.
Obama is right that the Iraqis must confront this threat themselves. But they cannot do it without outside support. And the message emanating from the White House, EU, UN and Arab League must be clearer. All attempts at ethnic cleansing and genocide must be halted. Groups like Islamic State pose a threat not only to the whole region, but to the entire world. They do not exist in a vacuum, but are part of a worldwide network of Islamist jihadist groups, such as Al Shabaab and al-Qaida. They play a destabilizing role throughout North Africa, parts of Asia and now the Middle East. Increasingly, their fighters are drawn from Europe, including converts and members of the Muslim immigrant minority.
Opposition to these militant groups should bring together rather than divide Israel and other regional and world powers. This was apparent in the united international front against Hamas led by the US and Egypt.
Security cooperation and internal stability are in the interest of every country. The Islamic State aims not only to destroy democratic forces and ethnic minorities that oppose it. It wants regional instability that will ultimately overturn traditional borders to create a mythical Islamic “caliphate.” Here is an opportunity for the UN, US, EU and regional associations to draw a red line on genocide and showcase a path to saving minorities groups through humanitarian corridors.
This is also the time to weave together a powerful web of regional security and cooperation against extremist and dangerous Islamic terrorist groups threatening the very fabric of the civilized world.