TERRA INCOGNITA: ISIS, Nazism and Iraq destruction

ISIS created a radical new society, shutting women up in houses in all black robes, taking away basic daily-life enjoyments such as smoking, and forcing men to mosque.

REFUGEES FLEEING from ISIS are seen resting after arriving in Makhmur, Iraq. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
REFUGEES FLEEING from ISIS are seen resting after arriving in Makhmur, Iraq.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
‘To punish them for supporting ISIS, Mosul should be left under their control for another two years,’ a man told me recently. He was familiar with the city before Islamic State conquered it in June of 2014. An ancient city, once home to Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Kurds, Turkmen, Jews, Armenians, Mandeans and Sunni Arabs, after ISIS arrived its minorities were systematically cleansed and their places of worship and archaeological treasures destroyed.
Now after two years of occupation, ISIS is beginning to weaken its hold on the remaining Sunni Arapopulation. But the horrors of these two years have destroyed more than 2,000 years of history. The mass rape, slavery and extermination of Yazidis in neighboring areas, was a genocide. It is the tip of the iceberg of what ISIS has wrought on this landscape.
It was the evils of ISIS that made me feel I had to go to Iraq, and particularly to the Kurdish region, to document the war on this group. I’m returning from my third trip there now. What is always fascinating about the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is an autonomous area in Iraq with its own army called the peshmerga and a successful government, is how it is the mirror opposite of ISIS. That cannot be said about the areas of Iraq under the influence of Shia militias, some of whom have been involved in cleansing of Sunnis. In the Kurdish peshmerga there are Kakei units, Assyrian units, and Yazidis, all fighting side by side Kurdish Muslims against the extremists.
On Sunday I watched a group of Arab refugees fleeing ISIS escape through a checkpoint manned by Kurds. The men and women were separated and the men were frisked and then allowed to proceed.
As this scene transpired, with the sun setting behind the row of Kurdish soldiers, AK-47s held firmly by their chests, it conjured up the diametrically opposite image of what ISIS had done to Yazidis in August of 2014. Instead of helping them, the way Kurdish soldiers gave out water to fleeing Arab refugees from ISIS, the extremists had preyed on the weak and vulnerable.
ISIS had also separated Yazidi men and women.
Then they murdered the men and buried them in mass graves, and raped the women. How could that have happened in our modern time, in full visibility of drones and broadcast on social media? How is it that the abuses of women by ISIS still go on. A recent video of two overweight ISIS fighters joking while eating as their friend rapes his “slave” in the background, was recently released.
On a tour of recently liberated Kakei villages on the Khazir frontline, a local Kakei leader showed the remains of temples and graveyards desecrated by the Islamists. The Kakei (sometimes spelled Kaka’is) are a small religious minority in Iraq and Iran. They fled ISIS en masse in August 2014 after hearing about the targeting of Christians and Yazidis. The systematic destruction of their holy sites and the way ISIS carved its logo into their houses and laced them with explosives was an attempt at cultural genocide.
In each case of ISIS abuses the images of the Nazi period come to mind. When ISIS came to the Sunni areas of Iraq it was often greeted with cheers by locals who thought it would restore their pride in face of Shia power in Baghdad. But as with Hitler, they sought to harness the mob’s popularity to direct it towards its intolerant impulses.
ISIS created a radical new society, shutting women up in houses in all black robes, taking away basic daily-life enjoyments such as smoking, and forcing men to mosque.
It organized its slave trade and mass murder not on spasms of spontaneous violence, but on carefully planned ethnic-cleansing and mass murder. Documents show that it wasn’t some chaotic outburst of massacres, but a systematic genocide of minorities, much like the Nazi planning that went into the elimination of Jewish presence.
What ISIS provoked was a massive response, not only among the Shia in central and southern Iraq, but among all the minorities targeted and among the Kurds. ISIS targeted women, so women have joined the peshmerga to fight. All of these minorities, most of whom did not have a military tradition the way the Kurds have had in fighting oppression, have signed up for war, much like the total mobilization of democracies and the Soviet Union to crush Nazism.
COULD WE have predicted ISIS? Al-Qaida and other extremist groups targeted minorities after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In April 2007 twenty-three Yazidi workers were separated from their Christian and Muslim colleagues and machine-gunned near Mosul. In August 2007 the Yazidi village of Kahtaniya was hit by massive bombings, killing 400 people.
In August 2009 truck bombs struck the Shabak village of Khazna, killing 34 people. In September 2009 the Kakei village of Wardak was bombed and 25 murdered.
In June 2014 Kurds were targeted by bombs in Tuz Khurmato, killing 28. In 2004 bombings targeted churches in Mosul and in 2008 numerous Christians were executed in attacks in Mosul.
There was a clear progression in intolerance and mass murder leading to ISIS in Iraq. This is similar to how everyday anti-semitism and hatred of Jews helped lay the foundations for mass society accepting Nazism. The ability of many in places like Mosul to turn their backs on persecutions of their neighbors in 2014, is also similar to the way many people were quiet collaborators with Nazism.
There is also quiet collaboration in Western countries.
When I posted a video over the weekend of a peshmerga firing a sniper rifle at ISIS positions, one American intellectual commented that it was “imperialism.” Imperialism to defend against ISIS? To defend minorities, women, to fight against intolerance? There has been a quiescence in almost all wealthy western states to the mass murder and cleansing of minorities in northern Iraq. There are no student movements protesting for these minorities, not one protest, or college-student-led campaign to aid the victims. More than 5,000 Europeans are estimated to have traveled to join ISIS, which is more than ever protested against ISIS. Perhaps that reminds us of so many who willingly joined the Nazis as collaborators in the war, and the few who took up arms as partisans.
It is marvelous that Kurds were able to blunt the ISIS blitzkrieg in 2014. But it is an enduring tragedy that Iraq has been permanently altered and its diverse fabric destroyed in these two short years.
It is unlikely it will recover, even if some minorities return. There is no humanitarian plan for aiding these people, rebuilding their villages, restoring their temples and monuments. It illustrates that while you can defeat genocidal groups, such as what happened in Rwanda or Cambodia, you can never return what was lost.