By Viviana Angelini
As the Islamic State (IS) conquers broad swatches of the Middle East, what of the people in its path? Some are better off living under the caliphate, while others suffer and die. Meanwhile, the rest of the world must decide how to react. This article, the third and final in a series, will examine the world response to the IS—those who live under it, those who support it, and those who oppose it.
What is life like under IS rule? The IS says its caliphate can only be established if both worldly and religious needs are taken care of. In conquered territory, the IS establishes government consisting of two branches: administrative and service-oriented. The administrative branch is responsible for courts, punishment, religious outreach, and education, with enforcement by religious police. The service-oriented branch controls humanitarian aid, water, and electricity. Some claim that the Sharia law courts are less corrupt than before. Nevertheless, citizens lack staples and face massive inflation. The scant education provided for youths is intertwined with jihad customs and military training. Radical punishment is common, with huge fines imposed for such trivial violations as purchasing cigarettes.
The number of refuges has soared as many seek to escape IS rule. Syria is the most affected country, with three million fleeing to other countries and six million internally displaced. The refugees are desperate. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency operates refugee camps, but most of these are full or inaccessible. Though it has asked for $415 million to cover basic needs, international response has been sparse.
Life under the IS is most difficult for those targeted as infidels, including Christians, Shiite Muslims, and Yazidis. Christians are given a choice: convert or pay a religious tax while threatened by execution. It is estimated that over one million Christians have fled Iraq, leaving only 400,000 behind. Most recently, 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded by IS militants based in Libya. The IS also targets Shiite Muslims (which account for just 15% of the world; 1.6 billion Muslims) because it is composed of Sunni Muslims. Shiites believe leaders should be direct descendants of Muhammad (the founder of Islam), while Sunnis believe leaders should be elected or picked from qualified candidates. The two sects also have differing holidays, customs, and traditions. Many Shiites have fled or been executed by the IS, though no one is certain how many.
The Yazidi, one of the smallest and oldest monotheistic religious groups in the world, are also targeted by the IS. In August 2014, the IS trapped nearly 40,000 Yazidi in the Sinjar Mountains of Iraq. Dozens of children died from thirst and starvation, women were taken as slaves, and men were executed in a campaign to force conversion to Islam. Yazidi are seen by the IS as devil worshipers and continue to be persecuted in other cities throughout Iraq.
The IS has targeted western hostages using public executions to spread its message of terror. Journalist James Foley was the first American beheaded by an IS militant nicknamed “Jihadi John”. The executions of American journalist Steven Sotloff, British humanitarian workers David Haines and Alan Henning, French mountain guide Herve Gourdel, American aid worker Peter Kassig, and Japanese reporter Kenji Goto followed. Most recently, Jordanian pilot First Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh was burned alive. The IS has claimed that American aid worker Kayla Mueller died during a Jordanian air strike.
Despite its brutal tactics, some do support the IS. Wealthy individuals in Qatar, Kuwait, and other oil-rich countries donate money. The IS finances itself in part through oil sales to willing customers. Many Sunnis also support the IS—again due to the divide between them and the Shiites. Thousands of fighters from surrounding countries such as Lebanon, Tunisia, and Jordan have joined the ranks of the IS. The IS uses social media platforms to recruit young adults worldwide. The IS preys on young people, romanticizing jihad so the killing of hostages appears valiant and laudable.
It is estimated that 20,000 foreign fighters have joined the IS, including 3,400 from western nations. One South Florida man “lived the jihad dream”—traveling to Syria, taking part in a suicide bombing, and dying for what he believed in. The men who join the IS become militants, while the women essentially become property. They marry militants and carry out domestic duties, while subject to strict laws and corporal punishment. Evidence shows the IS condones sex slaves and rape, so why do women join such an organization? Presumably those who travel thousands of miles to take part in this lifestyle are misled by jihadist propaganda. Other supporters do not leave home, but strike in their own countries–recent jihad attacks have been carried out in Australia, Canada, France, and Denmark.
The United States and its coalition allies stand in opposition of the IS. Last September, President Obama condemned the IS as a terrorist group, promising to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” it. The US has led over 1,600 airstrikes against the IS, destroying over 3,000 targets, including command posts, tanks, and oil infrastructure sites. Airstrikes in Iraq are conducted by Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands, while those in Syria are conducted by Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In retaliation for the Coptic Christians beheading, Egypt launched airstrikes against IS targets in Libya.
On the ground, Iraqi Kurdistan soldiers (the Peshmerga) trained by Australian Special Forces recently freed the city of Mosul from the IS. Saudi Arabia is offering to train moderate Syrian rebels on its territory. The US has deployed 1,750 Marines and Special Forces as “military advisors” to train Iraqi army recruits; this number is expected to increase to 3,000 by summer. It remains to be seen whether NATO forces will be called into action if the fighting extends over the Turkish border.
On February 11, President Obama sent Congress draft legislation to approve US military action against the IS. He warned that if left unchecked, the IS will “pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland.” The legislation would avoid dragging the US into another ground war in Iraq by prohibiting “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” Any on-the-ground combat by US forces would be limited to rescue operations and special forces operations to take out IS leaders. The military authorization would expire in three years. However, the debate over US involvement in Middle East affairs will continue for the foreseeable future.
The caliphate envisioned by the IS is grounded in barbaric violence and merciless persecution of those who do not adhere to its precepts. The conquest has ruined countless lives and is generating increased unrest worldwide. The fight against the IS must continue, not relenting until moderation prevails, allowing people of differing religions and ethnicities to finally live together in peace.
Header photo courtesy of wikipedia/flickr.
Other images from Getty Images–thank you for sharing!