Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Time to Find New Approaches to Defeating Terrorism in Iraq and the Middle East

This post is co-authored with Dr. T. Hamid al-Bayati, Iraq’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2006 to 2013, and currently Adjunct Professor in the Graduate Program, Department of Political Science, Rutgers University. Ambassador al-Bayati's most recent book is From Dictatorship to Democracy: An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam. University of Pennsylvania Press.

The seizure of large swaths of Iraqi territory by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and its declaration of a “caliphate” calls for new approaches to combating terrorism in Iraq and the Middle East. With news that ISIS may be cooperating with al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to develop bombs that can escape detection, the global terrorist threat has reached a new danger level.  As the Iraq crisis makes clear, ISIS cannot be stopped only by military means.  How then can ISIS, and terrorist groups in other parts of the Middle East, be defeated?
ISIS "Caliph Ibrahim" calling for modesty but wearing an expensive Western watch
Confronting ISIS requires a holistic approach that addresses the political, economic and social causes underlying extremism and terrorism. While strengthening Iraq’s intelligence capabilities and enhancing its armed forces’ ability to fight terrorism are critical to combating ISIS, the US has neither the funds nor the human resources to pursue this struggle alone. New and bold initiatives are needed to erase the scourge of terrorism working with Iraq and regional allies.
Crucifixion of ISIS opponent in Raqqa

Political reform  Iraq needs to begin by forming an inclusive national unity government that will make the Sunni Arabs and Kurds feel that they are an integral part of the body politic.  If the Iraqi government fails to gain their support, Sunnis will continue to support ISIS and the Kurds will most likely declare independence leaving Iraq a weakened state, comprised of Baghdad and the Shiite majority provinces of the south.
Iraq also needs to develop a more decentralized system of government.  More authority must be devolved to the Sunni and Shiite provinces by Baghdad.  One way to achieve this goal is to create the Federal Legislative Council called for by the 2005 Constitution but whose formation has been blocked to date.  The Council is intended to give provinces greater oversight of Iraq’s parliament and would do much to enhance the provinces’ participation in national politics.

Iraq's parliament meets on July 7
A regional conference to eliminate support for terrorism  The US should take more vigorous steps to stop the flow of money to terrorist groups. Under United Nations auspices, the US and Iraq should convene a regional conference to address the growing terrorist threat to Iraq and the Middle East, with the participation of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE. The conference would develop a regional strategy to contain terrorism by addressing its causes.  Because ISIS would never have become so powerful without foreign funding, these sources must be dried up. One effective measure would involve bringing individual terrorist financiers to justice, thereby deterring others from contributing money in the future.
This conference would seek to pressure Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states to constrain those in their countries who fund extremist groups like ISIS.  Iran, for its part, could be encouraged to constrain support for rogue Iraqi Shiite militias, such as the League of the Righteous People (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq), if it meant benefiting from reduced tensions with Saudi Arabia and the US.
Having states complicit in the violence in Iraq publicly renounce that violence and commit to playing a more responsible role in combating terrorism would constitute a major step forward.  We have already seen positive behavior by Iran where President Rouhani has urged Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to form a more inclusive government and by Saudi Arabia which has promised to provide funds to try and convince Iraq’s Sunnis to join a national unity government.
Sunnis pray at Musa al-Kadhim mosque
Reclaiming Islam While critical, the national and regional policies just mentioned do not address long-term problems that provide support for terrorism in Iraq.  Perhaps most neglected in fighting terrorism are Iraq’s own resources. Terrorism has relied on Islam’s appropriation by radical, poorly educated clerics. With the support of its moderate clerics, Iraq needs to launch a wide-scale campaign that combats misinterpretations of Islam and the Qur'an. For instance, terrorist efforts to justify killing innocent civilians, which the Qur'an, the Bible and the Torah strictly forbid, is belied by the verse, “Whoever kills a believer intentionally - his recompense is Hell, wherein he will abide eternally.” (Qur'an 4:93)

As a Shiite majority country, Iraq’s most important center of Islam is the al-Hawza al-'Ilmiya (Scientific Place of Learning), a group of religious seminaries in the Shiite shrine city of al-Najaf.   A powerful weapon at the clergy’s disposal is the religious decree (al-fatwa).  In 1914, when British invaded Iraq, the Shiite clergy issued fatwas protecting not just Shiites but Sunnis, Jews and Christians, namely all Iraqis, regardless of sect or ethnicity.

In the tradition of 1914, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of the world’s Shiites, issued a fatwa following ISIS’s seizure of Mosul on June 10th that called upon all Iraqis to come together to defend their country from terrorists.  This fatwa is one of many that Ayatollah al-Sistani has issued since the topping of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that call on Iraqis to avoid sectarian violence and for Shiites not respond to terrorist attacks by Sunni extremists.  

Sunni and Shia pray together in Baghdad
Shiite and Sunni clerics have used the example of the 1920 Revolution against British colonial control when Shiites prayed in Sunni mosques and celebrated their religious festivals and vice versa.  When the important Shiite shrine in Samarra, the al-Askari Mosque, was bombed in 2006, Shiite and Sunni clerics in the city called upon their followers to pray in each others' mosques.

In 2013, Shiite clerics called on their followers to pray in the Sunni 'Abd al-Qadir al-Gaylani mosque in Baghdad while Sunnis called on their followers to pray in the Shiite Musa al-Kadhim mosque in Baghdad as well.  A February 2014 conference, “Religious Pluralism and Tolerance in the Dialogue of Civilizations,” at the University of Kufa, near al-Najaf, brought together clerics and a large audience from all over Iraq.  Designed to establish a UNESCO Chair in Religious Dialogue at the University of Kufa, conferences like this should receive more Iraqi government and international support (

Supporting Iraqi youth Much more support must be given to the needs of Iraqi youth who constitute 70% of Iraq’s population under the age of 30.  Iraqi youth are the drivers behind the most active of Iraq’s 6000 officially registered civil society organizations.  However, youth also provide the cadres for terrorist and criminal organizations.  This critical demographic is Iraq’s “generation in waiting” and its future leaders.  Iraq’s political class needs to reform the political system not only to provide a better example of democracy, but to inculcate a political culture of citizenship and civic responsibility in Iraqi youth.
Baghdad University students celebrate their graduation 2009
To combat the ability of terrorist groups and crime syndicates (increasingly one and the same), the Iraqi government must address Iraqi youth’s employment needs.  Many Iraqis are angry that, despite the country’s massive oil wealth, the official poverty rate is 20% of the population (many argue closer to 30%).  Many poor youth lack education and are illiterate, a legacy of the harsh UN sanctions regime of the 1990s that destroyed Iraq’s education system.  Youth who migrate from Iraq’s weak agrarian sector to urban areas such as Baghdad are highly susceptible to extremist narratives and inducements of money and power that come with joining terrorist groups. 

Restructuring education A key to reducing the lure of terrorism is education.  Iraqi school textbooks, Arab and Kurdish, do little to explain concepts of religious pluralism, cultural difference and tolerance, or to teach Iraqi youth the values of compromise and negotiation.  For example, texts on Islamic education could do much more to define the concept of jihad (whose primarily meaning is to achieve closeness to God) and explain that the Qur'an explicitly forbids forced conversions (“Let there be no compulsion in religion,” Surat al-Baqara, 2:256)

The Center for Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Studies at Dohuk University in the KRG, and a cohort of faculty members at Baghdad University with interests in conflict resolution, have made efforts to develop nationwide peace studies curricula. A May 2014 Dohuk University conference on “Education and Peace Building in Iraq” attracted Arab, Kurdish and international peace practitioners and academics from throughout Iraq, indicating widespread support for expanding Iraqi education to focus on peace and conflict resolution studies

In addition, many Iraqi youth have formed civil society organizations whose goal is to improve relations among Iraq’s different ethnic and confessional groups and promote an Iraqi national consciousness. An example is the “I am Iraqi, I Read” group that distributes free books in Baghdad’s squares. The United States Institute of Peace has worked actively with Iraqi youth in developing the Salam Shabab (Youth for Peace) organization.  These initiatives need more support from the Iraqi government and the international community.

In focus groups, Eric Davis conducted with Arab and Kurdish youth between the ages of 12 and 30, 89% said they would never join a political party and none of the respondents chose a political leader as a role model.  This alienation from politics bodes ill for the future of Iraq unless youth can be inspired to see politics as a way to improve the quality of life in Iraq, and not as a means for individual politicians to pursue economic gain and political power.

A public diplomacy offensive How can moderate Islam, employment and education combat terrorism in Iraq?  The US could encourage the UN to establish an annual conference on Combating Religious Extremism and Terrorism that would develop curricula for school teachers and religious instruction in Iraq and other Muslim majority countries.  The conference could promote social media platforms and websites to reach large numbers of youth in the Muslim world and other countries where religious extremism has caught hold.  The United States Institute of Peace, which has extensive relations with Iraq, would be an ideal institution to help organize such a conference.

Sunni and Shi'i clerics meet to unite 2 sects
The Obama administration should request funds from Congress to expand its public diplomacy initiatives.  It could publicize, for example, efforts by Shiite and Sunni clerics to make Shiism a fifth, Ja’fari school of al-Sharia that would in effect eliminate the difference between the two sects.  As part of this public diplomacy effort, President Obama should invite moderate clerics to the White House to foreground their views.

More Iraqi students should be offered positions at US universities, especially since the Iraqi government and the KRG have allocated over 10,000 scholarships for study abroad.  Ninety graduate students currently study at Rutgers University where they are making exceptional progress.  Iraqis who have studied in the US invariably return to Iraq with a positive view of American society.

The Iraqi government should be encouraged by the US to use its oil wealth to provide vocational training for poor youth and to improve the agrarian sector to reduce rural to urban migration. Providing employment opportunities for poor youth from all ethnic and confessional groups in Iraq would have a salutary impact on reducing the base of recruitment for terrorist organizations such as ISIS.

The US has many allies in the Middle East and elsewhere who share its desire to eliminate the global terrorist threat.  Forging an international coalition of states that would come together to support the new approaches just suggested would constitute a long-term strategy for defeating terrorism in Iraq and the Middle East, thereby bringing a better life to all the region’s peoples.

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