Mosul To Baghdad, Iraq's Worst-Case Scenario Unfolds

How did a city known for its ethnic and religious mix roll over for a band of Islamist radicals? In the wake of the ISIS conquest of Mosul, the spectre of it spreading to the capital looms.

Like this family, thousands of residents have fled Iraq's second largest city Mosul.
Fehim Tastekin

MOSUL — This city was one of the most important centers of the Sufi branch of Islam, with its mysticism and instincts toward openness.

Mosul was a mirror to the Turkish cities of Mardin and Antakya, and Aleppo in Syria, where different religions and sects have long coexisted in peace.

Mosul, just like Damascus, was one of the main arteries of Arab nationalism.

Mosul was the hometown of many Arabic intellectuals.

What has happened to Mosul that it opened its arms to the violent ideology of al-Qaeda? How could the religious orders of Mosul end up on the same side with the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which recognizes Sufism as sin and bombs its mausoleums? How could the once proudly secularist Ba'ath members and the officers of the former Iraqi army disbanded by the Americans become allies, virtually overnight, with the pro-Sharia radical forces?

For days, I traveled between the cities of Erbil and Mosul, Tikrit, Kirkuk and Hawija, talking to people who were on the run from this Sunni uprising, which originally started against Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister of Iraq.

I was on a quest to understand this coalition of revenge.

Afghan Syndrome

It was Esil El Nuceyfi — former governor of Mosul, among those forced to flee the city — who gave me a pretty good summary of what is going on. He said the new alliances are temporary partnerships, as was the case in Syria. Partners of this coalition will soon start fighting among themselves.

This coalition reminds me of the Afghans who let the Taliban take control in the atmosphere of invasion, civil war and chaos. I met a Sunni Turkmen on the street in Erbil (I did not tell him that I am a journalist), and we talked for an hour about how he perceives the situation. He said that ISIS is like the army of Caliph Umar, that is, a promise of justice. And that as a Muslim, there was nothing to be troubled about by this army!

When I reminded of him the cruelty of ISIS, the beheadings, he told me that Iran is behind every manifestation of evil. Many others like him told me good things about ISIS, which was expressed ultimately as pure animosity against the Shia.

“You are a Turkmen,” I said to him. “The Shia Turkmens are targets for ISIS.” His answer was: “I am not talking about the Shia around here; I mean the Shia in the south. Our Shia are fine.” The demonized Shia are the ones from Basra, Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad. The truth, of course, is much different than his perception, completely disconnected from reality.

Although ISIS tell people who fled the cities they have conquered to return home and accept their rules, the developments lead to a sect-centered genocide. The Shia Turkmens will not be able to return to their homes if ISIS cement their position. The sectarian clashes between 2006-2008 have already caused many people to relocate.

According to a source of mine in Tal Afar, about 20% of the Sunni Turkmens in the city support ISIS. The ratio of Shias to Sunnis in Tal Afar is approximately 40-60% or 45-55% according to different sources. The ethnic Turkmen are divided into different camps, as they were in 2008.

The Ba'ath factor

The elite of Saddam Hussein's era intend to create a new wave of Ba'ath control, and make use of the animosity among the sects. This is also the reason why certain tribe leaders said "our cause is one with ISIS, leave your guns and go home" when the Islamist troops entered Mosul with a few thousand militants — and the military did not fight.

The situation of the military is desperate. The Sunni soldiers, who are in the minority, do not want to fight for Maliki. The Shia soldiers believe it is not worth dying for the Sunni cities where the public might even stone them.

This divide in the military started when Maliki started to discharge people from the army for fear of a future coup d'etat, as well as when he sent troops to fight against Sunni tribal uprisings. These tribes were angry because the militia which helped fight against al-Qaeda with the Sunni troops at Anbar province were not drafted in the army, and left forgotten.

ISIS is a virus left on this land by the American invasion. Its common trait with the Ba'ath is a phobia of the Shia and Iran. The Americans went through literally millions of documents from the Saddam era and could not find a single piece of evidence that Baghdad and al-Qaeda were connected. Today, the Ba'ath and ISIS with al-Qaeda origins try to do the same. Life is strange.

In short, the Sunnis were stripped of any power in Iraq after 2003, and they voiced their rightful objection with an intolerant stance. Since the Shia front answered in the same way, the country is inevitably spiraling into more and more violence.

It is hard for the Sunni Arabs — 25% of the population — to overcome the Shia Arabs, who constitute about 55%. The worst case scenario, according to a veteran journalist friend of mine from Kirkik, is that the Sunni push their luck to the end move as far as the Tigris river, which cuts Baghdad in half. Baghdad, which is symbolically framed by the Azamiye Mausoleum in the east and the Kazimiye Mausoleum in the west would literally become divided into two parts, one Sunni and one Shia.

But that would leave the Shia stronghold of Sadr City on the Sunni half, which would be destined to turn the waters of the Tigris between “eastern” and “western Baghdad” red with the blood of both sides.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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