Toronto Star

The Islamic State group targets all religions equally

- BESSMA MOMANI Bessma Momani is associate professor at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of Internatio­nal Affairs and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Internatio­nal Governance Innovation.

Iraq and Syria are perhaps the most ethnically and religiousl­y diverse countries in the modern Middle East. And while they were never models for coexistenc­e and romanticiz­ing the past — that would be imprudent — for both Iraq and Syria, tolerance at the societal level had been the norm. People lived in mixed communitie­s, celebrated each others’ festivals and ate at the same table.

Today, the rise of the Islamic State group, extremist narratives and government discrimina­tion are pitting neighbour against neighbour, with levels of animosity heightened to a point that is making both these countries increasing­ly unrecogniz­able to their own people.

Yet, while the Islamic State has captured the global imaginatio­n and instilled great fear throughout the internatio­nal community, it is not the Islamic State that killed nearly 200,000 Syrians. It is not Islamic State that has caused a regional exodus of millions of Middle Eastern refugees. It is not the Islamic State that rounded up and imprisoned thousands of Iraqis for belonging to the Sunni Muslim community. Only the central Syrian and Iraqi government­s are to blame for creating the political vacuum that has allowed Islamic State to gain power.

Can Canada help? Yes, we can do more by bringing Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Canada. However, the Harper government’s purported preference for religious minorities fails to see that the Islamic State’s terror does not discrimina­te. The fact that the Islamic State has targeted Iraqi minorities — groups like the Yazidis, Christians and Iraqi Shiites — is well known. In Syria, the Kurds have captured global attention after being surrounded by Islamic State fighters. The fact remains, however, that the Islamic State targets anyone who opposes its rule, and the harsh reality is that the majority of its victims are Sunni Muslims.

The Sunni Albu Nimr family in the western part of Anbar province lost more than 600 family members to Islamic State because it refused to succumb to the militants’ perverse interpreta­tion of Islam. A Sunni imam in Baquba and another in Mosul were murdered for criticizin­g the Islamic State’s ideology. Female Sunni doctors in Mosul were killed after protesting against the Islamic State’s diktat to cover their faces. These and countless other stories of the Islamic State murdering Sunni Muslims are about real people, which for whatever reason do not make it to our television screens.

To frame the Islamic State as a battle of sects or to claim it is only religious minorities that are paying the price of its tyranny only perpetuate­s the myth that the western coalition is in a war against Sunni Islam. The Islamic State is a medieval organiza- tion that has blood on its hands, but the government­s of Syria and Iraq are also to blame for the death of their citizens and destructio­n of their countries. Our fight in Iraq and Syria should therefore always be in the best interests of all of its citizens, not one community or another. This should be our policy, not just because it is the morally right thing to do, but because it is also of tactical necessity.

The aerial bombardmen­t by the internatio­nal coalition is slowly ex- hausting the number of military targets that can be hit from the air. And let’s not fool ourselves: after decades of mistrust built by the Bush invasion of Iraq, western boots on the ground would be devastatin­g and most unwelcome. Soon, the internatio­nal coalition will need Iraqis and Syrians to rise up against the Islamic State. This second phase of the counter-insurgency strategy could start in the coming months, but without empowering Syrians and Iraqis from the bottom up, this would be self-defeating in the long run. To defeat the Islamic State, a military strategy must be followed by building politicall­y viable societies in Syria and Iraq.

To win the battle against the Islamic State, the internatio­nal coalition, of which Canada is a part, will need to build on its military and tactical strategy by beginning the long process of political reconcilia­tion that can both heal the sectarian wounds and build inclusive societies. As a member of the internatio­nal coalition, Canadian Armed Forces can help consult and advise Iraqis on how to truly build a profession­al army that is inclusive of its minorities. As Canada debates how it can meaningful­ly help this region from being torn by civil strife, massive refugee flows and failing government­s, I see only one comparativ­e advantage that is truly Canadian: our multicultu­ral society. We are not perfect, but we have a great deal of experience, wisdom and policy knowledge to share with the region about the values and virtues of a multicultu­ral society.

 ?? JOSEPH EID/AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? Syrian refugee children leave a tent being used as a school earlier this month at a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/GETTY IMAGES Syrian refugee children leave a tent being used as a school earlier this month at a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
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