A plague onto the Middle East, a cancer of the mind and an evil which seems to know no bound, ISIS – Islamic State of Syria and Al Sham – the army of the black flags has become synonymous to barbaric violence.
But while the international community has overwhelmingly and unanimously condemned and rejected ISIS’ radical ideology, having denounced its group for the terror that it has come to embody, it appears its narrative of hatred and sectarian fragmentation has sipped deeper into the public psyche than anyone could have anticipated.
At a time when Iraq is desperately holding on to the hope that its military and its men will act a barrage before Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s hordes – the self-proclaimed leader of ISIS – its government having called on all men and women to stand united in the face of terror, regardless of religious affiliations, tribal allegiances and political sensitivities, one human rights group, Amnesty International, has been accused of playing directly into ISIS narrative by enticing sectarian hatred and religious labelling through its reporting of events.
On 14 October, Amnesty International, a group which has prided itself for its objectivity and impartiality published a report entitled, “Iraq: Evidence of war crimes by government-backed Shia militias”.
In the report AI accuses Baghdad and the Shia community of religious genocide against Sunni Muslims, playing, said several rights activists, into ISIS narrative of hatred and self-justified religious cleansing campaign.
Hassan Moussawi, an Iraqi rights activist warned that AI myopic assessment is doing a dangerous dis-service to the Iraqi people as it will ignite religious passions and feed divisions at a time when solidarity has become a matter of national security.
AI wrote, “Shia militias, supported and armed by the government of Iraq, have abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in recent months and enjoy total impunity for these war crimes.”
In a nutshell AI argues that the Iraqi government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has encouraged and even condoned the killing of Sunni Muslims rather than oppose ISIS’ advances.
“By granting its blessing to militias who routinely commit such abhorrent abuses, the Iraqi government is sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart. Iraqi government support for militia rule must end now,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser.
AI further added in its report that “The growing power of Shia militias has contributed to an overall deterioration in security and an atmosphere of lawlessness,” basing its assessment on the commentary of one man in Kirkuk.
More damaging yet, AI has challenged Baghdad’s intention in its fight against terror, alleging that PM Al Abadi is more interested in promoting the supremacy of Shia Islam over Iraq than actively combat ISIS and eradicate its perverse ideology.
“By failing to hold militias accountable for war crimes and other gross human rights abuses the Iraqi authorities have effectively granted them free rein to go on the rampage against Sunnis. The new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi must act now to rein in the militias and establish the rule of law,” said Donatella Rovera.
If few have reacted to Amnesty International’s report so far, one rights group – Shia Rights Watch – is determined to challenge what it understands as bias and irresponsible reporting, in view of re-establishing a sense of balance in the media.
In a letter addressed to AI, Hawra Zakery, a researcher with SRW noted, “Publishing such report and directly accusing one sect of Islam for killing another sect creates clear sectarian issues. We are concerned that such claim, which is only backed up with two cases, is first of all not well investigated, and secondly increases tension between sects in an unstable country. “
She added, “As a human rights NGO you are expected to help decrease sectarian violence, but this report of yours only spreads fear among Iraqi civilians.”
SRW, a group which has devoted its efforts and its time to promoting Shia rights based on the idea that religious freedom is any individual’s inherent and inalienable human rights, has said to have been profoundly disturbed by Amnesty International’s accusations. “While we can understand that AI would want to denounce abuses and crimes wherever and whenever they occur, its labelling of an entire community based on its religious affiliation stands in complete negation of its ethos … More troubling yet, AI has given credential to ISIS narrative by playing the sectarian card and identified Shia Islam as the enemy to be defeated.”
As noted by Zakery in her letter to AI, “Hundreds of Shia Muslims are killed in Iraq on a daily basis by Sunnis, yet NGOs such as SRW do not specify violator sect as “Sunni” in order to prevent sectarian-based hatred.”
Marwa Osman, a political analyst and TV presenter working toward her Phd in Lebanon noted that painting Iraqi Shia Muslims as the guilty party right off the handle will only benefit ISIS.
She explained, “Shia Muslims have suffered more than any other religious sect by the hands of ISIS and other radicals. Thousands of Shia Muslims have been slaughtered, tortured and abused, branded apostates by those who claim to be the righteous army of God. Like Iraqi Christians and other religious groups in Iraq, Shia Muslims know better than anyone the dangers of a life under ISIS flag … and yet no mention in AI report is made of ISIS’ atrocities, no mention is made of the countless war crimes Iraqis have been subjected to in the name of religious supremacy. AI is committing a crime by playing into ISIS narrative and giving credit to its hatred of Shia Muslims.”
Zakery stressed that AI seems to have forgotten that over 1700 Shia Muslims were killed by the hands of ISIS in Camp Speicher in June 2014; that 670 Shia Muslims were shot in Mosul prison, yet Iraq chose not to fall into religious labelling in order to not fuel ISIS’ ideology.
Moussawi stressed that AI’s reducing of Iraq’s fight against terror to the religious arena equates to abating terrorist, giving standing to ISIS’ narrative and thus promote the propagation of hatred. “Oppression can never be justified; religious labelling is the way to radicalism … Amnesty International should know better than to fall into such trap.”
Osman added to Moussawi and SRW’s remarks by noting that AI had already been found guilty of political and religious bias in the past. “This is not the first time Amnesty International issues such partial reports. Back in 2006 when Lebanon suffered Israeli fire, AI willingly omitted Israel’s gross human rights violations against civilian population. Such bias should no longer be tolerated let alone ignored.”
Catherine Shakdam is the Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.