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Faith, fear and freedom in the cradle of civilization

MunaAbbas.jpgMuna Abbas on the current critical situation in Iraq and its potential wider impact

Growing up, my mother would tell me stories about Iraq, always describing it as a country rich with historical significance, academic importance, and a diverse society accommodating a range of religions and beliefs. After fleeing in 1980, she has strongly held onto her Iraqi identity, making sure to pass on the language and customs to her daughters.

Often referred to as “the cradle of civilisation”, it is hard to attach that same label to the Iraq that I now see on my television screen. Sadly, I have yet to experience the Iraq my elders boast about; and if the current state of affairs deteriorate further, I may never. 

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS, has gripped the headlines for the past week with its vehemently sectarian agenda to destabilise and take over the country. In a place already struggling to balance the competing demands of its citizens from different backgrounds, ISIS is attempting to further divide, with the expectation to conquer. Iraq is no stranger to being used as a battleground for religious control. Wars of a sectarian nature can be traced back throughout Islamic history to only a few decades after the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

Whilst Iraq is in danger of a polarisation of its Shia-Sunni people, it must also be recognised that ISIS is a threat to all Iraqi citizens, regardless of sect or faith. Notwithstanding the atrocities committed against Shias, there have been a number of reports detailing the murder of members of both Sunni and Christian communities also. 

No-one can deny that that the past Iraqi government has made mistakes, and with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki currently in the process of forming a new administration, decisions must now be based on what is best for the whole country. This will inevitably include reforms to the current political make-up, which will seek to ensure a fair and reasonable distribution of power across opposing demographics.

It is however, more important than ever that Iraqis unite to save the country from falling into the hands of the jihadists. Leaders from all the religious factions have called on their citizens to defend the country’s honour but only through legal means. This includes Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, a Shia scholar, who is revered by all Iraqis irrespective of their religious attachments. An individual who has shied away from getting involved in politics, even he has made an exception – illustrating the magnitude of the threat Iraq, and indeed the entire region faces. As a result, thousands of Iraqis have rallied around the flag and signed up to the military, with the hope of defeating the common enemy.

Whilst looking at the wider, global threat that ISIS poses, including to Britain, we must be alert to the possibility of those who support them from spreading their hateful and intolerable views – or even worse, acting upon them. The consequences could potentially be disastrous - to the British Muslim community, but more importantly to British society as a whole which has been built upon shared common values of tolerance and respect. A campaign started by members of the British Iraqi community using the Twitter hashtag #NO2ISIS is already underway to reject the ideology which ISIS attempts to promote. This is not only to counteract the threat of them dividing the historically unified British Muslim community, but to also inhibit them from sowing discord and fuelling tensions across the UK.  

I am proud to be a British Iraqi living in a country which respects and protects my human rights. One of the greatest achievements that Labour made in government was the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998. Seeing the fate my fellow Iraqis are enduring on a daily basis makes me appreciate and value the freedoms we have here. From the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom of expression, to the right to the freedom of thought conscience and religion – these are all currently under siege by groups such as ISIS. 

Iraq is at a critical stage in its development, and the outcome remains unclear. I can only hope for that day when once again it will be recognised for the invaluable heritage which my mother spoke of, rather than the conflicts that it continues to suffer. 

Muna Abbas is a Legislative and Political Adviser to the Labour team in the House of Lords. She tweets @Muna_Abbas1

Published 22nd June 2014

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