Mohamed Khalaf: Jihadist Group IS Reveals Pure Essence of Islam
An interview of Novinite.com with Mohamed Khalaf, an Iraqi-born journalist and correspondent in Bulgaria of a Kuwaiti newspaper, on the Sunni militant group called Islamic State (IS) acting in Iraq and Syria.
The text below is the second part of the interview and is mostly about the activities of IS in Iraq, but also about the nature of the extremist group's ideology.
Mr Khalaf, you said Syria was the reason for IS to emerge, but what helped the conflict to spill over to Iraq?
I wouldn't say what is presently happening is a surprise either for the US or for Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Nobody could convince me that a handful of people could take over the city of Mosul. Do you know how many they were? Seven hundred fifty. 750 people cannot seize a million-strong city. The Second Brigade of the Iraqi armed forces was there - 40 to 60 000 troops plus two generals armed to the teeth. The entire army and institutions fled. But it wasn't just 750 people that scared them away: 40 military councils from the former armed forces of Saddam Hussein were among them. In Mosul alone, 7000 generals and other high-ranking officers were dismissed, marginalized, thrown away. Just like 100 000 other soldiers. This is a parallel army ready to fight. We should not forget the Sunni tribes council. The tribes are divided in two: some support the Baghdad regime, while the others prefer IS. Th latter wanted to topple down [Prime Minister Nuri al-] Maliki's regime as they hold him responsible for the marginalization of the Sunni tribe. And in fact he is. Policies of the past years have led to the uprising. Al-Qaeda and IS have gained momentum from the conflict between the Sunni community and the government in Baghdad to infiltrate themselves among people and win their hearts. One cannot act if there is no supportive environment. In that case the "supportive environment" were the Sunni regions, where many considered Al-Qaeda and IS to be more merciful toward them than Maliki's government, which was furthermore Shia-dominated and backed by Iran. Therefore Shiites and Iran should be swept away, they said. This is how the confilct grew into a sectarian one between Shia and Sunni citizens.
What is the role of external forces there?
Two states intervened. Iran, the Shiite one which is seeking to portray itself as a defender and representatives of Shias in the world, even though that community has never asked to be identified with it. On the other side is Saudi Arabia which says, "I am a defender of Sunnis across the world." Nor do Sunnis wish to be defended and represented by the country - both states are not democratic. They do not engage directly in the conflict, however - what is happening inside Iraq and Syria is rather described as local wars.
You mean Iraq and Syria are battlegrounds of a proxy war?
Yes, this is what is currently happening. The country to lose most from the events in Iraq is Iran. Tehran suffered as it was always attempting to control the developments in the Middle East. It always wanted to be the dominant country and to play its cards there. This is why it threw all its weight behind Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The fall of Bashar al-Assad would leave the Ayatollahs' system shaking without any external intervention, without a war. This is why they told Hezbollah to enter Syria to fight on Assad's side. This is also why they told Maliki that Shia volunteers from Iraq should help Damascus. This snowballed into a bigger, total war, a Shia-Sunni one. The interference of Hezbollah jolted the entire Arab community and embroiled them in sectarian infighting which will be very difficult to control. If you ask me, the experience of tha past hunder years has shown that a state with ethnic, religions, sectarian diversity present will undergo a civil war if all the communities are not represented and included in the political process with their cultural indentity, language, religion and sector fully recognized. Presently no Arab state with enthic and religions diversity has done that. Minorities have no recognition. They are oppressed, marginalized, insulted, and this turns them into an aggressor against the state. Kurdis in Iran, Turkey and Iraq; Amazighs and Berbers in Algeria, Libya; Houthi Shias in Yemen; Sunnis in Lebanon - they all want to break away. In the Lebanese city of Tripoli, for instance, a massive concentration of fundamentalists ready to emboil in fighting Hezbollah is present. Internal and external control is being exerted over them and does not allow such actions. But at a certain point they will implode and war will be triggered again. There is a rule saying that every state which has undergone a civil war will return to the starting point if it does not create mechanisms to control the situation.
To what extent are IS a deviation from Islam which most Muslims are not ready to accept?
I must admit that, as a Muslim, I don't think all those who argue that IS and [its religiousconceptions] are not our religion, are not Islam, are right. This is the essence of Islam. IS does absolutely show Islam in its purest form, in the form in which it was professed at the time of Prophet Muhammad, though its members do not take into account the fact that it does not correspond to the 21st century realities. Jihadists believe that the Islamic state was thriving when it had a Caliph 1300 years ago. Jihadists say, "When there was a Caliph, we were masters of half the world, while Europe was in decay, fighting wars. Now it is the opposite." They don't look for the reasons for that backwardness within themselves. Instead they point a finger on "colonialists who occupied our states, our societies and did their best” so that [the local population] is oppresed and retarded. If we return to religion, to the postulates of Prophet Muhammad, we will reinstate Islam. What does that mean? It means this religion has not been reformed, unlike Christianity. Christianity passed through various stages. When did Rennaissance start in Europe? When the church was separated from the state. In our case they are one thing, and they should be apart. Even at the time of the Islamic state prosperity reigned when the Caliph was merely an administrative leader and another figure headed the religious institution and managed relations between the individual and God. There were also stages of decline, when the two powers were merged.
On the other hand, at the moment the so-called anti-state organizations are thriving across the Arab world. You can see it for yourself: IS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, Hezbolla, Hamas, different groups in Africa, Al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula... They are all a variety of the same phenomenon: globalization. They are like social media - YouTube and Twitter - and nobody knows what will come out of them. Right now everything is beyond the boiling point in the Arab society and a number of Frankensteins will be given birth by those who create them. And who creates them? The governments themselves; they deprived the peoples of the Arab world of all rights. There is no pluralism, no civil society, no economic processes, there is only dominance. [There is only] stealing of the national wealth. The oppression of women, the merger of the religion and the state, the lack of a proper education system. It is since we are little children that we learn to hate. We are being taught at home, at school, at the universities, as we grow up, as we obtain our degrees; we learn that the we should hold the West accountable for our problems, that it is imperialism's fault. And how could one expect there won'be such things as IS, as jihadists. Every day I get angry with all these morons in Saudi Arabia, all those who gave billions for the UN's anti-terror center... Well, prior to spending billions on fighting terrorism you should initially do something within your own societies. Do you know that 150 TV stations in the Arab world are professing hatred? A hundred and fifty stations which teach one how to kill Christians? Thousands of Arabs go to school, to the mosque and this is what they see. While they should rather separate that Islam from that state, create education systems, recognize minorities and women, and also stop looking at women as if they were something of lesser importance. I recently read a book by an Algerian who explores the correlation between Islamist fundamentalism and secual problems. An extremist puts a bomb and kills people only in order to be able to go to Paradise and have 100 women every day! Well, these 100 women are in front of you. Should your murder people to go to them? This society of segregation does not result in anything good.
Just look at what IS did in Iraq: they captured Yazidis. We are talking about James Foley now, a murdered colleague. [His death] was a message to Obama who decided to strike. Because he did not want to do so until recently; he allowed them to expand. But it has been two years now that I, and also thousands like me, write and say that if the West leaves Syria like that, thousands of jihadists will constitute a threat to national security. Obama argued it was an internal problem and therefore he would not intervene. He changed his mind only when minorities, and especially Kurds, were threatened - they only reliable people who are not religious but rather secular, liberal and pro-Western and can be counted on. They might have their defects, but are presently building democracy in the north of Iraq.
Apart from the US, a few other European states - Germany, France and the UK - openly declared they would provide support to the Kurds. At the same time it is obvious that Kurds are becoming more and more assertive of their push for independence from Iraq...
Kurds have declared hundreds of times, and have not only recently done so, that they are interested in remaining part of Iraq, but that does not mean they don't have the right to self-determination and to an independent state. They insist on being part of Iraq which should respect minorities and all segments of society and grant them their rights, the role they should have in building the state. When the constitution outlining relations between authorities in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan (the latter being a federative unit) is breached, when central authorities prohibit institutions to deliver on their duties to the federative unit, [Kurds] have no choice but to speak in favor of independence. They have no benefit from such as step, though: Let me tell you: they receive 17 percent of Iraq's oil revenues, which amount to USD 120 B for the entire country. Just think of how much they earn: this is two times the entire budget of Bulgaria. They have a Kurdish president. The Deputy Prime Minister is a Kurd, and so are five ministers. Fifty-five to 60 MPs in the central Parliament, Deputy Ministers at all levels. The chief of Iraq's army is a Kurd, like the chief of the air forces. I could keep setting out examples that they do not hold any interest in renouncing all this. To the contrary, if there is respect for minorities, I don't think they would wish to break away. This is why I told you already, they should be on equal footing, equally represented in the institutions, they should have political rights. If one implements policies like Maliki's, you produce people who are aggressive at the state who wish to secede. It is the Sunnis, on the other hand, that have no interest in remaining within the Iraqi state. Do you know how much Sunnis receive in terms of oil revenues for the same territory and population like Iraqi Kurdistan's? Some USD 700 or 800 M. They lose about USD 14 B yearly just for having a national feeling.
Can this approach toward Sunnis change after Maliki's resignation?
Listen, which Sunnis are we talking about? Because until now there were Sunnis who were moderate and had agreed to enter the political process in the past 10 years. Maliki had been in power for virtually six years. Kurds for their part went to the polls, had representatives in Parliament, in government, in all institutions. But they were to have a Defense Minister and Interior Minister as well. They sent [Maliki] lists of names so that he could pick one, but he did not and dismissed all names for being "terrorists" or "Baath-affiliates". In the end he retained the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, the Interior Minister, the intelligence chief and the army Supreme Commander's office, then he took over all institutions, judiciary included. He turned into a Putin and Saddam Hussein-style dictator. He defied the Sunni community. In this insurgency, the moderates also renounced him - they say that for six years Maliki kept sending in the army to humiliate them, arrested and murdered their sons, who were accused of terrorism without any grounds. On the other hands, Sunnis say, there are different Shia organizations related to Iran, nobody asks them when they kill others because they are Shia, and it is us, the Sunnis, that have to fall victims. They didn't want the government as they argued it did not represent them. The new Prime Minister has inherited a heavy burden. I don't know what he could do. Sunnis, Kurds and Turkmens must have their rights. Otherwise Turkmens will wish to set up armed militias to win their rights as well. It was for this reason that Obama told Maliki, as the IS offensive kicked off and he requested help from the US, that Washington could neither side with ones nor with the others in the conflicts, since Sunnis also have their demands and are right. Obama explained that if he bombed IS, regions with a numerous supportive population would also be hit, and it would claim the US is with Iran and the Shias.
For that reason the President suggested that a government including all minorities should be formed and assured he would then come to help. Only when IS headed for Kurdistan did he intervene and change his stance. There are US forces in diplomats, companies, citizens and investors in the region, people from the entire West as well who would have remained helpless. Do you know how much investors there are in Iraqi Kurdistan? About USD 25 M of foreign investment. In the other parts of Iraq they stand at below USD 600 M.
Was it the bombing campaign that persuaded Maliki to step down? The US had hinted he should do so, but it took a long time before he heeded them.
Maliki was pressured into doing so, in my opinion. I have a protocol from his meeting with US State Secretary [John] Kerry, who told him Iraq needed a uniting Prime Minister. Only when [Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-] Sistani, the Iraqi Shia leader, was forced to intervene, did the situation develop. Generally he does not interfere in politics, five years he refused to accept Maliki and all politicians in Iraq and argued political problems were of no interest to him. The doctrine of the Iraqi Shia religious organization rules out any interference in the political process, unlike in Iran, where the ayatollahs have the final say. But Sistani was forced to act: he saw that Shias are endangered. He decided that if he did not move in to urge Maliki to leave, this would lead to a big threat to Shias and he would be blamed later. He hinted it for quite a long time.
Iran was the decisive factor, since Tehran saw that Maliki refused to listen. Iranians sent Al-Quds brigade chief General Suleimani, who is in charge of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and all organizations that the Islamic republic has established in the region. Maliki refused. They sent him Ali Shamkhani, the chief of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council – Maliki did the same. In the end [Iran Supreme Leader] Khamenei declared in a Friday speech that Maliki should go. The Americans warned him that his intervention in favor of Maliki would prompt a very harsh reaction from the US, as it cause the involvement of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states and the situation will go beyond control.
Maliki was besides warned he might be tried by an international court unless he resigned. There are also another versions: of secret deals and also that Maliki was persuaded be might be granted another office. However, I believe the hypothesis above is more likely.
In Iraq we are witnessing a de-facto military campaign: the US began air strikes and the UK last week admitted its missions were going beyond humanitarian goals. Could there be a repetition of the large-scale intervention in the early 2000s?
I cannot rule out any kind of action from now on - not only from the US, but also from European states, if that means a direct threat to Western and European interests in the region. Given the positions announced by Obama during his two terms, he said he would not get involved in military conflicts in other states. He is expected to leave Afghanistan as well. But in my opinion he will leave at least 20 000, since he realized where leaving Iraq could lead. In Afghanistan developments would be even more dreadful. There are also other regional factors due to which many will wish that the Americans stay, because the US pullout will lead to threats to their national security. They want America to carry the burden for them – Russia, Iran, China... And this is why they are not against a US stay, unlike they were in Iraq.
Indeed, the US admitted they were acting in favor of the Kurds. In my opinion the situation is not yet under control. They will hardly send 150 000 soldiers, as they did in the previous mission. However, the rumor goes that 200 more were deployed last week, with 300 advisors with no military role already present there to reassess Iraq's army and to analyze its disintegration. When the Iraqi army threw down the US weapons it possessed in Mosul and Tikrit, IS seized it. We are talking about new weapons which appeared in Syria two days later - a genuine threat to the US. That is why they sought to annihilate all arms that the Iraqi army left behind, thas is why they carry out raids with F-18 and drones, in order to bring as much damage to IS as possible. However, they still insist that the targets of thesestrikes will not be expanded. They are waiting to see what decisions will be taken in Baghdad.
Obama does not want to engage in any wars in the region, but nobody knows what circumstances will force him into doing so. You remember, [US President [1992-2000)] Bill Clinton also said he did not wish to take part in a war. However, he was pressured into doing so: no-one else could solve the problems of Bosna and Kosovo. It depends on the situation. In my opinion, Iraq is si far under control. The problem is that this army, which the American set up to be professional and national failed due to Mailiki, who breached its construction. He took quite different ways, he even started to import Russian arms... Because when we talk of these events, we should not forget that role Russia plays. Is all this related to the developments in Ukraine? Well, it is. Right now the weakness of the US President increases the strength of the Russian President. The non-interference in Syria prompted the interference of Russia in local processes. What Putin is most afraid of is not that he could lose the military base in Tartus, as some analysts argue. He is rather afraid of Syria's islamization, the regional islamizatin which could provide incentives for the islamization in Northern Caucasus.There are 25 million Sunni Muslims in Russia. The Islamic Sunni fundamentalism is already raging there.
Unfortunately the entire world is facing a number of serious challenges, but the biggest one is Islamic fundamentalism. This is why we have recently heard for the first time voices calling (even some from the UN) for retribution with IS, fundamentalism and all groups currently operating on the territory of all Arab states. This should explain the call of French President [Francois] Hollande that an international organization should be established on that matter. These are clear indicators about what worries them the most. And I think this will be the first time to involve Russia. The participation of Russia in this context would prompt a thaw between the West and Russia. It only remains to be seen whether ties between Putin and Obama will improve afterwards.
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