God isn’t dead and religion isn’t dying. Even a cursory glance at global events in recent months illustrates the ongoing relevance of religion and religious beliefs for shaping contemporary social space, influencing political ideologies and fuelling international conflict. According to the historian Tom Holland, even the core presumptions of western secularism are shaped by religion (in this case Christianity). Religion is embedded in our societies and ideas of God embedded in men’s minds.
The actions of religious groups in distant and diverse parts of the world today can send ripples and after-shocks that stretch across national boundaries, sometimes instantaneously.
The actions of the radical Islamic group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sometimes called ISIL the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have ramifications which span the globe. The group, who more recently called themselves IS after claiming to have established an Islamic State or caliphate, are based primarily in Iraq and Syria.
The latest report about ISIS is that they have killed five hundred Yazidis in Iraq and have taken three hundred women captive. Some of those killed are reported to have been buried alive. Tens of thousands of Yazidis have fled and are camped on Mount Sinjar where children are dying of thirst.
One of the interconnections between ISIS and Ireland is likely to be an interest (at the very least), of a small number of Irish Muslims, in joining their ranks. Irish Iraqis who have family members living in Iraq are also likely to be impacted upon by their actions.
One person in Ireland whose family are in the Kurdistan area of Northern Iraq is Makhmury.
Two days ago Makhmury was watching the Kurdish news on satellite TV in her home when one of her brothers and a cousin unexpectedly appeared on the screen. Her brother and cousin were being interviewed in Makhmury’s home city of Makhmur in Kurdistan, northern Iraq.
‘They were on the news saying that they were preparing to fight ISIS. ISIS weren’t in the city yet but they were close. All the women and children had been evacuated’.
Makhmury says she went into a kind of shock and has been crying so much since then that this morning she had to use eye-drops to reduce the swelling. She says that she is now watching the news day and night and sleeps little. Today her husband and her son insisted she got out of the house for a break from the news. Her phone is constantly by her side.
Makhmury came from Makhmur to live in Ireland twenty-seven years ago. She has three grown-up sons and an Irish husband. Her only other family member in Ireland is a nephew. Most of her family are still in Iraq and many of them live in Makhmur. Her sister, brother, in-laws, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews all have homes there and they have all either left or are preparing to fight.
‘They had to leave very quickly’ she tells me. ‘They had to save themselves. They were worried about their daughters and the women. That was the priority – to bring them to safety. I’ve seen eye-witness reports from people who saw what was done by ISIS to the Yazidi in Shengal – women were raped and then their throats were slit. Hundreds were taken away. They separate the beautiful ones and they take them away. Thousands of Yazidis fled to the mountains.’
Kurdish fighters, called the Peshmerga (guerillas) are now involved in battles against ISIS in Northern Iraq. Some of Makhmury’s family are fighting with the Peshmerga. Makhmury explains that ninety-five percent of Kurds are Muslim and the other five percent is made up of Christians, Yazidis and other religions including Jews. She estimates that there are around two thousand Kurds living in Ireland.
Makhmury manages to keep in daily contact with her family in Iraq via mobile phone. She can sometimes hear the children crying in the background. She says everyone is anxious and upset.
When I sit at her kitchen table her nephew calls from Iraq to update her. All her family are safe and in Erbil at the moment. Makhmury is very hopeful that they will be safe because Erbil has a large international community including many Americans. She tries to reassure her sister-in-law over the phone. ‘It could be worse’ she tells her.’ At least you can stay with relatives, you are not on the mountains, you have food and drink’.
ISIS model their behaviour and style on what they believe to be that of the Prophet Muhammad and the Prophet’s companions from 7th century Arabia. Non-Muslims have been persecuted by ISIS as well as Muslims who do not agree with their specific brand of Islam. Christians in areas under their control have been given a choice to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face execution. The Yazidis, a minority religious and ethnic group, have also been told to convert or face death.
Although ISIS are in Iraq and Syria their influence is not limited to geographical space. Reports of their actions also influence Irish understandings of Islam and attitudes towards Muslims. These reports have the potential to fuel Islamophobia which in turn leads to isolation of the Muslim community in Ireland amongst other things.
Makhmury’s own attitude towards ISIS is clear. ‘They are terrorists’ she says. ‘They are not Muslim. Muslims have to bring peace. To be a good Muslim you have to bring peace to everybody. You don’t hurt anyone. You can’t be a Muslim and slit throats, rape women, destroy people’s homes’.
* Since writing this blog yesterday, Makhmury has been in touch today to say that ‘the city of Makhmur has been recaptured by the Kurds Peshmerga and guerillas and this is a great relief for me and my family and everyone else in the north of Iraq. Well done to Peshmerga and guerrillas and all the courageous fighters’.
Anyone interested in reading Tom Holland’s views on Christianity and western secularism can, for starters, check out http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2009/04/muslims-essay-islam-state