The phone rang around seven on a chilly Tuesday evening in Mosul in early March 2007, displaying an unrecognizable number. I had failed to transfer all the contacts to my new phone, so I assumed I knew the caller. “Hello?” “Assalmu Alaikum”, said the caller in a rusty, apparently rural accent. “Alaikum Assalam”, I replied, convinced, or hoping, he had the wrong number. “[We] are from the Islamic State.”
His demands were clear-cut: Leave your post at the Governor’s office or face the consequences. “We decided to warn you since you are a hurma.1 We kill the men without warning. You have two days to quit or we will behead you. We know where you live and we know your family.” He ended with some emotion, yelling in his rusty, rural accent: “By Allah shame on you for working with these heretics! You have no shame! We are protecting your honor!”
The authorities shrugged off my complaint, of course. Their reactions varied from the over-zealous—“be brave and do not let these cowards determine your life!”—to the white-flag approach: “Just do what they say and keep a low profile.” I was one of many Iraqi public workers on the receiving end of a death threat from the early incarnation of what is today known as the Islamic State, and am fortunate enough to have survived it. Others did not, even before its sudden overt military surge sent ISIS into international headlines this past June. ISIS was waiting, planning, and growing quietly, in my hometown of Mosul, in Raqqa, and elsewhere. And its members were not just threatening people; they were killing them, too. Between life or a job, I chose life.
As it happened, this incident some seven and a half years ago triggered a series of events that played out to my benefit. They placed me where I am today, in Dubai, as free a woman as one can expect to be in the Arab world of the present century. Those who remain inside the Caliphate are generally not so lucky.
A caliphate, in the heart of ancient Nineveh, seems too hard for many to fathom—not just for Westerners but for Arabs, too. Experts have long warned of this ominous aspiration, written into almost every Islamist text from Al-Mawardi’s early 11th-century teachings to Al-Nabhani’s 1953 Hizb ut-Tahrir doctrines. The methodology and approach may have differed, but the dream of resurrecting a religiously anchored empire that romanticizes puritanical Islam remains the ultimate goal of all the movements of political Islam, even the ones that reject violence and revolution as a means to the end. One may wonder, however, whether ISIS is really the manifestation of devout Muslims’ long-awaited Caliphate, for an unprecedented rejection of civil and modern life now governs Mosul, once the heart of Iraqi culture. Certainly the political and social extremes to which ISIS has resorted, not to speak of the endemic violence of its ways, are a far cry from even the most fiery speeches Hasan Al-Banna ever gave in the wake of the Ottoman renunciation of the Caliphate in 1923, and his Muslim Brotherhood followers are themselves no strangers to extremism and violence.
The Western media has not been good at reminding readers that already in 2006 Mosul fell, briefly, to the first incarnation of the Islamic State. Security forces regained control of the city within days, but the main actors remained on the loose. “We could not capture everyone”, said N. S., a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the local police force. “Keep in mind their faces were mostly covered. Once they felt threatened they dropped their arms and melted into the city. It became impossible to distinguish them from average young men.” He added, “We relied on information ‘tips’ to identify the militants; unfortunately, most of the time, the tips were not accurate”—which is another way of saying that family or private vendettas often get tossed into volatile situations, and sorting them out is no simple task since family connections also tie together Islamic State supporters and militants.
After that brief efflorescence in 2006, the “soldiers” of the Islamic State continued to carry out their missions in Mosul: death threats to public workers (like me); “royalty” demands from shop owners, doctors, pharmacists, and anyone with a revenue stream, known as protection-racket payments in the United States; assassinations of political activists; planting IEDs on the roads to target Iraqi and Coalition forces; and incessant threats to religious and ethnic minorities. Government checkpoints, present in almost every street, corner, office, and school, failed to stop the execution of such threats. The same scene repeated frequently: The attackers manage to penetrate a checkpoint, do their deed (assassinate, kidnap, suicide bomb, and so on), and disappear (in all cases). Security forces then randomly shower the skies with ammunition, innocent people are injured; security forces randomly circle any young man within a three-kilometer radius of the incident, and some are never seen again. The people soon forget the now-invisible terrorists and express more anger toward the flesh-and-blood security forces who injured bystanders, took innocent people into custody, and again failed to protect them. The militants win. Let 72 hours pass, and repeat.
While the East District of Mosul had languished in civil disorder for years, the city as a whole still functioned before this past June. Despite the checkpoints, the non-existent security, the extortions, the high unemployment rates, and the lack of services, life in Mosul nevertheless went on. The residents became more sympathetic to what Beirutis had to put up with during the Lebanese Civil War. As Sana, a 27-year-old dentist, put it:
The past year was especially hard after some army soldiers began harassing us. They became very sectarian and abusive. They would hit and humiliate people for no reason at checkpoints. Many of them would arrest people and demand money for their release. Things became very intense, and Atheel [Mosul’s Governor Atheel Al-Nujaifi] didn’t seem at least bothered. We would hear about him traveling to Turkey or Europe, or see pictures of him with his horses. He didn’t care that the city was on a downhill, but still no one expected what was about to happen.
While the Iraqi Armed Forces and the local government are not our concern here, the entire world witnessed their “efficiency” on June 10, 2014, the day that changed what still remained of Iraq forever.
Nearly 500,000 residents of Mosul fled the city to nearby Kurdistan after learning of the army’s retreat and the ISIS takeover. However, the 24 hours following did not go as anticipated: ISIS’s shock troops were not that scary after all. “We saw masked men lifting the concrete from the roads. They asked us not to call them ‘ISIS’ but call them ‘rebels’—and the ones I saw were all Iraqis. They didn’t close any shisha cafes or hurt anyone. We thought this was a Sunni rebellion, an Iraqi Sunni rebellion against Nouri Al-Maliki and his sectarian brutal army. Yes, we were happy!”, said 24-year-old Khalid.
The initial feeling of relief and hope for a national Sunni revolt lasted for about two weeks. An official statement issued by “The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham”, printed out and distributed everywhere in the city, demanded the full practice of Sharia, as ISIS understood it. Christians, Yezidis, Shi‘a, and any non-salafist Sunni were all deemed heretics or infidels. One week later virtually all of the city’s major historic sites and religious shrines were destroyed as examples of shirk: idolatry. Khalid, a college graduate who had been wrongfully arrested, and tortured, by the Iraqi Army a year earlier, stated a widely held view: “When they issued that decree we knew we had been lied to by those claiming to be rebels. This was the same ISIS that beheads people in Syria.” But the initial soft approach worked; there was no resistance from the population to the ISIS takeover.
The rest of Iraq was not ready to forgive the gulled population of the city. Social media and news outlets exploded with an organized defamation campaign against Mosul’s residents. “We were called traitors for allowing ISIS into the city. No one cares that we had been prohibited to leave our homes under the curfew imposed by the Army a week earlier, only for the Army to abandon us. Who left the posts they were supposed to defend?” argued Dhafar, Khalid’s older sister. “Some Iraqis want us, the people, to fight ISIS. We are taunted for not doing so. How do we fight ISIS without weapons?”
The war of words that played out on both traditional and social media only deepened the already existing—and now freshly salted—wounds of Iraq. The discourse instantly turned sectarian, and the “us against them” tone, previously believed to be exhausted from massive overuse, seemed to find a second (or third, or fourth) wind. It is good to know that some things do not change.
Eight months of ISIS so far, as I sit to write, have taken their toll on every aspect of the city. Electricity and running water are available for two to four hours a week, but no one knows which hours in any given week. Umm Saja, an employee at a city office, said that she is not surprised by the lack of services: “Providing clean water and energy to people is not child’s play. It takes regular, trained employees and experts. How are a bunch of brainwashed young people who have not finished grade school going to maintain such functions?” People approach the militants to complain only to be answered, “You Moslawis are too spoiled. Think about the early days of Islam. Did the Prophet own an air-conditioner?”
In these complaints one hears not only the voiced Islamist cant, but also the rural accents beneath it that identify most ISIS cadres as poorer, less well-educated Iraqis who have resented Mosul urbanites all their lives. This is a central sociological dimension to what has been going on that the Western press has missed almost entirely, as far as I can tell. More on this theme anon.
The extreme shortage of gasoline and other fuel has made cooking, cleaning, heating, and other basic functions primitive. “During rainy days we place buckets outside to collect water. We then run the water through cloth to trap dirt and other residue several times until the water is partially clear. This water is used for cleaning and personal hygiene”, said Naila, a university professor:
We still thank God. There are people much worse off. Think of all the hopeless refugees in tents in this harsh winter. This is why many did not leave the city. We knew we could not trust our government to help us if we did. Humanitarian organizations can only do so much. Access to Kurdistan requires money and the right contacts. Staying in Mosul was the only option for many, not because we are happy with Da’esh.
For cooking and heating, people resort to methods so innovatively basic, they do not have names: burning wood, for example, in an aluminum tank and using whatever heat results from the flames. The Central Bank of Mosul, since seized by ISIS, has allowed citizens to withdraw only minimal amounts of cash. The Iraqi government still pays its public workers partially despite the fact that the majority of employees have not returned to their offices. “We thank the government for that. At least we have enough to buy bread and water”, said Naila.
The process of collecting the salaries is a drama in itself. With no option of communicating with ISIS in this regard, the main accountants of the public bureaucracies must travel to Kirkuk, or Dohuk, to receive the money. These unfortunate folks are subjected to humiliation from ISIS for “begging money from a heretic government”, and also from the Iraqi forces, mostly Kurdish Peshmerga, for “not fighting ISIS and wanting money.” They absorb the insults, which are physical at times, and return to distribute what they can to whom they can.
Local grocery shops, stores, and some restaurants are still open. Food trade is still abundant between Mosul and Kurdistan, where most resources come from, despite heavy new ISIS restrictions and “taxes.” The market for manual workers has taken a massive hit; very little industry is continuing. I contacted Ayad (an alias), a 32-year-old carpenter I know, about how he is managing. “It’s very tough”, he said, adding a few curses here and there. “Families are worried about the food, not the table. Naturally, not many people are buying new furniture. I have only sold one piece in the past six months; a chair for $20. My father is supporting us with the few dinars he has from his retirement salary.”
To make matters worse, since December 31, 2014, internet and phone services have been completely cut off in the city. People residing outside of Mosul, like myself, have no way of knowing whether family members and friends are alive or not. All appeals to the Kurdistan government—which ordered blocking the services that operate from its soil—have gone in vain.
In an act that repelled the vast majority of Mosul’s population, ISIS issued a four-option warning to the city’s Christians: convert to Islam and be safe; pay the jizya (a per capita tax imposed on non-Muslims); leave the city with nothing but your clothes; or die. Indeed, most left with nothing but their clothes. At checkpoints on the way to Kurdistan—and everyone calls it that, knowing that it will never again be a subjugated part of an Arab-dominated Iraq—where most Christians took refuge, several eyewitnesses reported ISIS members snatching gold rings off women’s fingers. The empty homes of Sunnis who had escaped ISIS were confiscated, their owners declared “heretics.” Shi‘a and Yezidis faced a harsher destiny: convert or die. Not given the option to leave, many faced the latter fate. Their belongings, needless to say, were also confiscated. Like European Jews who were dispossessed en masse by their fascist enemies during World War II, the residents of Mosul are dispossessed by fascists of a different kind in our own day.
With an abundance of empty but furnished homes, cash, gold, and other assets, ISIS members found themselves richer with every tragedy. The Sunni homes, in particular, belonged to the wealthier citizens who had enough money to secure a comfortable place in Kurdistan, or in some other country they could reach. These homes were modern and recognizably “posh.” I spoke to “R”, who has been married a little more than a year. The young bride, who hails from a family of medical doctors, married into a well-situated family, as well. She told me over Skype:
Our neighbors informed us that ISIS took everything. My new bedroom, my kitchen, all our furniture was taken. Even my silverware and whatever clothes I didn’t take with me to Turkey. Then they brought in a few chairs and beds. Some ISIS fighters are now living in my home.
The more stylish furniture, according to a few narratives, is either shipped to the ISIS leadership in Syria or to the largest homes the Iraqi ISIS leadership has decided to claim. “This is what is driving scores of volunteers to ISIS from the underprivileged class. Part of it is revenge of the underdog, and part is war spoils. They want to own what the rich had. This a far cry from the asceticism we often hear associated with any type of jihad”, said Professor A. K. of Mosul University. “They are closer to Dark Age barbarians we see in the movies than they are to any religious movement, at least when it comes to booty.”
Before my departure to Dubai almost 18 months ago, my neighbor Manar (another alias) seemed fascinated by the fact that I would be able to walk by an authentic Chanel or Louis Vuitton shop. A 21-year-old medical student, Manar loves the television show The Doctors, reads philosophy, orientalism, and psychology, listens to the rock band Arctic Monkeys, and keeps up with the Kardashians. She was always capable of supporting a stylish and unique look, despite the “hijab” socially imposed in Mosul even before this past June, with adorable accessories and handbags. Anyone who thinks that obligatory Muslim dress for women obscures all efforts at style knows nothing of how to make small differences speak loudly.
Alas, after the fall of the city, Manar, like every other female, has been forced to wear a full burqa. This outfit really does cramp one’s style. “Were we nude before? What was wrong with our clothes?” exclaims Manar, as her voice register shoots upward. “Nothing of our skin was exposed. Must we look like portable garbage bags for Allah to be content with us? How will I practice medicine? So that’s it? Everything I worked hard for and planned is gone?” She absolutely breaks my heart. This young, brilliant, and dedicated woman once so passionate about life is asking questions no one appears able to answer.
With Al-Husba (religious police) stationed at local markets to monitor women’s attire, the majority have submitted to the burqa, but some women have resisted and challenged ISIS militants with reason based on Islamic texts that the burqa is not mandatory. Dumbfounded and shocked, because they are to a man uneducated in genuine Islam, knowing only what their leaders have told them, several militants gave up the debate and left. The more hardcore ones refused any discussion. Whether they reject questioning the legitimacy of their religious laws or simply the idea of a woman standing up to them is hard to tell.
A new discourse has surfaced during the past six months in the conservative city of Mosul, one that should lead Islamists everywhere to some recalculation. In brief, it is this: Allah is not doing anything. A phrase considered to be the ultimate heresy in Islam is spreading widely in private discussions. ISIS religious fanatics are creating agnostics and atheists at an alarming rate.
Hasan (alias) is a thirty-something shop owner from Mosul’s East District. His plaint is becoming more typical:
I used to pray voluntarily without a gun pointed to my head. My prayers were sincere and heartfelt. Now, I wrap up my prayers as quick as possible, sometimes not even recalling what I recite. I’m occupied with my shop, which had already been looted once during a mass prayer. Instead of conforming to this ritual [of dropping everything and praying together], I could have performed my prayers in the shop. Any customer would see me, wait till I finished and perhaps buy something. Times are hard without wasting opportunities and as the call for prayer approaches I feel burdened by many grievances that are distancing me from Allah.
Scores of Mosul residents have abandoned going to mosques altogether and choose to pray at home to avoid ISIS. Hasan added: “There is a young man who lives around this area; an absolutely immoral perverted person so that I do not have enough bad words to describe with. He has joined ISIS and grown a long beard. Now he roams the market place fully armed. I see him and think, ‘if this lowlife represents Islam, then I no longer need this religion’—and then I quickly ask Allah for forgiveness.”
Ruaa, 35, told me she misses her “Christian neighbors as Christmas approaches. We used to visit them during their holidays. They were family and we were not able to offer them any help. I am ashamed of myself and my religion. I do not blame them if they hate Islam.” The most extreme statement came from Saad, a 29-year-old physician: “Our problem is with Allah. Every murderer, rapist, and thief speaks in His name and He does nothing. Do not tell me Allah exists. If He does, then He is content with what is happening. Either way I want nothing to do with Him.”
While atheism exists everywhere, what is rising in Mosul, and probably in Raqqa too, is a trend worth noting. When young people, once devoted Muslims, decide to stray from the Creator in anger, the future will bear the consequences. A young doctor told me he has become a heavy smoker and laughs about the extreme lengths he goes to just to get his hands on smoke after ISIS added cigarettes to its extended “taboo list.” He wrapped his amusing story with blasphemy: “If not only ISIS, but if Allah Himself comes down here to Mosul and tells me stop, I will still find a way to smoke.” This is a far cry from the man I used to know, who backed the Islamic Party in all national and local elections. ISIS is driving him crazy.
Professor A. K. said it’s either “now or never”:
We need serious reforms. We need to educate people about the context and reasons for the Quranic verses that appear extreme. We need the masses to know that Sharia is only a small part of Islamic civilization as it has developed, something set up over 1,400 years ago to impose order on a primitive society. People need to know that if Mohammed were living in these times, he would have seen and acted differently.
Audiences supporting such a hypothetical discourse—which is of course impossible so long as ISIS is in town—seem to have increased over the past six months. But ISIS or no ISIS, it remains unclear whether Mosul, or Muslims in general, are ready for this discourse.
During a brief meeting I attended with Thomas Friedman a few months back in Dubai, he pointed out that, unprecedentedly, there are no American reporters in any of the ISIS-controlled areas. This is true, and, as Hadeel Al-Sayegh from Abu Dhabi’s The National asserts, “Mosul has been a difficult city to cover in the aftermath of its takeover by the ISIS due to its multifaceted dynamics. Without being on the ground, a journalist suffers the risk of not being able to judge people’s biases in telling the story.” Difficult, but not impossible.
Mosul is a city known for following the motto, “I am above it all, and I shall not be moved.” Since this past June, this attitude has morphed into a kind of caliphatalism. Most people know there is little they can do on their own to rid the city of ISIS, so they deploy egoism as a last defense against despair. But not everyone forced to sit and wait has given in to caliphatalism. One such who sits and waits, an anonymous character who goes by the name “Maouris Milton”, has started a spark. Milton posts weekly updates about the situation in the city on a Facebook page titled “Mosul Eye.” A quick look at his posts reveals the considerable support he receives worldwide. Al-Sayegh notes:
In the time since the takeover of Mosul, the social media group Mosul Eye has acquired a strong and credible following by the media industry. The entries are in proficient English, which makes it accessible for Western journalists to get a decent perspective of what’s happening on the ground. The insight on the gradual control by IS is unprecedented in the sense that it is objective and there are no biases, whether good or bad, toward the actions of the jihadist group. However, its nationalist take offers hope for Mosul and Iraq.
Several other young men and women are reporting daily updates from Mosul on social media, and are also doing so anonymously for obvious reasons. “A dam has been broken in Mosul. People, especially young people, are fed up with being voiceless. They have begun relating the catastrophe of ISIS with years of remaining silent over what we knew was wrong”, Maouris told me a few weeks ago over Facebook. That was before he deactivated his personal profile following news of anti-ISIS social media outlets being hacked by the terrorist group. “I am not calling on young people to take arms and fight”, he told me.
But I want them to acknowledge that we are all faulted in this one way or another, thus, we need to each take responsibility and play our part in freeing our city. The world must know that the majority of Mosul residents just want to raise their families in safe and secure conditions. This [ISIS] level of extremism does not have a fan base in our city, but also the disconnection to political and religious authority has marginalized us and time has come for that to change. This is why I’m doing what I do.
I asked Milton if he risks his life to obtain the information he posts. He answered: “Yes. Every minute of every day I put myself and my family in danger. But we are living in fear regardless. The moment fear succeeds in breaking our spirit is the moment they win. Fear has been triumphant in Mosul for years now but a handful of us remain strong.” He reminds me, of all people, of the pioneering American female journalist Dorothy Thompson, who once wrote, back in the 1930s, that “it is only when we stop being afraid that we really start to live.”
As news of an impending military operation to free Mosul makes waves in the grieving city, the population find itself stuck between two contrasts: The joy of ridding Mosul of ISIS and the fear of retribution and revenge by the Iraqi Army, the Peshmerga, or the Shi‘a militias that have infiltrated the volunteer fighters. “I wish the U.S. Army would free us instead”, said Abu Ahmed, a retired accountant. “They would shoot at whoever carries arms but they would not raid homes and burn them down. Look at what is happening now in Diyala.” He added: “We are on death row simply awaiting the day of execution”, referring to what many expect will be the wholesale death and destruction that will accompany any attempt to re-take the city from ISIS.
Maouris Milton, however, has another opinion: “This too shall pass. Mosul has survived worse. The city will rise from its ashes. I have faith.” So of course, in his own way, did Jonah—Yunis in Arabic—who preached against Nineveh and, lo and behold, Nineveh repented. The city of Mosul needs another miracle right about now. Let us pray that it receives one.
1Hurma is a derogatory rural denotation for a woman. It is roughly equivalent to the English word “wench.”