How inaccurate and simplistic reporting risks fuelling the cycle of violence
My name is Zahra and I am Iraqi. I will tell you that my family in Mosul are celebrating their newly found freedom in the self-fashioned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (aka ISIS). As you may have heard in many reports, they prefer unelected foreign men in balaclavas because they have been marginalised by the central Iraqi government. I will tell you that they support these men only because they seek to be treated as equal citizens. You see, respectable people like the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, tweeted, “ISIS reportedly tried not to alienate local population, unlike PM Maliki & his violent, sectarian repression”. And even when the so-called “rebels” begin to post harrowing images of cold-blooded murder on their Facebook accounts, I continue to insist that my family requires a political solution granting equal representation within the new government before they can bring themselves to condemn ISIS.
My name is Zahra and I am Iraqi. Contrary to what I said, my family does not really live in Mosul. The fragments of information I have, relating to Mosul, come from friends of friends, Twitter, Facebook and a dozen different news sources. These sources paint conflicting pictures and the self-appointed representatives of Iraqi public opinion say contradictory things. Approximately a quarter of Mosul’s population are now internally displaced persons, which suggests that they were not particularly overjoyed at the arrival of their so-called liberators. This mass exodus was, however, was accompanied by images and media reports showing pockets of support in Mosul, but no indication of their size. I read an article that quotes “Ahmed” who says that ISIS is the lesser of two evils. The article quotes only “Ahmed” who presumably speaks for the people of Mosul.
ISIS continues its attempts to gain control of more Iraqi territory. Car bombs – a familiar feature of the last decade – continue to wreak havoc in Iraqi neighbourhoods and the conflicting media coverage continues to stream through. The violence that is threatening to rip through Iraq is accompanied by a propaganda war no less ferocious. The onus on journalists, analysts and commentators not to become unwitting proponents for a particular political agenda is burdensome, especially given the security and language barriers that force them to be one step removed. Many journalists covering the situation in Iraq do not seem to have grasped the magnitude of the challenge they face. Nor the power they hold to sway this conflict.
The BBC’s coverage of recent events in Iraq has been singled out for criticism by many, including young British Iraqis feeling aggrieved by the sectarian undertones of its reporting. When Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s representative, Sheik Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, called on “citizens” who are able to bear arms to defend their country, the headlines read “Shia call to arms”. Following a number of complaints, the BBC subsequently issued a correction, stating that the article has “been amended to make clear that Grand Ayatollah Sistani called on all Iraqis, not just Shias, to defend their country”.
These seemingly small semantic inaccuracies have significant potential to shape this conflict. Besides the obvious need for the public to form an accurate picture of events in Iraq, there is also the real risk that oversimplifying the conflict in terms of two camps, Sunni versus Shia, heightens tensions and animosity inside the United Kingdom and the Middle East. Rhetoric that unwittingly entrenches sectarian divisions, regardless of how well meaning, risks being used as a recruitment tool by ISIS and similar groups.
Yet the BBC continues to spurt out what strongly resembles ISIS propaganda. On 17 June it published an article entitled “Iraq’s central government suffers mortal blow”, which goes on to describe ISIS’s alleged advancement as hammering “a deadly nail in the coffin of the post-Saddam Hussein nation-building project.” Its recent reports quote ISIS sources without any effort to seek comment from the Iraqi government or a note to state that the assertions of “a rebel spokesman” have not been verified. And the BBC is by no means the only media outlet that has been sucked into the sectarian narrative. Sistani’s fatwa was more recently misrepresented beyond recognition in an article in the Guardian, which describes Sistani as having “summoned” militias accused of committing atrocities “to defend Shia holy shrines”.
Not only are many of those covering the conflict fixated by a single fault line that is perceived to dominate all Iraqi political discourse, but they are more seriously unable or unwilling to recognise the plurality of voices within each camp. Even well-meaning articles which state that Sunnis just want equality overlook the fact that there are a number of different cleavages within every community.
Distinguishing between the different voices is crucial because there are now growing reports that ISIS did not orchestrate this take over without Iraqi complicity. Some would go as far as to say that ISIS is merely a cover-up for what is essentially a Baathist-led coup. Despite the stark consequences of ISIS dominance, we are told that Baathists only collaborated with ISIS because Maliki has not sought genuine political reconciliation. Absent in such commentaries is any exploration of whether Baathists have ever been amenable to such reconciliation, whether they would ever truly accept no more than proportionate representation within a democratic system. “Experts” make completely unproven allegations that the militants seek a “secular democracy,” while they state in interviews that they will “remove Maliki and take over Iraq”.
Growing calls for Maliki to step down have paid little attention to the outcome of Iraq’s recent democratic elections, deemed legitimate by international monitors. Maliki’s coalition won the largest number of seats, but not enough to guarantee him a third term without successfully forming a wider coalition. What is surprising about the calls for him to step down is that they have been accompanied by a number of suggested alternatives with little, if any, consideration of their democratic mandate. Since when did the voices of those who aid and abet a violent take-over by non-state actors get to trump the voices of the millions who risked their lives to vote? Since when did collaborating with a vicious terrorist organisation become a legitimate way of expressing dissent? And will the right to equality of ordinary Sunni civilians really be served by empowering groups that seek to provoke atrocities by unscrupulous militias in order to scare communities into solidarity with their cause? It may well be Maliki’s time to go, but the outcome of Iraq’s elections must be the determining factor in who replaces him.
It is clear that any new Iraqi government must have legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Commentators are now pressing for the separation of ISIS from other Sunni groups fighting alongside them, with suggestions that the latter ‘more moderate’ forces are the key to winning the battle against ISIS. It is rare to find a commentator who questions whether the desperate times in which we find ourselves were only possible because the ‘more moderate’ forces chose ISIS as their bedfellows. How many commentators ask seriously whether it is wise, indeed rational, to seek equal rights for individuals who set out to unleash atrocities on civilians as a means to their political ends? And when will journalists pause the next time they interview “Ahmed” and remind themselves that a handful of individuals cannot speak for the rest.
I wish that the international community would not engage with Iraq in a reductionist and simplistic way, distorting its complex and multilayered social fabric into a one-dimensional ancient strife. I wish that the commentators suggesting that Saddam’s former henchmen might be the key to breaking ISIS would recognise that they are merely replacing bearded terrorists with clean-shaven ones. I wish that those seeking the best for the beleaguered people of Mosul refrain from empowering the very people bringing about their suffering as a means to their ends.
My name is Zahra and I am Iraqi. I have faith that the post-Saddam Hussein nation-building project will survive the current crisis. I have faith that my hopes for a democratic and prosperous Iraq reflect the wishes of the majority of the people of Iraq. I have faith that the voices of the people of Mosul will eventually rise above those who seek to ruthlessly hijack them. But at the end of the day, I can only really speak for myself.
Featured image shows Umayyah Naji Jabara, an Iraqi politician and daughter of a Sunni tribal leader, who was killed fighting ISIS.
Image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/10923892/Iraqi-female-politician-killed-fighting-Isis.html
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