Communication strategy by the Iraq’s religious authorities vis-à-vis countering violent extremism and the treatment of Islamic State combatants and their families
Following the capture of Mosul and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s historic caliphate proclamation, on 13 June 2014, the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Sheykh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai delivered the famous statement that came to be known as the “wajib al-kifai” fatwa (religious edict). Driven by religious fervour, thousands of young warriors marched in response to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa for defensive jihad, and came to constitute the so-called Popular Mobilisation (PMU), known in Arabic as al-Hashd al-Sha‘abi – a state-sanctioned paramilitary umbrella. Despite its questionable human rights record, the state recognised entity had contributed immensely to countering the advances the self-proclaimed Islamic State, whose insurgents had brought almost unhampered the US-trained Iraqi army to its knees. Sanctioning the justice of the cause, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s call to arms had not only helped prevent what analysts were painting as the imminent end of Iraq but also effectively challenged the Islamic State’s jihadi salvation narrative. As illustrated in its carefully chosen wording, the office of his Eminence Sayyid Ali al-Sistani has deliberately refrained from using any discriminatory Shiite specific references.
Highlighting the security challenges on the ground and underlining the collective responsibility resting upon the shoulders of the Iraqi people, Sheykh Karbalai stressed the following six points. Firstly, outlining the gravity of the terrorist threat, he emphasized that “the responsibility for confronting and fighting them [the terrorists] is the responsibility of all, not of one sect or one party alone.” Secondly, reminding the Iraqi citizens of the courage and boldness demonstrated by them in the face of even greater dangers in the past, he proceeded by appealing to their readiness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of “preserving the unity of our country, its dignity, and the defence of its holy places.” Thirdly, Sheykh Karbalai addressed the political leadership of the country, calling upon them to overcome their rivalries and reach a unified position intended to provide “additional strength for the Iraqi army, to make them steadfast and constant.” Fourthly, strongly condemning the savageness of the methods adopted by the terrorist and their instigating of sectarian violence, Sheykh Karbalai declared the “defence performed by our armed Forces and security organs” as “a holy defence against these terrorist aggressors.” Fifthly, Sheykh Karbalai explicitly proclaimed the moral obligation to defend the nation from the aggressors a “wajib kafai [collective duty], a duty incumbent on those capable of realizing the objective, which is preserving Iraq, its people and its holy sites.” Sixthly, he insisted upon honouring the sacrifices of the fallen soldiers and officers with the aim of creating an “incentive to others to perform the national duty which rests on their shoulders.”
Furthermore, in light of disturbing reports of human rights violations against Sunni residents on February 12, 2015, the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a detailed statement titled as “Advice and Guidance to the Fighters on the Battlefields.” The text outlines a strict code of conduct, covering twenty normatively charged aspects of the religiously sanctioned military etiquette. The marja‘iyya [legal authority] also included specific guidelines both concerning the confrontation of non-Muslims, as well as referring to the “fighting against those Muslims who oppress [others] and who wage war [unjustly].” In addition to explicitly forbidding the killing of innocent citizens, the statement also condemns any unlawful acts targeted at the family members of the enemy engaged in battle: “By the majesty of God! The lives of those who do not fight you are sacred, especially the weak among the elderly, the children, and the women, even if they were the families of those who fight you. It is unlawful for you to violate the sacredness of those who fight you except for their belongings. It was the noble habit of the Commander of the Faithful [i.e. ʿAli], peace be upon him, to prohibit [his soldiers] from attacking the properties of the families, the women, and the children of those against whom he fought, despite efforts by some of those who [claimed to] follow him, especially the Kharijites, who insisted on legitimizing it.” Particularly the last two points of the statement underline the importance of restoring trust with the local civilian population and the responsibility of the militants to safeguard their rights and welfare: “Do you not see how the majority of Muslims today are engaged in self-destruction where they spend their resources, energy, and wealth on killing and destruction of each other?” This rhetorical question also signals the legitimate concern of the marja‘iyya over the growing polarisation of the already deeply divided Iraqi society and its commitment to prevent any further exacerbation of the inter-state conflict which is bound to reinforce the propaganda feeding the seeds of sectarian-coded violent extremism.