Recently I have seen a host of “Pray for Iraq” memes, events and posts on my Facebook feed. Many, perhaps most of the people I know on Facebook are Western Christians from the U.S. and Canada. Many of them, including myself at the time, supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some of them, even those admonishing others to stand in solidarity with those in Iraq, have rather broadly supported U.S. foreign policy and defended or argued for our actions in the larger Global War on Terror.
It appears that this sudden renewed attention and concern for Iraq has resulted from ISIS’ push into Iraq. ISIS subsequent behavior has cemented their reputation for being a brutal and evil organization centered on an extremist ideology. Some of ISIS behavior has been aimed directly at Iraqi Christians (and other minority groups) which is probably why many of my Christian peers identify with those suffering and are bringing attention to it.
I will not discourage people from praying for and expressing solidarity with Iraqi people, but I think it is just as important, if not more important, for such persons to question the role of the United States in all of this and act accordingly. I say this because U.S. policy in Iraq is at the root of the rise of ISIS and the suffering of Iraqi civilians. Let me explain.
US Policy in Iraq, The Salvador Option and the Rise of ISIS
ISIS and their actions in Iraq coalesced in an environment of extremism and sectarian violence that was intentionally fostered by the United States. We encouraged this violence by categorically backing the Shia PM al-Maliki politically, economically and militarily despite his efforts to exclude other groups from the political process and power. We trained and equipped Shia militias and re-branded them as elite police units that have acted under his command. We turned a blind eye to the fact that these units operated as state backed sectarian deathsquads, responsible for numerous human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and torture. In fact, this is what we wanted them to do.
We fostered this sectarian violence in an attempt to split the resistance in Iraq. We wanted Shia and Sunni Iraqis to fight each other, instead of fighting US occupation forces in a coordinated manner as they did initially after the invasion. This tactic lowered the overall number of U.S. deaths, so U.S. politicians could quell increasing dissent at home and pull out sooner, but sowed violence, injustice and resentment that we knew would have a long-standing ill effect in Iraq. The fact that we pursued this form of counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq has been rather clear since at least 2006. This policy has been a bi-partisan endeavor as it was initiated under Bush but has been continued and even escalated under Obama as Obama increased funding to al-Maliki before the current ISIS push.
This is not the first time the U.S. has implemented this counter-insurgency strategy. In the context of U.S. policy this strategy is referred to as the Salvador Option after Salvadoran Civil War, a conflict in which we intervened by pursuing the this same strategy. This doctrine is essentially to “fight terror with terror,” though we often stay one or two stepped removed from the actual killing and torture to avoid any moral or legal guilt in the violence we are directing. As if to underscore how little U.S. foreign policy has changed since then, the same person who was our man on the ground in the support of El Salvadorian deathsquads also had a hand in Iraq: U.S. Col. James Steele. Gen. Petraeus, a key figure in the Iraq occupation, even visited Steele in El Salvador to study under him for a time.
Simply put, during the occupation the U.S. fostered a civil war that smoldered and sometimes raged for years for our benefit. Even after the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, after achieving its fundamental goal of privatizing Iraqi oil so that Western companies could profit, this violence still went on but has been largely ignored by Western media because there were no more U.S. deaths. Obama claimed the ending of an unpopular war as a feather in his cap, but the carnage went on, out of sight and out of mind.
The extremism necessary for groups like ISIS to form was created in this U.S. orchestrated environment of injustice, human rights abuses, political disenfranchisement, external occupation and exploitation. It was during this time that the U.S. encouraged Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help fund ISIS and perhaps even provided direct aid and training to ISIS when they were ostensibly primarily fighting Assad in Syria, another regime that, like Saddam’s, we supported and then turned on. It was in this environment that even people who did not agree with ISIS’ ideology collaborated with them because the alternative of the “democratic” U.S. backed al-Maliki regime was just as bad or worse. This collaboration is what has allowed for ISIS to make such rapid gains and get their hands on a lot of U.S. supplied military hardware. For those of us in the USA, horrified by the actions of ISIS, we must accept the fact that we created an environment where ISIS could thrive, we encouraged our allies to fund them, and we may have even funded and trained them ourselves.
Understanding and Stopping/Changing U.S. Policy is Fundamental to Stopping Groups like ISIS
My point in all of this is that many appear to assume that ISIS’ formation and ideology “just happened” like some force of nature in the region. Others, perhaps shaped by the intentional fanning of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 U.S., believe that ISIS is “just another” expression of violence and anti-Christian sentiment inherent to Islam (which it isn’t). The reality is that Iraqis, after having suffered under the U.S. supported Saddam, after having suffered under the US supported UN sanctions against Saddam, after having suffered the invasion and occupation of their lands by U.S. forces, after having suffered under the U.S. supported “Shia Saddam” of al-Maliki are now suffering under the occupation of ISIS, a group primarily formed in the wake of and by U.S. policy in the region.
The common thread in all of this suffering that has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis of all faiths is U.S. policy, a policy dictated by the wealthy, a policy that primarily benefits the wealthy, a policy that offloads the cost of this policy onto others, and a policy which is often pursued by immoral means. To pray for Iraq but not consider how the U.S. has acted in Iraq and elsewhere, to pray for Iraq but not consider what consequences these policies have had for others, to pray for Iraq and not ask who has really benefited from all this, to pray for Iraq but continue to broadly and uncritically support U.S. policy is a recipe for a continuation of the status quo. More policies will be rolled out that benefit a handful of people while the violence, injustice, and misery caused by the pursuit of these policies will be offloaded onto other people, especially the most vulnerable in the world.
So by all means, Pray for Iraq, but Question the State.