Wed, Aug 30, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Iraq’s Sunnis wrestle with militants’ religious legacy

While many abhor the Islamic State group’s brutality, they find its goals to restore morality and faith worthy

By Hamza Hendawi  /  AP, MOSUL, Iraq

Illustration: Mountain people

Even as the Islamic State (IS) group’s rule is being torn down in Iraq, the seeds are there for it — or a successor extremist group — to rise again one day.

It is a disquieting fact: There are those among Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority who find some good in the group, though they denounce the militants for suffering inflicted during their nearly three-year rule.

Listen to the words of a young Iraqi, Mowafy Abdul-Qader, who was impressed by an Islamic State group cleric, describing him as a compassionate man and recalling his “sweet demeanor” as he gave lessons on Shariah law.

“He taught me like he was an angel from heaven. He was accurate and righteous,” Abdul-Qader said, speaking at a camp for Iraqis driven from their homes during the past year’s fighting to uproot the militants in northern Iraq. “Because of people like him, I sometimes felt I was actually living in a real caliphate.”

In nearly two dozen interviews with Sunnis living in the camps of the displaced, The Associated Press heard many variations on the same theme: The Islamic State group was too brutal and individual members were corrupt, but its goals to restore morality and faith were worthy.

The direction of Sunni sentiment can have great significance for Iraq’s future. There are fears militants could take root again if Sunnis’ lives are not rebuilt or if the Shiites who dominate the government do not end past discrimination and give Sunnis a share of political power.

When the Sunni militants overran much of Iraq and Syria in 2014, the group’s dream of an ideal Islamic rule had appeal among some in the community. Iraq’s Sunnis in general are deeply conservative and feel oppressed under the majority Shiites, so some saw hope in a group promising to bring morality, uplift Sunni Islam and implement God’s law, which many felt would ensure justice.

Instead, the self-declared caliphate turned into a bloody horror. The group committed atrocities on a startling scale, including a systematic network of sex slavery and rape against the Yazidi religious minority and mass killings that targeted everyone, including Sunnis. Prisoners were shot or beheaded, or even set on fire, drowned or blown up with explosives.

Religious police were relentless in punishing the slightest transgressions. Punishments included stoning, beheadings, amputations and whippings. Suspected spies — including those simply caught with a mobile phone — and policemen or soldiers were among those dragged into public squares for death. Islamic State group members took the lion’s share of resources, alienating others struggling to get by.

After the extremists’ brutality, some now say they reject anyone promising to bring “true Islam.”

“We cannot trust them anymore. We don’t want Islamists to rule us,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, a government employee in Mosul.

In one camp for the displaced, the imam delivering the Friday sermon urged worshipers not to shun their religion on account of horrors they experienced under the group.

“Return to your true faith,” he said, according to several men who heard the sermon.

Khaled Shaaban, a displaced Mosul resident, said he used to pray five times a day, but ever since the Islamic State group took over, he has not set foot in a mosque.

“It was like military rule, only religious. Like a checklist: beard, check. Short pants, check. No smoking, check,” he said.

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