Madain, Iraq: What al-Qaeda and ISIS ideologues once called a “paradise” for jihadists is now the blueprint for peaceful coexistence.
Our guide points to some rubble covered in overgrowth at the side of the bustling highway and said: “That used to be an Al-Qaeda outpost.” It is now the only real sign of the conflict that burned through here over 10 years ago. “This whole area used to be the ‘Triangle of Death,’” he added.
We are on a highway southeast of Baghdad, heading toward the town of Madain, which sits along the southern border of the Diyala province. Today, Madain and the surrounding countryside is calm and peaceful. However, the relative calm here belies a turbulent history.
Al-Qaeda ideologue Ayman Al-Zawahiri referred to Diyala as a “paradise” for enabling the group’s activities. More recently, the region has been referred to as the “pit stop of Daesh” due to it gaining a reputation for being where the militants returned to for refueling before going on to cause trouble elsewhere.
“I had to travel through these roads daily back then,” our guide continued. “I learned how to say the right things to avoid suspicion that I was a Shiite,” he added, noting that adherents of the Shiite branch of Islam were the favored targets of militants belonging to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor of Daesh.
During 2005 and 2006, mistrust between Iraq’s two main communities — cultivated for decades under Saddam Hussein’s regime — escalated into open war as a result of a string of AQI attacks following the US invasion in 2003.
A town of about 57,000, Madain is made up of 80 percent Sunni Arabs, but has a sizable population of Shiite Arabs due to the presence of the shrine of Salman Al-Mohammedi. Although the two populations used to live alongside each other before the war, locals say that they never truly lived “together.”
When AQI launched its attacks on Shiite Iraqis, the group went relatively unopposed around Madain, assassinating a number of religious officials and blowing up a number of Shiite mosques and institutions in the area. This culminated in a hostage crisis where some 100 Shiites were reportedly captured, forcing much of the rest of the population to leave in fear of their lives. AQI took hold of the town, using the shrine as their headquarters. The courtyard of the shrine became an execution spot.
After AQI was defeated, many of the displaced residents returned. They could have taken revenge on the Sunnis who had aided — or at least tacitly accepted — the AQI, or they could have continued to live alongside them in mutual isolation and mistrust. Instead, they chose an option that was a rarity in Iraq at the time: They chose to live together.
Their first step was the creation of a local committee consisting of members and religious authorities from both sides. To generate trust and accountability, the Sunnis picked the Shiite members of the committee and vice versa, with five representatives each. This committee was given the authority to tackle all tribal and religious disputes, working with the government and the security forces to assist in the administration of the town.
The committee was based at the shrine itself, turning a Shiite monument into a venue that was open to both communities. Such communication has prevented extremists from peddling false claims and fueling mistrust.
The dividends of such an approach paid off when Daesh emerged in 2014 and subsequently tried to take control of Madain, just as its predecessor had. Unlike 2005, however, the townspeople agreed to resist the militants together. The militants came as close as 500 meters to the shrine, but never took it or the town, eventually retreating.
What we witnessed in Madain, although developed independently by the community there, is a concept that has a long history in peacemaking thought. The “together but separate” theory refers to the idea that different ethnic/religious communities living alongside each other but not truly together cannot build long-term trust and solidarity. This enables extremists to drive a wedge in the community once the unifying factor — usually an overbearing state — comes to an end. This is what the Balkans experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Iraq, there was a long history of similar practices under Saddam. That is why those who lionize the likes of Saddam for fostering “coexistence” in Iraq are wrong to do so, for it has never been a true state of coexistence, as the people of Madain noticed.
The fact that the people of Madain took such measures shows that this approach is neither foreign nor an aberration for Iraq, but in line with a country that has a rich history of ethnicities and faiths.
Instead of discussing whether Iraq or Syria should be partitioned on the grounds of their different ethnic or religious identities, we should be working to replicate the example of Madain to bring lasting peace across the region. Taking Madain as a blueprint for other cities to achieve peace is key to reconciliation and allowing Iraq to showcase its rich history of a multitude of ethnicities and faiths living and working alongside each other.