Activists in Fallujah organise the city's first counter-extremism conference to ensure that ISIS' ideology doesn't return to Anbar.
Between 2014 and 2017, Iraq has made great strides towards defeating ISIS. The militant group that once controlled nearly the entire northern and western Iraq is now reduced to a small insurgency. With ISIS’ military defeat more or less complete, the task is now at hand to ensure the ideological defeat of ISIS as well. A counter-extremism conference held in Fallujah aims to do exactly that.
It is unsurprising that the city was chosen for the site of the conference, given the city’s own experiences. Located in the Anbar Province, Fallujah has the dubious distinction of being the first city to fall under ISIS control. The city, which was a hot-spot of insurgency years before ISIS arrived, provided a fertile soil for the militants who tapped into frustrations borne out of decade-long local instability. ISIS’ propagandists used that frustration to legitimise the group’s ideology and encourage recruits and supporters to commit horrific atrocities, including, but not limited to, the Speicher Massacre.
Attitudes in the city have changed a lot since. The recent Army Day celebrations in the city attest to that. However, the activists know that these changing attitudes can only be sustained if the very attitudes that allowed ISIS to go unchallenged in the region are addressed. To this end, activists have brought together local leaders from religious institutions, tribes, political groups, intellectuals, security forces and charities. Their goals is to get these different parts of the local community to start trusting each other. Through trust and tolerance, they hope to remove the ideological space in which ISIS is allowed to operate.
Religious education is a particularly important facet of these efforts. Many Iraqis do not have in-depth knowledge of their religion. ISIS ideologues, who were adept at twisting the scripture to their own ends, were able to prey on such ignorance to rally support. The religious authorities attending the conference here in Fallujah therefore know that their own knowledge of Islam is vital towards promoting a society that is tolerant and merciful.
Although the past three years have been a terrible period for Iraq, the events have also galvanised many Iraqis to promote a more united and tolerant society. Indeed, the conference is just the latest in many events that sought to foster reconciliation among the many groups within Iraq.