For more than three blood-filled years, the Islamic State group has attempted to systematically destroy the Iraqi people’s way of life, imposing its own brutal regime.
The destruction inflicted by the terrorists has been catastrophic. Yet if the long-term impact of the mass murder, rape and torture of Iraqi civilians were not colossal enough, militants have attempted to publicly destroy the nation’s very identity.
The significance of this cannot be overstated. Publicly dismantling the Iraqi people’s rich culture was a symbolic attempt to bludgeon their self-worth. It was also tactical: violently extracting Iraq’s heritage in order to artificially implant their own degenerate ideology.
Few could forget the barbaric scenes of militants mounting monuments with sledgehammers – bulldozing, demolishing and looting Iraq’s most revered sites in an attempt to erase thousands of years of history. This included shattering 3,000-year-old statues in the Mosul museum, reducing the ancient city of Nimrud to rubble – and in what is seen as a last-ditch act of desperation, blowing up the great Mosque of al-Nuri. This is of course the same site where IS once falsely declared its “caliphate”.
To the Islamic State group and civilians alike, this is about far more than bricks and mortar. Each blow was a hammer to the heart of the Iraqi people and each brick crushed was another page cruelly torn from their own history.
Iraq’s proud status as the epicentre of modern civilisation was stolen before civilians’ eyes as they were forced to watch their identity ground to dust.
Today, it is IS’ power which lies in ruins. As Iraqi forces liberate the last remaining IS-held areas, a space has emerged for the rebirth of local civic society activism. Community leaders, local organisations and individual volunteers are standing against those who seek to divide, instead fostering co-existence and pluralism.
Amid the rubble, energetic young Iraqis of all backgrounds have come together in profound displays of unity and dedication to undo the effects of militant terror. Volunteers have joined forces to restore the University of Mosul’s iconic library, once home to the richest collection of books in the country.
So far, the group has recovered 34,000 books, inspiring other young Iraqis to join their campaign.
In other parts of the city, students from the Institute of Art have taken steps to revive Mosul’s art scene after IS attempted to repress and suffocate the city’s rich artistic heritage.
Further examples of resilience are emerging in the Anbar province. In Ramadi, theatres are reopening with activists organising daily cultural evenings in the city’s centre. And in Fallujah, students are replacing the propagandist slogans IS smeared across walls, bridges and schools with statements of hope that declare “we are all Iraq”.
Photos of these scenes are not only talked about across the country, but shared globally on social media. Their message is clear: it is time to come together and reject extremism. Their homes are no longer IS’ territory to soil.
Reports of executions and horrific brutality against Muslim scholars and imams were once widespread and frequent; and both Shia and Sunni communities were terrorised under IS.
As the group’s control rapidly evaporates, the extremist ideology forced upon Iraq’s Muslim communities is slowly dying.
And in astonishing displays of endurance, minority communities who were so brutally targeted are also beginning to revive their towns and resurrect the places of worship they were forced to abandon. In the northern city of Bashiqa, Yazidi volunteers and worshippers have already restored the Malik Miran shrine – one of the Yazidi community’s most venerated religious sites.
In Qaraqosh young Christian volunteers are working tirelessly to clean local houses and streets, reopening the town’s churches after years of degradation. It is a testament of their desire to wash away any trace of IS. There is hope that Iraqis of all beliefs can at last practice their faith in peace.
While it may take a generation or more for the damage to be fully reversed, the re-birth of a vibrant civic society will prove essential in rehabilitating local communities and piecing together the diverse sections of Iraq’s society. Its continued success will also be essential in ensuring groups like IS are not able to once again exploit those very spaces and structural conditions which allow them to grow.
After all, IS hijacked a whole nation and forced ordinary Iraqis on to a journey they did not wish to travel. In doing so, they sought both to re-write their future and destroy their past. The Iraqi people’s own efforts and desire to rebuild their former lives serves as the ultimate rejection of the Islamic State group’s tyranny, and discredits their legacy.
This message is in some ways more powerful than any military defeat. Like a host organ rejecting a foreign object, these grassroots campaigns deliver a resounding message to the terrorists: “Your poisonous ideology is not wanted.”