On November 27, 1095, a speech by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont used allegations of the persecution of Christians in the Holy Land to launch a series of military adventures by the warrior aristocracies of feudal Christian Western Europe against the Muslim civilisations of the Middle East.
The ensuing two centuries of religious wars, or Crusades, were characterised by land-grabbing, plunder and the massacre of Muslims, Jews and non-Catholic Christians.
Listening to the Australian parliament on September 1 debating a motion on human rights in Iraq, it was difficult not to be reminded of Pope Urban’s speech. Starting with ALP shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, who moved the motion, six politicians got up and gave passionate accounts of the persecution Christians were suffering at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
They called for Australia to join with the “international community” in taking action to rescue them.
The genocidal policies of the IS ― often referred to by its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ― are directed against all other religious groups. These include non-Muslim minorities, Shia Muslims (the majority in Iraq), Sunni Muslims who reject their Salafi interpretation of Islam and Salafis who reject the IS group’s supremacy (this is most Salafis).
However, while the motion referred to the non-Christian Mandaean and Yezidi minorities, its emphasis was on Christians. This was even more the case in the speeches.
The resolution did not call for war but its unspecific wording left that option open. It called for the “Australian Government and the international community to provide humanitarian, financial and other forms of appropriate assistance to support those Christian and other minorities” and “take appropriate steps to protect the rights of minorities in Iraq, including the Assyrian and Chaldean Christian people”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has gone further, pledging a positive response to any US request to join a military expedition.
On September 3, after Australian air force planes began supplying weapons to forces of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, Abbott said: “We have received no specific request to engage in actual military action against ISIL. Nevertheless, we have received a general request and we are considering what we may be able to make available.”
On September 2, US President Barack Obama authorised the deployment of 350 more soldiers to Iraq. This brings US troop numbers in Iraq to 1100, including 300 deployed on June 19, and “residual” forces guarding the US embassy and the airport in Baghdad and the US consulate in the KRG capital, Irbil.
The “residual” forces were left behind after Obama officially withdrew combat troops from Iraq, one of the few promises he (almost) kept, and one of the most popular acts of his presidency.
On September 5, the BBC reported that a “core coalition” to militarily intervene against the IS had been formed at the NATO summit in Wales consisting of NATO members the US, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Turkey, and Australia, so far the only non-NATO member.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, the Islamophobic “clash of civilisations” narrative has been the primary justification for Western military aggression and repressive domestic “anti-terrorist” laws.
However, the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the exposure of lies used to justify them, have created widespread scepticism and war-weariness in the West.
The US left Iraq with a dysfunctional regime based on an unstable equilibrium of sectarian militias. It has left Afghanistan looking like it did before the 2001 invasion, only even more destroyed and with a booming heroin exporting industry.
In September last year, attempts by Obama and British PM David Cameron to justify intervening in Syria on grounds the Assad dictatorship had used chemical weapons were rebuffed by their respective parliaments.
However, the IS has thrown a lifeline to the “clash of civilisations” narrative. US Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in an August 30 New York Times op-ed: “No decent country can support the horrors perpetrated by ISIS, and no civilized country should shirk its responsibility to help stamp out this disease.”
Kerry’s op-ed was in the aftermath of release of a video by IS on August 19 showing the decapitation of US journalist James Foley. On September 2 another video was released showing the decapitation of a second US journalist, Steven Sotloff.
These gruesome videos have fuelled Western anxieties about Salafi Islamist terrorism. They featured a British-accented executioner, who introduced the second video with words: “I’m back, Obama.”
Western fighters have featured prominently in the IS group’s social media profile. Australian Khaled Sharrouf made headlines with his August 11 tweet of a picture of his young son holding an Assad government soldier’s severed head.
However, most IS fighters are Syrian or Iraqis. Most foreigners in its ranks are Chechen.
Like other Salafi groups, the IS is hostile to secular nationalists, Islamist nationalists (such as Hamas in Palestine) and other religious groups, including non-Salafi Muslims. Their propaganda emphasises their genocidal attitude towards religious minorities.
Also, the IS revealed its global ambitions from dropping references to Iraq and Syria from its title and declared its leader the Caliph (successor of the Prophet and leader of all Muslims). This is a challenge to other Salafi groups and the Salafi regime in Saudi Arabia.
This has fuelled Western arguments for intervention, given that most forces in Iraq, Syria and the region have reason to oppose the IS.
However, Western propaganda downplays the mass atrocities committed by other regional forces. Indeed, the rise of IS in Syria last year was a result of both the extreme violence of the Assad government and other opposition forces, such as the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
The rapid advance of IS in Iraq was facilitated by support from much of the Sunni Arab population, who victims of sectarian violence by the US-installed Shia sectarian regime of Nouri al-Maliki.
The US orchestrated the replacement of Maliki by Haider Al-Abadi on August 15 in the hope that this would create a more stable government. However, it was followed by the August 22 bombing of a Sunni mosque by Shia militias, killing 70, and a rise in anti-Sunni death squad activity.
The dysfunctional nature of the Baghdad regime, and its alliance with Iran, have encouraged the West to focus on arming, and launching air strikes in support of, the more stable Kurdish Regional Government. The KRG ruled a northern Iraqi enclave, with Western support, since the first US-led war on Iraq in 1991.
Western propaganda has emphasised Kurdish battlefield successes against the IS. However, it downplays the fact that these successes have mainly been won by forces affiliated with the more anti-imperialist Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), not the KRG.
This was graphically illustrated in Sinjar in August. The KRG forces left Kurdish communities belonging to the Yezidi faith at the mercy of the IS, until they were rescued by KCK-affiliated forces from Turkey and Syria.
Kurdistan has been divided between four nation-states ― Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran ― since Britain and France carved up the Middle East in the wake of World War I. The KCK is made up of separate left-wing parties in the four states.
The strongest is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. The Turkish state enjoys strong economic ties with the KRG. But it is deeply hostile to the PKK, whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been in a Turkish jail since 1999.
The Kurdish region in Syria, Rojava, has been held by the KCK-aligned Peoples Protection Units (YPG) since June 2012. The region features grassroots democracy, a strong feminist movement, religious tolerance and autonomy of different ethnic communities.
By mobilising the population, including women, the KCK has created fighting forces with a proven ability to defeat the IS.
If Western troops are deployed, it is unlikely that they will only fight the IS. The September 4 to 5 NATO summit in Wales was also the scene of sabre-rattling against Russia, which sponsors the Assad regime in Syria.
The West and the Shia theocracy in Iran have a common enemy in the IS, but are also long-term rivals. Iran’s opposition to the IS is matched by its hostility to the Kurdish struggle for self-determination.
Also, Turkey is part of the West's “core coalition” to tackle the IS, despite persistent allegations of Turkish support for it.
Western military involvement is promoted as supporting “the Kurds”, but KCK-affiliated groups remain blacklisted as “terrorists” in the US, the European Union and Australia.
A new Western war is no solution to the religious sectarian violence plaguing Iraq. Ironically, Bowen confirmed this in his speech to his September 1 parliamentary motion.
He said: “By some reports, before the fall of Hussein, there were well over 1.4 million adherents to the Christian faith in Iraq. Now there are potentially somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 left.”
Since the 2003 invasion, Iraq has come under the sway of competing sectarian armed groups. Not only will a new Western war in the region not resolve these issues, history strongly indicates it will worsen the problem.