Posted by Jacob Saliba on April 05, 2016 in Blog

The Arabic speaking world used to be home to one of the globe’s most diverse regions. A patchwork of religious, cultural and tribal affiliations, it was a center of coexistence. Today, ISIL threatens all of that including the future of minorities in the Middle East. As a response, U.S.organizations are doing all they can to prevent this disturbing trend. 

On March 14, the House passed a resolution declaring that ISIL atrocities against Yazidis, Christians and other minorities in “Iraq and Syria include war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide”. Going a step further Secretary of State  John Kerry made it clear this designation also extends to many Muslims who "are referred to by Daesh as, quote, ‘disbelievers and apostates,’ and subjected to frequent and vicious attacks”. With ISIL’s categorization and persecution of these religious groups, which includes people of all faiths, almost no one is left unscathed. 

Perhaps worse off than any other group are the Yazidis. According to ISIL, Yazidi practices are polytheistic and deserve no natural protection. With more than 500,000 inhabitants near and around Mt. Sinjar, nearly all of the Yazidi community has been displaced from lands they've inhabited for millennia. In August 2014, ISIL took control of the region, executing more than 5,000 and taking just as many women and girls as slaves.

As “people of the book”, Christian groups, according to ISIL, receive some rights. However, this protection has yet to be seen. In Iraq and Syria, close to 1.5 million Assyrian-Chaldeans, Byzantines, Syriacs and others have been driven from lands they inhabited for at least 2,000 years. ISIL’s determination to eradicate the region’s rich past has made Christians and their holy sites a target.

With entire communities slaughtered and the destruction of churches and shrines, these Christian groups, who predated the Romans and Islamic conquests, have lost much of their rich history. Many of these groups still can speak Arabic’s sister tongue, Syriac, and have preserved manuscripts from their religion’s earliest era. Due to the rise in persecution, Christians in both countries are fleeing in exponential numbers. In 2003, Iraq was home to over 1.5 million Christians. Today it is estimated at just one-third of that number. In Syria, the proportions are much worse, with nearly 500,000 displaced since 2011.

Not forgetting that Muslims have also been targeted by ISIL, Shiite, Alawi, Sufi and secular Sunnis have suffered a great deal. Prying the gap that was simmering in the region between Sunnis and Shiites before the group's rise, ISIL has systematically gone after the Shia community. In 2014, ISIL combatants stormed Camp Speicher, an air base housing thousands of unarmed cadets. The young men were sorted by religion and sect. Shias were systematically executed, increasing tensions in Iraq and elsewhere to unseen proportions. 

These events, perpetrated by ISIL, highlight a disturbing trend that should worry anyone from the region. For more than one hundred years, the Middle East's growing sectarianism has caused a considerable loss in diversity, rupturing the Arab world’s most cosmopolitan cities. The personal relationships and social cohesion that these communities have risks being forgotten. Their shared holy sites and monuments, where groups could come together, are being destroyed. These changes are not usual for the region and the current reality should not be allowed to become normal.

In order to beat ISIL, tackle growing sectarianism and the disappearance of minority groups in the Arab world, people in Iraq and Syria must, once again, be allowed to live side-by-side and know each other as neighbors. Just as the Arab American community is a mixture of religions, perspectives and cultures, so too is the region from which we come. We share priceless language, culture and history. We too know, and are often affected by, the suffering in Syria and Iraq and have seen the destruction of two beautiful Arab countries.

 Today, the Arab-American community must stand together with all the peoples from our region, Arab and non-Arab alike. We must fight for issues that affect our communities and find bridges that connect our cultures. In doing this, we can divert our attention from what divides to what unites us as people, helping all of our communities at home and abroad. It is in this example that groups like ISIL will cease to exist.