This week’s major news from Iraq is that Mosul has finally been “liberated” from Islamic State (IS). Yet what does this actually mean in practice? Much of the city is in ruins – that can, of course, be repaired. Yet the cosmopolitan city where Sunni, Shia, Christian and (until a couple of generations ago) Jewish populations peacefully lived side-by-side looks unlikely ever to be recreated.
In fact, if experience of similar “liberations” elsewhere is anything to go by, many IS members will not actually have gone away, they will simply have shaved off their beards and mingled with the crowds. That is what happened when the Afghan capital Kabul was ”liberated” in November 2001. Ordinary Afghans would suddenly freeze as they saw a former member of the feared Taliban religious police, with few prepared to report them to the authorities for fear of reprisals if they ever gained power again.
That is what is likely to be happening now in Mosul. However, there is another more enduring problem, which is that although Mosul has physically been liberated, the jihadi ideology has not gone away. The population who stayed during the three years of IS rule were subjected to repeated ideological propaganda telling them that jihad should be fought against Christians until they were forced to accept the humiliating dhimmi status, otherwise men would be killed, women and children enslaved. Many of those who stayed in Mosul collaborated with IS, either through fear or greed, reporting on where Christians lived and buying the Christians’ property when IS auctioned it off. The ugly truth is that those who have benefitted from the jihadi ideology are more likely to be supportive of other jihadi groups, whose ideological agenda is not much different from that of Islamic State.
In Idlib province in neighbouring Syria that is exactly what has happened. Islamic State have been driven out. However, what replaced them has been a coalition of jihadists including Al Nusra Front, who were formerly open about their affiliation with Al Qaeda, and other groups who have specifically targeted Christians, such as Ahrar Al Shams.
As Barnabas Fund reported last week, the Iraqi government has launched a $100 million plan to help people return to the Nineveh Plains around Mosul. Yet, for Christians to be able to return, it is essential that plans are made not merely to rebuild ruined houses, but also to prevent the re-emergence of the jihadi ideology that drove those Christians from their homes in the first place.