The Arabic letter ‘nun’ is the symbol for “Nazarene,” or Christian, used by Islamic State militants in Iraq to brand Christian properties in Iraq as part of their effort to drive out its ancient Christian community with threats to convert or die; many Christians on the internet have adopted it as part of their avatar to express solidarity with those being slaughtered in northern Iraq. The family of Christ is all who confess His name; we are all Nazarenes. That great and good Christian priest, Canon Andrew White, the ‘vicar of Baghdad’, ignoring both his own serious illness (he suffers from multiple sclerosis) and the danger to himself, has spoken movingly of the horrors he has seen; but he cannot bring himself to talk of them fully – who could talk about the beheading of babies and children? On his Facebook page he wrote:
“You know I love to show photos but the photo I was sent today was the most awful I have ever seen. A family of eight all shot through the face laying in a pool of blood with their Bible open on the couch. They would not convert it cost them their life. I thought of asking if anybody wanted to see the picture but it is just too awful to show to anybody. This is Iraq today.”
Let us be specific here. We are not, as both the UK and US Governments have carefully phrased it, talking about the persecution of minorities, we are talking about an attempt to exterminate the Christians of Iraq, and, while ISIS are at it, the ancient Yazidi community. That the White House could call this ‘callous’ seems to indicate either that English understatement has taken root in Washington, or that the Administration is struggling with its vocabulary. We are witnessing more than a ‘callous disregard for human rights’ – we are in the presence of evil. These are fanatics whose world view encompasses nothing less than global domination for their type of Islam; and please, whilst we are at it, can we not play into the hands of these sectarians by identifying all Muslims as being at one with them – they would like nothing more, and that is one thing, at least, we can deny them.
They present a challenge to us all. If they secure a base in the territories they control, then they will provide a focal point for further conquest in the region, and a training ground from which our own home-grown fanatics can come back and further radicalise disaffected youth; the existing sectarianism provides, alas, an already fertile seed-bed for this. As the Labour MP, Tom Watson has so cogently put it:
The Islamic State is an emergent entity that combines the most malevolent aspects of a criminal gang, a terrorist organisation, and absolutist despotism. They are setting a new standard for brutality and mayhem: there is not a single principle of international, Iraqi or human rights law by which they abide.
It’s hard not to conclude that the murderous activities of IS constitute an act of genocide against the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians and the Yazidis of Iraq according to Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) of which the United Kingdom is a party.
So, what are we going to do? The President offers ‘limited airstrikes’, but there are people dying now. The world’s media (rightly) focuses on the horrors of Gaza, but what is happening in Iraq is an even greater evil, and there, unlike Gaza, there are not two sides to the story. If ISIS is not dealt with now, it will have to be dealt with later. After 1945 it was common enough to say that the British and the French should have stopped Hitler at the Rhineland; but they did not, and the eventual price paid for not stopping him was huge. They say history does not repeat itself, although historians do; well, in this instance, I shall repeat myself and say that action is needed. Certainly humanitarian aid, and now, but that, and limited airstrikes will not stop ISIS.
The Kurdish peshmerga have asked for arms. If they are given them, we cannot, of course, know what their ultimate use will be, but if we do not, then it is hard to see how ISIS will be stopped. We are not willing to put boots on the ground, nor are the Americans – we’ve been badly burned and fear the heat. But some one needs to put boots on the ground. The pershmerga are there, and they will fight; but they are outgunned and out-matched as things stand. The Turks will not like the thought of them being armed, and the Iraqi government may also object; if so, they should be invited to take a firm hand and stop ISIS themselves, or keep quiet.
This is genocide. It is happening now. If the idea of an international community means anything, it must mean, to adopt a phrase of Mr Gladstone, that the resources of civilization are not exhausted. If we act now, we may avert a genocide and the need to act later; if we do not, there will be a genocide – and the need to act later, and in circumstances even less propitious. The choice is ours – but the suffering is theirs.
For those with access, the Telegraph is running a live feed here on the situation in Iraq. If you value your sanity, or with to keep some faith in human nature, do not on any account read the comments.