Many Iraqis fled from Mosul when Isis swept in, but why have some supported the group? Photo: Getty
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Why is there Sunni Arab support for Isis in Iraq?

Attempts to understand the success of Isis in Iraq would benefit from Marxist analysis, since social and economic factors are the key to explaining Sunni Arab support for, and complicity with, the group.

For Western military analysts and policy-makers trying to unravel the implosion of Iraq, a Marxist analysis of the situation is long overdue.

The appeal of Isis's extreme religious doctrine to Sunni Arab Iraqis has been well documented, but in fact it is the economic situation of many of those Sunni Arab civilians that lies at the root of their support for the insurgents.

As Isis has overrun great swathes of Iraq in the past two months, it has frequently received complicity, if not all-out support, from many Arab Sunnis (I focus here only on Arab Sunnis; Kurdish Sunnis have met Isis with profound hostility and resistance).

While US analysts believe that Isis comprises only around 10,000 fighters, it has swept with relative ease through the north and west of the country thanks to the Sunni-dominated communities that live there, which have extended a sympathetic reception to the insurgents.

On a superficial level, the attraction of Isis to Iraq's Sunni Arab underdogs is obvious: here is a group of the same sect of Islam that promises them preferential treatment in society and better opportunities than they could ever hope for under the current Shia-dominated leadership.

After all, the plight of the nation’s Sunnis, disenfranchised under Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, is well known.

The religious objectives laid out by Isis are also attractive to Iraqi Sunnis. The insurgents' extreme violence is framed as religious cleansing – wiping out the Shia imams and believers from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

As the New York Times has noted: "Mass execution has been meshed with the use of religious symbolism by the insurgents".

And while Isis's insistence on adherence to extreme conservative conventions may appear harsh to outsiders, the clarity and simplicity of Sharia law is always going to appeal most to downtrodden and insecure communities, like Iraq's poorer Arab Sunnis, who tend to prefer robust law and order to instability.

In addition to the ideological appeal of Isis, the group's social constitution has been a boon in winning over rural Sunnis. There is, relatively speaking, a flat structure to Isis's social and religious make-up that appeals to a poor, agragian society in a way the hierarchical, class-based Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia never would. 

Above all, however, it behoves to consider the specific economic circumstances in which many Iraqi Arab Sunnis have found themselves – roundly ignored by most analysts – in order to explain their inclination to embrace the militants.

Economic deprivation has plagued the Iraqi Sunnis, who are thought to comprise between 20 and 35 per cent of the population (accurate data is lacking), since the 2003 war.

Driven from power by Western forces after enjoying supremacy, and comprising the majority of Saddam's Ba'athist government (Saddam himself was a Sunni Arab from Tikrit), the Sunnis have been increasingly marginalised in the past ten years.

Shunned from the Shia-dominated security forces, Sunnis have little stake in the defense of the country. More than that, however, al-Maliki's refusal to incorporate the Awakening squads of Sunni fighters, who supported the deposition of Saddam and aided the West's invasion, into the mainstream security forces, has meant that most of these Sunni Arabs been faced with a limited choice: suffer unemployment, or join Isis.

While residual Sunni neighbourhoods remain in Baghdad, and the city of Mosul in the north is still a hub of metropolitan Sunnis, around half the country's Sunni Arabs are agragrian, rural-dwelling people.

Despite that, they have been hit hardest by the series of poor harvests and food shortages that Iraq has suffered in the past decade.

It is a bitter irony that Iraq, part of the fertile crescent in the Middle East that has been farmed for 8,000 years, and irrigated by not one, but two great Asian rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, has suffered severe agricultural decline.

Years of neglect and conflict advanced the contraction of the sector in the decades before the Iraq invasion, but agricultural productivity declined a devastating 90 per cent after the 2003 war.

According to reports, Iraqi agriculture is in crisis. The misery of rural Sunni communities that rely on agriculture for their income and subsistence, was compounded by six years of the driest winters on in Iraq from 2004 onwards.

Once a major exporter, Iraq is now reliant year-round on food imports. Many Sunnis have been working hard on the land, and yet struggling to eat, while perceiving metropolitan Shias in Baghdad and the east to be living in luxury.

The economic conditions of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population rendered them at prime risk of uprising.

Even the Iraqi Shia authorities implicitly acknowledge it. Earlier this week, officials were briefing the US press that Isis was successfully recruiting "mostly young men between the ages of 16 and 25 who are primarily poor, unemployed and lack an education".

What they meant were poor, young, underprivileged Sunnis – of whom there is an abundance in Iraq.

The economic deprivation suffered by many Sunni Iraqis is connected to, but distinct from, their marginalisation on the political stage.

Sunnis were already beginning to revolt against their Shia oppressors as far back as 2012. In December that year, tens of thousands of Sunnis took to the streets to protest their disenfranchisement.

Iraq has been riven by political and sectarian conflict for decades, but these considerations are liable to obscure related, but distinct, social and economic factors that are crucial in explaining why Isis has been able to overrun the Sunni-dominated parts of the country unresisted.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.


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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.