How do you cope after a western invasion? We hear from Iraqis rebuilding their lives

Fifteen years have passed since Tony Blair led Britain into the Iraq war, and civilians are still trying to resurrect a society they almost lost.

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Fifteen years on from the Iraq war in Fallujah, a city in the Anbar province just west of Baghdad, Iraqis are still trying to piece their lives back together.

Yasser Hamid, a local civil society activist tells me that – although it’s painful to think about the past – sectarianism no longer grips the communities he works in.

While perhaps not as well-known as Baghdad or Mosul, Fallujah’s successful regeneration will be significant for the rest of the country. Fallujah was one of the first major cities to be captured by IS, and the area was previously known for its rich religious identity. Shias, Sunnis, Jews and Christians had co-existed peacefully, living side by side for centuries in the area and others such as Habbaniya, Ana and Rawa.

This diverse history and culture did not fit the IS narrative of division, leading to the persecution of minorities and an exodus of those who had lived there for their entire lives.

For those I meet, the ability to one day reinstate a culture of tolerance is therefore prized as the ultimate declaration that terrorism has been defeated and sectarianism does not belong in Iraq.

One of the most impressive acts of solidarity can be seen in the Ribat al-Mohammadi, a council of Sunni imams founded to combat extremism. Threatened by IS, the imams escaped to the nearby town of Haditha, uniting with locals who saw IS as no different from their al-Qaeda predecessors.

In the “Anbar Spring” of 2007-8, local civilians had risen up against al-Qaeda. In true defiance of terrorism’s attempts to divide, one imam proudly stated: “We had Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Yazidis and others fighting side by side to liberate their lands.”

Today, these imams are working to restore Fallujah’s culture of coexistence. While IS preached radical hate, the imams preach humanity, trying to confront extremist thought and demonstrate that Islam is a religion of peace, mercy and civility. They hold workshops with young Iraqis where they use their Quranic knowledge to debunk the lies spouted by radicals, and teach the next generation the importance of a strong society.

I see signs that this message is filtering through. Civil society is relatively new to the country but it is rapidly expanding. Many young people see themselves as agents of change and this subjectivity is exciting.  After all, 60 per cent of the Iraqi population is under the age of 30.

In Fallujah, students are replacing the propagandist slogans that IS smeared across walls with statements reading “We are all Iraq”.

In Habbaniya, I meet a local Sunni Muslim about his Christian neighbours who were forced to flee by IS. Standing near one of the town’s now disused churches, he speaks of his desire for his neighbours to return home.

“We hope that the conditions here will be just like they were before so that they would think about returning to Habbaniya,” he says. “Just like when the birds leave their area, the area becomes empty, so they are like the birds who have left, making this place empty… if they come, this place would come to life, just like a dry tree, when you give it water, it becomes green again.”

The imams of Ribat al‐Mohammadi tell me what it would take to build greater tolerance in Iraq. People here have co‐existed for thousands of years and their continued existence is proof of that,” one says. “It is not a case of building tolerance but returning to the values of tolerance that have existed prior to extremism.”

Citizens want their country to be known for its rich history and influence on modern civilisation – not war and terror. It may take a generation for the damage to be reversed, but rebuilding the social fabric will prove essential in piecing together the diverse sections of Iraqi society.

Haidar Lapcha is a British Iraqi activist and director at Integrity UK