An Independent Historian Documents Life Under the Islamic State
This article is accompanied by an interview with the author of the blog mentioned here.
Today, the Islamic State controls territory the size of the United Kingdom, stretching from the Syrian towns of Deir Ez-Zor and Raqqa to Mosul and the province of Diyala in Iraq. The extremist group is regularly in the headlines and yet it is remarkably difficult to form a clear picture of what life is like under its rule.
A few journalists and scholars are trying to fill that void.
Ever since the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took over Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014, “Mosul Eye,” a Facebook blog in both Arabic and English, has been dedicated to filling that vacuum. The blog chronicles stonings of alleged adulterers, men being thrown off the tops of buildings for being homosexual, and other public executions and secret killings. It also details aspects of daily life, including the restrictions the group has set on women’s freedom of movement, the way the Islamic State generates income through taxes, the way it controls factories and oil refineries, and the results of U.S. air strikes. The blog discusses the mood in the city and writes about rare but brave acts of resistance by Mosul residents, including one by the blog’s author, a Muslim, when he lit candles inside a Christian church at Easter and posted a photo on his blog, hoping for when Christians could return to the city.
The blog is also an act of resistance, of course, as are ones run by other anonymous citizen journalists in Islamic-State-held towns. They are taking a great risk, says Hassan Hassan, co-author of the book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Simon and Schuster, 2015) and an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, in London. In the territory it controls, the Islamic State has “been very successful in weeding out any kind of activism,” says Hassan. “You don’t know what’s going on in these areas.”
That is by design. The Islamic State views anyone gathering and disseminating information as a traitor. It fears that strategic information could be used against it by its enemies. The group also insists on being the only voice to speak about itself and on behalf of the population under its control. It produces a huge volume of propaganda materials, from carefully staged executions and demolitions (of Sufi shrines and ancient antiquities) to slick videos extolling the ideal Islamic life supposedly on offer under its rule.
Scholars or journalists trying to understand what life is like in Islamic-State-held towns have largely turned to the accounts of former Islamic State members, such as in this report on “The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors” by a research center at King’s College London, and to journalistic accounts woven from the stories of people who have escaped these regions.
The author of Mosul Eye identifies himself as “an independent historian.” The blog is just the latest instance of his compulsion to document his country’s violent modern history. He told Al-Fanar Media in an exclusive interview that he has been keeping journals and collecting an archive of materials on Iraqi militias since the US invasion.
In his blog posts, he quotes Hegel and makes references to Hanna Arendt. Under the Islamic State, just having an education is enough to make one the target of extra monitoring and suspicion, says Hassan. “ISIS knows very well that they will not be accepted by people who have some knowledge—religious or secular.” The group views anyone with intellectual authority as potential opposition leaders. It has closed most university faculties and targeted scholars.
The blog takes a scientific approach to information, trying to gather, categorize and verify data. It also offers sociological and economic analysis, as when it explains how the Islamic State has drawn many of its members and support from a downtrodden rural tribe based outside Mosul; or how corruption, sectarianism, and the American policy of de-Baathification, hollowed out the Iraqi army, leaving it incapable of standing up to the Islamic State.
But the blog’s author also expresses strong emotions, some of them stemming from the author’s sense that few outsiders are paying attention to the city’s suffering. The tone of Mosul Eye alternates between defiance and despair, sometimes within the same post. In July, the author wrote that “Mosul [is] still suffering, bleeding, dying a thousand times everyday, and with it every spark of light and hope is dying as well” and that his blog was an “utter waste.” But within the same post he described himself as “a truth seeker, pursuing it with every bit of passion for life I got in me” and concluded that “if there is a heaven and I happen to deserve it, I hope it will be Mosul, and if it is hell that I deserve, then [there is] nothing I wish more than to be burned in Mosul.”
The question that seems to haunt Mosul Eye is: Will Mosul survive the Islamic State? More than once, the blog tries to understand why Mosul’s residents haven’t risen up against the group, and explains the many reasons, from the fear of retaliation to the belief of some that Islamic State rule is the best of several bad alternatives.
The Islamic State is bent on eliminating those who might survive its rule and tell an alternate story of it, says Hassan. Meanwhile, the group targets “children and ignorant people, whose brains are white pages…They ‘re-educate’ people about ‘true Islam.’”
“We should not underestimate the cultural makeover by ISIS,” Hassan adds. He fears the Islamic State’s long-term impact, even if it is eventually defeated.
The writer behind Mosul Eye shares that concern. Mosul today is “in a state of fear, just like in the times of Saddam Hussein,” he says—informing is common and no one dares speak their mind. Meanwhile, children and teenagers are being aggressively indoctrinated, turned into “the most essential resource for extremism’s growth in the region.” His assessment of Mosul’s future is bleak. Yet this online chronicler’s defiant humanism is based on the hope that he is bearing witness to a terribly dark moment in his city’s history, not the extinction of its light.