A Conversation with the “Mosul Eye” Historian
This interview is accompanied by an article about the author’s blog.
With the rapid fall more than a year ago of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and the seizure by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of large swaths of the northwestern part of the country, it is difficult to get accurate information about what is happening there. A few citizens and activists, at great risk to themselves, are trying to shine a light on the situation.
Mosul Eye is considered one of most accurate chronicles of life under Islamic State rule. Its author remains unidentified. In an exclusive interview with Al-Fanar Media, he talks about his work and his city.
How did you decide to start blogging?
I’ve long been interested in blogging. In 2003, after the Iraq war, I started gathering everything related to the insurgent groups in an archive, which became huge and is still growing. This archive contains information about almost all of the groups, including some of their original documents such as leaflets and publications.
After the occupation of Mosul, I didn’t want to stop blogging, On the contrary, I was determined to document the first moments of this occupation for the sake of preserving history for the future, and for understanding the nature of events and how people perceive them.
So I started writing summaries in the form of Facebook posts on my personal account. Then, after consulting a friend, the idea of launching the Mosul Eye Facebook page emerged. I stress that I am not a journalist, but a historian, and that my purpose is to document events as they are, keeping my opinions separate.
Mosul Eye was specifically intended for English readers, because I believe that news about Mosul needs to reach the West; the Arab powers are not a real positive actor in the Iraqi crisis. But I have also started a page called “Maouris Milton,” for Arabic readers.
Is blogging from inside the city dangerous?
In brief, any word that comes out of Mosul that ISIS takes notice of is a justification for death, according to them. The blogger, his family, and all those related to him could face death. The dangers are quite big and continuous. I have received many threats from ISIS; in the last one they said they would invent a way to kill me that has so far been unknown to humanity.
The real danger is not in blogging itself, but in getting access to accurate information while maintaining your safety and not revealing your identity. I have used dozens of personalities and styles so as to stay safe. I have penetrated ISIS at its most fortified gates without their notice. I admit that this can be exhilarating in a way that helps relieve my fears of being killed at the hands of ISIS.
To what extent has your blog become a source for journalists and scholars?
Mosul Eye has become one of most reliable sources for international journalists in particular. We have received many requests for interviews. In addition, the blog has received an offer from an academic institution to be its “fundamental resource” for the future study of Mosul.
I think I have succeeded in drawing public attention toward Mosul; I am determined to keep doing so until the end.
What has been the reaction of the general public to Mosul Eye?
We have more than 11,500 followers, from many countries. They welcome and appreciate our work. Still, some people, mainly Iraqis, do not understand our posts, or they misinterpret them as being a way to support ISIS. They refuse to know the truth; this is a big problem. Sometimes, I think of stopping my blogging because of the generalizations people make. Others express concern when there are interruptions in our blogging. There is very little media coverage about Iraq now. Reporters are concentrating on the emigration issue.
In your opinion, what are the factors that contributed to the fall of Mosul?
The relationship between the citizens of Mosul and the Iraqi government was not good. The way the Iraqi army acted in Mosul was not good. That said, the entire city did not welcome ISIS. In the beginning, they welcomed an unknown power entering the city to replace the old “suppressing” one, and the media did not report that these were ISIS fighters. Ordinary people could not read between the lines to see what was happening. We also need to examine views about radical Islam in the city. How did they perceive figures like Osama bin Laden, or terrorist attacks like those of September 11, 2001? Many people in Mosul admired such figures and acts even before 2003; this helped such a radical group to prevail and overrun the city.
How do you describe the feelings of Mosul inhabitants today?
Many of them are creating their own worlds to live in, a world in the street different from that in their homes. They cannot trust anybody, in some cases not even their family members. There is a state of fear, just like in the times of Saddam Hussein. People look at ISIS as a cruel, terrifying entity imposing harsh rules, but it provides services that people need. They try to reconcile these two things. But I am afraid that people will not be able to continue to do this for long, and that they will surrender within five months to totalitarian governance under ISIS.
How has life in the city changed?
Everything has changed. Gender segregation is imposed everywhere; women are forced to veil their faces, and men must wear long beards. There is a wave of radicalization among young children, which parents are unable to do anything against. Young people are learning a radical ideology even more extremist than that of the current example. Still amid this rise of radicalism, there is a hidden countervailing rise in atheism. People have started to ask questions like “Is God happy with all this killing?” or “Is Islam a problem?” Some have concluded that atheism is the only way to liberate the city.
Why do you think ISIS is able to recruit so many Westerners?
They are using the current conflict as propaganda, claiming that all of these countries are against them. They use horrific execution videos for two reasons: first, to terrify people who might want to fight them; and second, to attract foreigners who like adventures. These Hollywood-like videos make some people eager to be part of such adventures. ISIS knows all about psychology.
How does ISIS read history? Why is it bent on destroying the city’s heritage?
ISIS considers history as Islamic only, and does not care for anything preceding the advent of Islam. It is trying to rebuild the city according to its view, and removing the ancient is necessary to build a new identity. They have burned all copies of The Cultural Encyclopedia of Mosul found in all public libraries. This is part of their way of deleting the city’s heritage and identity.
What does the educational system look like now?
ISIS has changed the entire curriculum and has printed its own radical books. The man supervising the new curriculum is a historian from Mosul University. ISIS abolished the faculties of arts, fine arts, political science, and law. Children are forced to wear the Afghani attire, and schools are nothing but places to prepare new ISIS fighters; they concentrate on military training more than education. This is quite dangerous. Many families are not sending their children to school, for fear they will be radicalized. Many kidnapped Yazidi and Shiite Turkmen, as well as children in the orphanages, are being radicalized.
What message do you want to deliver to Iraqis and the international community?
I want Iraqis not to generalize, to listen for the facts, and to face reality in order to find a solution. They do not need to consider all of the city’s inhabitants their enemies; that is in fact a way to help ISIS. The international community, too, needs to know the facts; the picture of Mosul that reaches them is not accurate. And I want the people of Mosul realize, before anyone else, that life deserves to be lived, and the future deserves to be discovered for what it is, and that life is bigger than just wasting it to know God or to fight for him. If there is a God, he doesn’t want you to kill each other for his sake, and if there is no God, then you have missed the most beautiful things to live for in this life.
What are the possible solutions, in your opinion?
It is difficult, and it is getting more difficult as time passes. Solutions that were possible yesterday are not available today. The problems we will face in the period following the end of ISIS might be even more difficult. We have a hidden army now, those teenagers with such a radical vision that it is beyond imagining. To end ISIS, we need to eradicate it everywhere, in Iraq, Syria, and everywhere.
How do you see the future?
It is not difficult to predict the future anymore; the world is on the cusp of a big change, and a shift in humanity’s principles. In the near future, we will witness continuous wars between the various social groups in the Middle East. Extremism will spread more easily than at any time previously. Our children have a dark future waiting for them. Children have become the most essential source for extremism’s growth in the region. Today, ISIS has youth volunteers who have received strict religious and military training that will transform them into monsters in the future. I cannot watch this world collapsing. The most depressing thing is our seeing everything clear and obvious in front of us. I wish I could have been able to track the way humanity moved from savagery into civilization, but unfortunately, I am tracking now its move from civilization into savagery.Ir