What about Christians in Iraq? Several misleading headlines have zeroed in on ISIS’ attacks against Christians, not only ignoring Yazidis and other religious minorities, but not fully elucidating the Christian story in Iraq and reducing their narrative to persecution alone.
Iraqi Christians are some of the world’s oldest existent Christian populations. While not claiming a majority of the Iraqi population since the 7th-century, they constitute a significant and culturally influential minority. Before the Iraq War, Christians represented a little more than 5% of the population, claiming 1.5 - 2 million adherents. Due to rising persecution against Christians (abductions, torture, bombings, killings, forced conversion, and imposition of Sharia measures on Christian populations) their numbers plummeted to anywhere between 200,000-450,000 as of 2013 with many fleeing to surrounding countries such as Syria and Jordan (where, in the former location, they now face difficulties due to the Syrian Civil War). Those Christians that remain are concentrated in Baghdad, Basra, Arbil, Kirkuk and — significantly for the current context — in the Assyrian towns of the Nineveh Plains in the north and in Mosul.
The Christians are a diverse group and include Nestorians, Chaldean Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Assyrian Rite Christians, and small numbers of Armenian Orthodox. The majority of Iraqi Christians are influenced directly, or contingently, by Nestorianism, a Christian sect condemned by the councils of Ephesus (431 C.E.) and Chalcedon (451 C.E.) for their assertion of the independence of the divine and human natures of Christ. Still today, the majority of the worlds Christians would consider Nestorians and their antecedents “heretics.”
However, in most headlines they are being ambiguously labeled “Christian,” rather than as a “Christian sect.” There is certainly much debate about their place in Christian taxonomy, but it is interesting that in other contexts Nestorians and other Eastern Rite churches would be decried as perilously close to being “non-Christian” by the same Protestant and Roman Catholic groups now rallying to their cause. Theological disputes aside, they do not deserve discrimination, displacement, or death based on religious or cultural lines and any religious group that supports their right to existence should be lauded for their efforts.
5. ISIS’S RELIGIOUS MOTIVATIONS ARE SECTARIAN AND DO NOT REPRESENT "ISLAM"
Several wayward headlines read akin to this one from The Christian Post: “Muslims Hack Off Christian Man's Head After Forcing Him to Deny Jesus Christ and Salute Mohammed as 'Messenger of God.’” Not only is this headline charged with sectarian sentiment, but it is misleading and oversimplified.
Is ISIS Muslim? If you ask Sohaib N. Sultan who wrote for TIME magazine that “ISIS is Ignoring Islam’s Teachings on Yazidis and Christians,” that claim is nebulous at best. Sultan wrote:
I join the chorus of Muslims worldwide, Sunnis and Shi‘ites, who oppose al-Baghdadi and ISIS as a whole. The killing and oppression of innocent people and the destruction of land and property is completely antithetical to Islam’s normative teachings. It’s as pure and as simple as that.
Sultan’s comments echo a deep rift that continues to divide global Islam, which Reza Aslan refers to as a civil war between traditionalists and reformists. Not only this, but Islam is a diverse religion with various sects and schools of thought. Not only are there Shi’as, Sufis, and Sunnis, but the Sunni are divided into various schools and theological traditions that incorporate proponents of various lines of jurisprudence including the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i institutions.
ISIS militants and their leaders are influenced by, and are an active part of, the Salafi movement in Islam. Salafis are fundamentalists who view their movement as a return to the roots of Islam (although this claim is contested by Sultan and others Muslims throughout the world). Their name is derived from the Arabic phrase, 'as-salaf as-saliheen', which refers to the first three generations of Muslims — the pious “predecessors” or “ancestors” of Islam.
The Salafi movement is a slippery one to pin down. Some scholars, and the Salafis themselves, claim they are a subset of Sunni Islam, deriving their teaching from the Hanbali school. Others lump Salafism with Wahhabism — the ultraconservative Islamic teaching of Adn al-Wahhab that was institutionalized by the Saudis before being radicalized by al-Qaeda and used against their nation and other Muslims. Wahhabis adhere to takfiri beliefs, which lead adherents to target non-Wahhabi Muslims — mainstream Muslims, Sunnis, Shi’as, Sufi, etc. Salafis assert they are a broader movement than Wahhabis, but certainly the two are parallel developments and share much in common in terms of radical doctrine and violent, extremist, practice. Salafis seek to purify Islam, which features a built-in brutality toward non-Muslims.