‘Beyond description’: Panel discusses ISIS, ethnic groups in Iraq

Pari Ibrahim (left), founder of the Free Yezidi Foundation, and David Sklar, adviser to the prime minister of Kurdistan, took part in a panel discussion on the current state of the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISIS, in the Middle East.
Pari Ibrahim (left), founder of the Free Yezidi Foundation, and David Sklar, adviser to the prime minister of Kurdistan, took part in a panel discussion on the current state of the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISIS, in the Middle East.

In summer 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISIS, brought unspeakable violence to the already-volatile Middle East. In Iraq, thousands were attacked or kidnapped, ripping families apart.

Pari Ibrahim watched the genocidal campaign unfold from the frontlines. “ISIS killed men. They kidnapped women. The treatment was beyond description.”

Ibrahim spoke to more than 90 Connecticut College students, faculty and staff at a recent panel discussion on campus, “Northern Iraq: Kurdistan in the Middle East & the Fate of the Yezidis.” The event was hosted by the College’s Department of Government and International Relations.

Ibrahim is the founder of the Free Yezidi Foundation, which seeks to provide aid to the survivors of ISIS attacks, particularly children. One goal of the foundation, Ibrahim says, is to build an orphanage for all of the children who have lost their parents in the attacks.

Ibrahim explained that the Yezidi is a small Kurdish ethnic group located mostly in northern Iraq. Unlike most of the Iraqi people, they are not Muslim; they are also not Christian or Jewish. They practice a little-known, ancient religion called Yazidism. Their unique beliefs, though similar in their monotheism, have led to centuries of persecution from larger religious groups.

The most recent attacks began in August 2014, when roughly 50,000 Yezidis were forced into the mountains of Kurdistan after ISIS took over the town of Sinjar. Thousands of Yezidis were killed or died of starvation, while others were kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. The result, Ibrahim said, was 4,000 orphan children.

“We are trying to do our little part,” said Ibrahim of the foundation, which plans to build the orphanage and a trauma center for those injured in the attacks.

Joining Ibrahim in the discussion was David Sklar, adviser to the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The two panelists were visiting the United States — Ibrahim for the first time — to discuss ISIS with United Nations officials and students at Connecticut College, Harvard and Columbia.

Since the highly publicized siege by ISIS this summer, both Ibrahim and Sklar agree that the radical group’s hold on Iraq has weakened. Ibrahim said that ISIS has lost much of the territory it gained in the Kurdistan region, and U.S. drone strikes were incredibly effective. “Airstrikes have saved tens of thousands of people. We are very grateful,” he said.

Sklar, who stressed that he was speaking for himself and not the government of Kurdistan, said ISIS has also been weakened by its radicalism; the group is comprised of mostly Sunni Muslims and has started killing other Sunnis who aren’t “loyal” to their cause.

“It’s a bad recipe. ISIS has been painted with a broad brush, but they do not represent Islam. The people in the region that are fighting them are also Muslim,” Sklar explained.

The region of Kurdistan, Sklar furthered, is a place of great interest to the global community. Kurds are currently the largest ethnic group in the world — 30 million — without their own sovereign nation. A quarter of the world’s Kurds live in Iraq, where they reside in a region with no boundaries or borders to fit within.

Despite not being a recognized country, Kurdistan functions with its own government, military and unique cultural identity. Where the impasse lies is the economy; Kurdistan does not have its own currency and hasn’t received a budget from the Iraqi central government, but sits on a substantial amount of crude oil. Sklar said Kurdistan has recently begun developing trade relations with Western countries to export oil.

Caroleen Sayej, assistant professor of government and international relations, moderated the panel with William Rose, professor of government and international relations. Sayej said the discussion helped give students some clarity on a complicated situation.

“We tend to cover these crises in textbooks, so it makes a world of difference to put human faces to the conflict,” she said. “My students are always intrigued with the question of nationalism and national identity, particularly with the Kurds. They are interested in how this crisis will play out in the future.”

With an increasing number of students interested in the region, the College has steadily developed more study abroad programs in the Middle East. On Dec. 3, the College approved a new major and minor in global Islamic studies, which will capture the transnationalism of current issues that affect the region and beyond.

December 12, 2014