Religion’s hold on ordinary people even in the 21st century is incomprehensible to the rationalist, or the non-believer who has substituted an idea of morality or political ambition for “God”.
So it must be especially galling for US President Barack Obama, a progressive who has wrenched America left from its moorings as a Judeo-Christian nation, to be drawn into a war in Iraq he has built a presidency scorning.
On 8 August, amid reports that Christians and other minorities, men and children, were being crucified and beheaded, the women raped and enslaved by Islamic militants rampaging through Iraq, US warplanes bombed to stop the terrorists a mere 20 miles from the Kurdish capital Erbil.
The fall of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, an island of stability in the chaos in Iraq, was a danger Obama apparently could not ignore. At least that much can be inferred from what he said as he announced the decision to authorise “limited strikes” three years after US forces pulled out of Iraq in 2011.
That and the threat of genocide Iraqi minorities faced. “Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, ‘There is no one coming to help’,” Obama said, declaring with incongruous flourish from the State Dining Room at the White House: “Well, today America is coming to help.”
On 3 August, militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria began overrunning Shiite and Christian-inhabited towns in northern Iraq after pushing back the doughty Kurdish Peshmerga forces who just kept running out of ammunition.
Among the towns they rampaged through was Sinjar along the Syrian border, the ancestral home of an ancient community called Yazidi that is neither Christian nor Muslim, and has been persecuted in the past by both.
Unlike with Christians and Shiites, the Yazidis would not be asked to convert by the militants. They were marked for certain death, their women to be bequeathed as a prize to jihadis.
With nowhere else to run, the Yazidis took refuge upon their sacred Sinjar mountain while the militants encircled it and cut off supplies. About 50,000 Yazidis were estimated to be trapped on the mountain, slowly starving without enough food or water. The US strikes allowed a few to escape but thousands still remain.
In the decade since the US invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Shiite majority Iraq has become a battleground between Shia and Sunni militants.
A revolt by Sunnis against Shia-backed Bashar Assad in neighbouring Syria has merged both conflicts, erasing borders between the two countries. ISIS, as the main rebel force in both countries, now controls almost half of Iraq and a third of Syria.
ISIS militants have declared a Caliphate across the area that they simply call Islamic State and have imposed a radical version of Islamic or Shariah law, ruthlessly executing minorities if they do not convert by a stipulated date, nailing their heads to stakes in town centres, according to reputable media reports.
An Iraqi minister said 500 Yazidis had been killed in the militant push through their ancient town of Sinjar on 3 August and 300 Yazidi women “taken as slaves”, locked inside a police station in Sinjar or herded to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that fell to ISIS in June.
While it will take several days for details to emerge, Yazidis who managed to flee the mountain said thousands were still trapped atop and many lay dying. Parents were spitting into their children’s mouths, having no water to slake their thirst. US airdrops of food and water have helped but have not reached all.
Obama’s rhetorical response to the forlorn Iraqi that America was “coming to help” was as stunningly disingenuous as the bombings were inadequate. It has been apparent at least since June, when ISIS took control of Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, that the group had to be stopped. Intelligence agencies, analysts and former officials have been issuing warnings for at least a year.
And Baghdad has been in lockdown while the fighting has raged. Iraq has been virtually leaderless since elections in April, with Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki refusing to step down. Obama has not lifted a finger to help. While blaming Maliki for alienating Sunnis, he has steered scrupulously clear of brokering compromise.
Worse, he has justified this unwillingness to get his hands dirty with the dubious argument that US “patriots fought” for “the right..for Iraqis to determine their own destiny and choose their own leaders.”
Providing an “update” on Iraq in the critical month of June, he hinted why with a small moralising detour: “Recent days have reminded us of the deep scars left by America’s war in Iraq…But what’s clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action.”
As the bickering continued, ISIS, which began life as an offshoot of Al Qaeda but was actually expelled for its excessive brutality, declared the Caliphate a few days after it took oil-rich Mosul.
Its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, a former teacher, appeared at a mosque dressed in black in early July, sporting a glittering watch on one wrist, and declared himself the “emir of the faithful”, taking the name of Caliph Ibrahim.
It was redolent of another moment in 1996 in Kandahar, when Mullah Omar was the leader of the Taliban in an Afghanistan still ruled by Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Omar, whose group controlled the south, wanted religious legitimacy and Pashtun support for an ambitious push to take Kabul. He gained both by climbing to the roof of an ancient Kandahar mosque to wear the sacred robe said to have been worn by Prophet Mohammed and declaring himself “leader of the faithful”.
After the fall of Mosul, the next critical juncture in Iraq came as the Islamic fighters battled Kurdish forces for days before finally taking control of the crucial Mosul dam, Iraq’s largest, less than a week ago.
The dam, which supplies electricity and irrigation to surrounding areas, presents a grave public danger in the hands of the group. An expert estimated that Mosul would be completely flooded within hours if the dam were destroyed, putting even Baghdad at risk.
Through the feverish weeks it took for all this to unfold, the Obama administration refused repeated pleas for arms from the Kurds, who were up against the armoured carriers and superior American weapons that ISIS had captured from the Iraqis.
The Iraqi army, paid for, trained and equipped at enormous expense by the US, simply folded without a fight, leaving a trail of discarded uniforms and advanced American weapons in its wake.
Recounting the battle for Sinjar, a Yazidi woman interviewed by The New York Times said Yazidis thought “Kurdish fighters would succeed in beating back ISIS”. “But,” she added heartbreakingly, “they used up all their bullets.”
In an almost paternally caustic editorial, the Washington Post observed that Obama’s action only seemed “designed to fend off criticism (that) he is doing nothing (to halt) the metastasizing threat of jihadism throughout the region,” adding for good measure: “His entire demeanor was that of a truculent teenager forced to perform some disagreeable chore.”
Military expert Steve Bucci of the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank in Washington DC, told TEHELKA that the response was inadequate . “It is a knee jerk reaction that is too little, too late. Using air power alone to “plink” at individual vehicles and pieces of equipment did not work in Kosovo for Bill Clinton, and will not work here,” he said, adding that it required “a much larger regional response”
That Obama acted at all is perhaps an attempt to bolster dimming Democratic prospects at the mid-term elections in November. Democratic candidates are leery of an increasingly unpopular president, with Obama’s approval ratings now at 41 per cent — only a few points above the lowest ratings for his predecessor, George W. Bush.
A clear sign of Democratic unease came over the weekend in an interview with Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State when the Syrian crisis began to unfold. Clinton, who may run for President in 2016, is known to have pushed for arming Syrian rebels, something Obama overruled.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton told The Atlantic magazine.
The dramatic drop in Obama’s popularity comes after years of political bickering with Republicans and a conscious attempt to redefine the terms of America’s engagement with the world and, as a consequence, America’s definition of itself.
Rudely shaken from the comfortable sense of their own “goodness” by the scale of the attacks on 911, Americans have ever since found the intricacies of geopolitics crouching by their doorsteps every morning.
If they compensated for Bush’s unjust war in Iraq by electing Obama, six years of drawing back from the world seems to have made them ambivalent about America’s place in it..
And Obama’s policies on Syria and Iran are redrawing the world, especially the middle-east, where the “order dating to World War I (is) starting to buckle”, as Obama said recently. He neglected to mention that it is an order America helped to build and has underwritten with its military power at least after World War II.
In addition, Obama has kept Israel at arm’s length since he came to power, taking an extremely tough line in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the recent confrontation with Hamas, as leaked transcripts published in Israel have revealed. Though both sides denied them, few people doubt their general tone.
In a relatively young country founded on what even ordinary people have come to think of as “Judeo-Christian values”, popular support for Israel cuts across conventional political divides.
Evangelical Christians, who tend to be conservative and vote Republican, support the Jewish state as passionately as affluent Jewish liberals, who are avowedly Democratic and are big donors of the Democratic Party.
A religious sensibility also underpins US society and is contained in its founding documents, unlike in India, which is largely religious but rationalistic in its foundational ideology. And definitely not in Europe, which has moved steadily closer to a rationalist worldview ever since Enlightenment.
This specially American sensibility is discernible in public life. For instance, nearly all politicians running for office in the US, Democrat or Republican, at one point or another need to bring up their private, religious convictions. This helps establish character and helps voters empathise.
In the pledge of allegiance to the flag, every citizen utters fealty to “one nation under God”. The words “under God” were added in 1954, when America feared the atheistic ideology of communism. Every politician also ends a big speech with the invocation “God Bless America!” and so on.
A Pew poll in 2007 found that an overwhelming 92 per cent of all Americans believe in God. Over 50 per cent pray daily. Another survey conducted in June this year found that Americans view religious people more favourably than those who do not believe in God.
Though late, the US bombings have stopped the militant advance and focused international attention on Baghdad. There are already indications that Maliki may go quietly, reversing early signs that he may stage a coup. But these fears dissipated after Iran, Maliki’s main backer, threw its support behind Haider al-Abadi, who also belongs to Maliki’s Dawa party. A new government in Baghdad is only a first step but a necessary one. Pressures at home are unlikely to let Obama’s policy of drift continue. Not least because polls show that Republicans are expected to wrest control of the Senate. And Democrats have always been seen as weak on national security issues.
Apart from the military task of defeating ISIS, there is also the massive humanitarian cost of what is effectively America’s Iraq War III. According to the United Nations, about 580,000 refugees from elsewhere in Iraq have fled to Kurdistan so far. This is not counting the 230,000 who have fled Syria.
Military expert Steve Bucci warned it will not be easy to defeat ISIS. It could no longer be considered “just” a terrorist group because it is doing the unexpected, he said. He pointed out it did not march on Baghdad when it had a chance, probing and finding weaknesses instead.
“The PeshMerga had a reputation for extreme toughness and military capability. ISIS’s ability to push them out of areas they have controlled for extended periods is not a good sign, and indicates ISIS is a force to be reckoned with,” he said.
And even if they were defeated, the damage may be irreparable. “Their control of an Iraqi dam, electric production facilities, and oil infrastructure means they can at the very least damage or destroy these key locations as they withdraw,” he said.
Till press time, the US despatched 130 more troops to Kurdistan to help fine-tune the relief effort for those trapped on the Sinjar mountain.