Western media has elevated some minority groups caught in ISIS’s crosshairs over others.
Christians in Iraq and Syria have, for example, regularly appeared on the front pages of news outlets as victims of kidnappings, forced displacement, and other crimes committed by ISIS.
The Yazidi community has also captured the attention of Western media, especially in the summer of 2014, when ISIS began a targeted campaign to capture Sinjar and eliminate its Yazidi residents, whom ISIS described as “devil worshippers.” Thorough Western reporting on the plight of the Yazidis led to direct military action against ISIS by Kurdish, U.S., and other international forces.
So why do some groups make headlines in Western media, while others do not? One main reason is that some groups serve the media’s agenda of casting ISIS’s violence as another sectarian conflict in the Middle East. The Western media has largely portrayed ISIS’s regional war as a battle between religious sects – Sunni versus Shia, Muslim versus non-Muslim. This sectarian rhetoric has, however, erased the diversity of ISIS’s victims and the complex motivations behind its attacks.
One group that has been absent from the Western narrative on ISIS is the Ismaili community, which is the second largest Shiite sect. Though ISIS has targeted Syrian Ismailis, most in the West have never heard their stories. Because they are Muslim, their oppression does not serve the media’s simplistic framing of ISIS’s crimes against humanity.
The Ismailis of Salamiyah
The roughly 200,000 Ismailis in Syria comprise one percent of the population. The historic city of Salamiyah, in the Hama governorate, is home to Syria’s biggest enclave of Ismaili Muslims. Before 2011, Ismailis in Salamiyah were known for their political neutrality and love of mate tea. Now, the city’s residents fear ISIS may take over their town.
In 2015, Salamiyah was the site of an ISIS massacre that resulted in the killing and kidnapping of more than fifty residents. Later that year, ISIS rockets bombarded Salamiyah, killing and injuring tens of people. ISIS has also targeted individual residents of Salamiyah for supposed apostasy, including beheading an Ismaili man and executing seven members of a single family.
I spoke with Farah,* an Ismaili Syrian who teaches history, about Syria’s Ismaili community. She asked, in hushed tones, if she could send me her answers in an encrypted document. Currently living in Doha, Farah worried about sharing sensitive information over the phone, because of the persecution Ismailis generally experience across the region.
Farah told me about Salamiyah’s involvement in the 2011 uprising. It was the third town to join the revolution. Farah said that, in rising up, the town’s residents were motivated by a desire to improve their living conditions, rather than by sectarian feeling. After the region violently suppressed the protests, many of Salamiyah’s residents fled to Europe, leaving behind a city under siege.
I also spoke with Saleem,* another Ismaili Syrian who relocated to Los Angeles in the wake of ISIS’s onslaught, about his views on why the Ismailis are on the group’s radar. While Saleem said that ISIS considers Ismailis to be infidels, he also noted that most Ismailis in Syria currently support Bashar al-Assad’s regime – and that this is a reason ISIS is targeting the group.
Before ISIS took over large swathes of Syria, members of the Ismaili community had largely remained neutral in the Syrian conflict. Now, however, most Ismailis reluctantly accept the Assad regime’s legitimacy in exchange for its protection. Even in Salamiyah, the regime has provided arms to the city’s local defense force, which is comprised of Ismailis. ISIS has highlighted this support as a way to rally sympathy for its actions against the city from nearby Sunni communities neglected by the regime.
The Sectarian Rhetoric that Erases Minority Suffering
Instead of telling the story of Syria’s Ismaili community, Western outlets have simply categorized its members as Shiites or lumped the group together with other minorities targeted by ISIS, like the Druze, the Kaka’is, and the Sufis, who have also accepted protection from the Assad regime.
In taking this approach, Western news outlets turn a blind eye toward systematic violence being committed by ISIS and reinforce stereotypical narratives about the Middle East that are damaging and incorrect.
In its campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate, ISIS has created a long list of enemies that goes far beyond religious groups and includes ethnic minorities. The media’s sectarian framing undermines this reality and, instead, amplifies ISIS’s efforts to use sectarianism to mobilize its followers and target anyone that defies it politically.
ISIS has, for example, persecuted the Iraqi Shabaks, who have ethnic ties to Kurds, Turks, and Persians, because of their politics (they supported the new 2005 Iraqi constitution), their geographic location in Mosul, as well as their rejection of ISIS’s political caliphate. ISIS has also targeted the Turkmen, a Turkic-speaking nomadic ethnic group originating from Central Asia, because it opposes its rule and receives support from Turkey.
According to Human Rights Watch, many Turkmen and Shabaks in Iraq reported that ISIS painted the letter R for “Rafidah” on their homes in Mosul. While this term is sometimes used by Sunnis to describe Shias, not all Turkmen and Shabaks are Shia.
Even in Salamiyah, ISIS’s designs on the city have much to do with non-sectarian concerns. In 2016, ISIS forces reportedly attempted to capture the metropolis, though they failed in their attempt. Salamiyah’s location is critical and valued by all sides to Syria’s conflict – from ISIS to the Assad regime to the armed opposition. The town lies between Hama’s military airport and the town of Khanasser, which leads to Aleppo and has been the site of several battles between ISIS and the regime.
By casting the ISIS dilemma as sectarian, instead of considering the political dimensions that shape the conflict, Western media sources succumb to the very rhetoric that destroyed a once peaceful uprising.
This narrative reduces the roots of ISIS’s violence to one singular factor, religion. The political and economic factors that have driven the group’s persecution of Yazidis, Ismailis, Druze, and Turkmen are lost in this mix. As a result, the lives of members of these groups are devalued, their deaths a collateral effect of war, rather than a crime against humanity.
As ISIS continues to make gains in the countryside around Salamiyah, many Ismailis fear they will face a fate similar to the Yazidis. Yet, their story will likely remain unknown to the West, since they does not neatly fit the Western narrative on ISIS’s crimes.
*Names and some locations have been changed to protect the identity of sources.