The Demographic Landscape of Northern Iraq Post-ISIS: Stranded Minorities
Miguel Mendelek, Research Affiliate, IMS; Assistant Project Coordinator, Institute of Development Studies, AiW
In 2014, the self-proclaimed caliphate of ISIS represented the most direct threat to ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East and Iraq. The organization’s caliphate (2014-2017 CE), stretching between Raqqa-Syria and Mosul-Iraq, carried out the fiercest and most violent attacks against ethnic and religious groups. These included the Christians and Yazidis of Northern Iraq. Described as a genocide by many scholars, the exodus of several minorities from the Nineveh plains has changed Iraq’s demographic landscape, and has made historically thriving minorities non-existent groups in the country’s demographic composition. While the return of minorities to Iraq remains difficult to assess, the future of the country holds few incentives for a pluralistic reintegration of cultures and civilizations. In the modern history of minority persecution, Iraqi Christians and Yazidis saw one of the harshest religious persecutions and cleansings.
The Religious Demography of Modern Iraq between 2003 and 2021
Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, Iraq’s Baathist regime relatively protected religious minorities, including Christians, Yazidis and Sabean-Mandeans. As they were recognized and protected by the constitution, their religious practices were accepted and tolerated as a legal right. However, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the dismantling of the Baathist regime created a political vacuum which destabilized the country. The rise of the Sunni-Shiite rivalry and the resurgence of violent extremist groups created an unsafe and threatening environment for non-Muslim minorities. Trapped between Kurdish aspirations of self-rule in Northern Iraq, the Sunni-Shiite struggle and the fears of Islamization with the rise of Islamist Jihadist groups, the violent landscape left minorities with two choices: either endure routine intimidation and discrimination, or leave. As a result, emigration waves began to unfold and epitomized in 2014, when a major and direct threat to Iraqi minorities was catalyzed with the rise of ISIS.
According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2021 report, 95-98% of the Iraqi population is Muslim; 64-69% are Shiites and 29-34% are Sunnis. The remainder of the population is comprised of religious and ethnic minorities, 1% of which are Christians, and 1-4% of which are Yazidis. This includes other smaller denominations such as Sabean-Mandaeans, Bahai, Turkmen and Jews. After the fall of ISIS, only 250,000 out of the 700,000 post-2003 Christians, compared to 1,400,000 persons before the US invasion of Iraq, remained in the country. As for Yazidis, their community, pre-2014, was constituted of 330,000-700,000 persons as compared to only 200,000 by 2021. The numbers represent a sharp decline in both communities, in great part to the intensifying insecurities post-2003, and more importantly, to the threat of ISIS as of 2014.
The Threat of ISIS on Minorities in Iraq
As of 2014, Christian and Yazidi communities saw an exponential decrease in numbers due to forced displacement and migration – in great part due to the systematic predation of ISIS on their respective towns and villages. Cities of Christian inhabitants, such as Mosul and Qaraqosh, and the historic Yazidi town of Sinjar, were almost completely vacated by their inhabitants. In Sinjar, ISIS destroyed around 80% of the infrastructure and 70% of homes. In Mosul, the war with ISIS likewise destroyed 65% of the historic town and damaged at least 138,000 homes.
Those who were unable to flee their towns and villages were persecuted and subjected to heinous crimes. To most of them, particularly Christians, ISIS gave an ultimatum: submitting to the rule of the caliphate, paying jizya (special taxes for non-Muslims), or death. Meanwhile, historical monuments, scriptures, schools and homes were deliberately destroyed. Most inhabitants were forced outside of their properties, and were brutally abducted or killed. Women and girls, especially Yazidis, were forced into sexual slavery. Under the rule of ISIS, Yazidis and Christians became victims of systematic attack and fierce oppression. The crimes committed have become the major contributors to the religious cleansings of Iraq’s formerly pluralistic northern plains.
Few Incentives for a Comprehensive Return for Christians and Yazidis
Although ISIS lost control of Iraq’s northern plains almost five years ago, the reintegration process of emigrant and displaced minorities remains largely unaccomplished. Today, the Nineveh plains are a myriad for conflict, largely due to the fact that the post-ISIS period remains marred with fears of a terrorist reawakening amid Iraq’s perilous political and security landscape. The weak control of the state, substituted by the rule of state-backed militias (e.g., the Popular Mobilization Forces – an umbrella military group of mostly Shiite insurgents who owe loyalty to different Shia clerics), the slow and incomplete reconstruction process, and continued religious discrimination, together contribute to redefining the demographic landscape of Northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, most displaced communities remain in refugee camps either in Iraq or in neighboring countries. In 2021, in an unprecedented historical moment, Pope Francis visited formerly ISIS-controlled cities in Northern Iraq to spiritually uplift the remainder of a community which has survived atrocities. Although the Pope’s visit remains symbolically powerful, and gives moral support and hope (not only to Christians, but for minority groups in general), most emigrants are still displaced in the absence of an effective strategy for return. Indeed, the traumatic experience, the destroyed lands and the militarization repercussions of the ISIS defeat have not been effectively countered or addressed.
The rule of ISIS has stranded Iraq’s minority groups and has devastated the country’s pluralistic nature, especially in the Nineveh plains. Minorities remain some of the most vulnerable groups to recurring conflicts, and their return to a war-torn land is contested and uncertain. While the reintegration and return of Christians and Yazidis requires stability and reconstruction, both are not yet achieved. As such, the post-ISIS unstable terrain continues to contribute to lasting displacement. Today, the protracted repercussions of the war complicate and inhibit the mass return of minority groups. In the absence of political stability in the midst of the geopolitical struggles in the Middle East (e.g., US-Iran conflict), the proxy-war’s effects are reflected in Iraq and result in ongoing instability. The return process, which is affected by a number of interrelated factors as earlier mentioned, has therefore become precariously slow, highly individualistic and increasingly risky. Many are thus reconsidering their return and are seeking permanent refuge outside Iraq.