Flee your home with only the shirt on your back, leaving all your valuables and property behind. Pay a special tax as a Christian second-class citizen, which will still not guarantee your rights or even your life. Convert to Islam. Or die. These are the four choices that Iraq's 2,000-year-old Christian community is being given by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the ever-expanding terrorist army which now arrogantly calls itself, simply, "The Islamic State."
ISIS seeks to re-establish the Caliphate, the seat of Sunni Islamic leadership and imperial rule that was created after the Prophet Mohammed's death in 632 and which was abolished by modern Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, in 1924. The leader of ISIS, who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and who emerged as a minor religious figure during the US occupation of Iraq, recently proclaimed himself to be Caliph. But unlike the Ottoman Caliphate of old, al-Baghdadi's vision brooks no tolerance of others. ISIS doesn't hesitate to kill fellow Sunnis who resist, using horrific means including public beheadings. It sees Shiite Muslims as apostates deserving of death and has destroyed Shiite mosques and shrines. It wages war on the Kurds (who are mostly Sunnis themselves) and applies the most puritanical interpretation of Islamic law when it comes to its treatment of Christians. As for other non-Islamic communities such as Iraq's Yazidis, ISIS shows no mercy, offering them the binary, genocidal choice of "convert or die."
The so-called Islamic State portrays itself as waging a war for Sunni Islam, and Iraq's pro-Iranian Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has inadvertently aided this effort. Viewing the world through his own sectarian lens, all of Maliki's actions since the US withdrawal in 2011 - including purging the American-trained Iraqi Army of non-Shiite leadership and ensuring no U.S. troops would be left in Iraq -- have exacerbated Iraq's ethnic and religious tensions. So long as Maliki remains in place, building a national or regional consensus against ISIS will be difficult.
ISIS poses a threat to the entire Middle East and to the world. Its army is well-armed and well-disciplined and grows in strength by the day. It funds itself by robbing Iraqi central banks and seizing oil production facilities. Its unrestrained brutality terrifies its foes before a shot is even fired. Its violence is so extreme that al-Qaida has renounced the group. Today it controls about one-third of Iraq's territory and chunks of Syria. ISIS doesn't recognize the border separating Iraq and Syria, or the borders of other Arab states, most of which were drawn by British and French mapmakers after World War I. By dropping Iraq and Syria from its name, "The Islamic State" is signaling intent to expand its Caliphate further into the Middle East. And with volunteers-including some Westerners - flocking to the ISIS cause from across the globe, there is a real danger that experienced jihadists may return to their home countries determined to commit acts of terrorism.
This advancing jihadist army is but the latest and most terrifying unintended consequence of the Iraq War, which I believe was the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history. The war empowered Iran and broke Iraq, unleashing violent sectarianism that had been kept in a vise by Saddam Hussein's draconian rule. ISIS traces its roots to al-Qaida in Iraq, which was created after the US invasion. Its rise has been facilitated by the West's inaction in Syria. Even as Iraqis die mercilessly at the hands of these extremists, Syria remains the far bloodier conflict, with over 170,000 killed since 2011. Yet despite past mistakes by two US administrations, I do not believe we can stand idly by as ISIS poses a grave threat to the staunchly pro-American Iraqi Kurds and to American allies and interests throughout the Middle East and beyond.
ISIS will not stop until it is stopped by others, for its appetite is insatiable. The United States, the West, and the Kurds should not resist them alone, however. It is incumbent upon the Sunni world to stand up to the "Islamic State," which threatens not only Christians and Shiites, but the Arab states, Turkey, and the Sunni faith as well. The greatest threat to Islam is not Islamophobia or the West, but radical jihadists who wantonly murder, destroy and enslave others in the name of God and the Quran.