01 Aug 2014
As Christians in Mosul are forced to flee or convert in the face of ISIS, Peter Welby explains the social media campaign started in solidarity.
Shortly after ISIS' sudden advance in Iraq in June and its declaration of a caliphate, the painted letter the Arabic letter 'ن', or noon started to appear on properties around Mosul. It was accompanied by decrees imposing a dhimmi contract on Christians in the city: in return for paying a tax (jizyah), they could remain in the city, though subject to severe restrictions on their status and religious practice.
However, if they could not or would not pay, then they were given a choice: leave, convert to Islam and submit to ISIS, or die. The majority chose to leave, and at ISIS checkpoints many had what goods they could carry confiscated. This is not the first time ISIS has imposed the jizyah. In Raqqa, a city in central Syria seized by the group in January 2014 it was imposed with similar consequences for minorities – though there was less international attention at the time.
But one of the latest forms of activism through social media to have emerged from the conflicts in the Middle East uses the same noon symbol. They are using it to show support for the Christian community in the territories of the 'Islamic State' (ISIS). It stands for Nasara, the Quranic term for 'Christians'. The striking image has been taken up by Christians and others all over the world, including the Church of England's official twitter account and a Lebanese TV channel.
It is notable that this campaign accepts ISIS' designation for Christians in Iraq. In much of the Middle East, and particularly in those countries with a significant Christian population (including Iraq and Syria), Christians are known as Masihiyyun (followers of the Messiah, or al-Masih, a term for Jesus that features in the Quran). But broadly speaking, in countries with Muslim populations approaching 100% (particularly in the Gulf), Christians are known by the Quranic term Nasara.
The origins of this word are unclear: it could refer to the hometown of Jesus, Nazareth, or some have suggested links to a gnostic sect of the fourth century. But while some parts of the campaign have highlighted the difference between the two words (one slogan reads kuluna Massihiyyun – "we are all Christians" – incorporating ISIS' painted noon) the use of the term in the social media campaign is derived from ISIS' usage, whether it deliberately references the group's Islamic credentials or simply reveals the significant presence of Gulf Arabs in its ranks.
While the campaign shows solidarity with Iraq's Christians, it also emphasises how we are unable to protect them in the face of ISIS' current power in the region. As with the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria, a social media campaign may raise awareness and put pressure on our own governments to acknowledge the issue.
But it's not one way. The groups responsible for these atrocities are savvy users of social media themselves. ISIS members are using all forms of social media for propaganda and recruitment, and their virtual army is larger than their physical one. Just as they seem to be one step ahead on the ground, they are winning online battles too.
The letter ن painted on houses in Mosul is a warning to their occupants of destitution or death. The sobering fact is that while, through Twitter, we are rightly showing solidarity and pressuring our leaders, one of the Middle East's oldest Christian communities – in the area around Ninevah, of biblical fame – has been wiped out.
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