Jeremy Courtney on ISIS: A Perspective from Iraq

Jeremy Courtney held the crowd in rapt attention as he shared about ISIS (the “so called” Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) at a recent peacemaking event in Denver. Jeremy has lived in Iraq since 2006 and spoke from painful experience.


Rick: Jeremy, thank you so much for taking time to do this interview! Before I ask you any questions about ISIS, why don’t you explain how you ended up in Iraq and what you do there.

Jeremy: We were living in the region when, in 2006, the civil war between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq peaked and violence wracked the country. It was the devastating stories of the widows and orphans, coupled with the stories of hope, cooperation, and God’s supernatural intervention that compelled us to move our family to Iraq, in hopes of being part of the solution.

Soon after moving, we met a couple of kids who were terribly ill. One of them was a little girl who needed a lifesaving heart surgery. But years of dictatorship and war had left Iraq without a doctor or hospital that could perform the surgery she needed. As our family and friends came alongside her family in an effort to save her life, we became aware of a backlog of thousands of children like her waiting in line for these lifesaving heart surgeries. So we’ve devoted our lives to making sure these children get the surgeries they need through our organization, the Preemptive Love Coalition.

Rick: What do you think mainstream media has right when it describes ISIS?

Jeremy: ISIS is terrifying. It currently maintains vast swaths of land, power, and natural resources across Iraq and Syria. ISIS has talked about worldwide dominance, and it seems to be something that is more than bluster—this is something that should be taken very seriously. Their current capabilities for global jihad are, as yet, unproven, but we can scarcely afford to take this lightly.

Rick: Could you fill us in on some of the important details about the background of ISIS?

Jeremy: “ISIS,” as it has become known today, was preventable. Now, it is a formidable foe. It is crucial that we not allow this discussion to take place in a vacuum, and it is crucial that our conversation not resort to mere partisan rhetoric that blames “Bush” or “Obama.”

The former Iraqi Prime Minister, Maliki, had a significantly deleterious effect on the psyche of Iraq, taking us back to a macabre Shia-version of Saddam Hussein’s infamous Sunni “Republic of Fear.” Maliki has sanctioned many of the atrocities of Shia militias, leading Sunnis to complain about undue arrests, lack of due process, occupation by Shia-led security forces, and other disenfranchising, pound-of-flesh behavior. As the US continued to back Maliki, we not only gave Iran a greater foothold in the country but we helped alienate the people who now live in all the areas dominated by ISIS—the Sunnis of Iraq.

Rick: What are the most important things about ISIS that you think people need to know?

Jeremy: Most of the people who have acquiesced and now appear to “support” and live under the control of ISIS are not terrorists, violent, or Islamists. They choose to “live” under ISIS rule because life on the run as a “displaced person” is excruciating. It seems nearly impossible for anyone in the West to understand how someone would “stay behind” and “accept the rule” of ISIS without actually being a terrorist themselves. But I understand. If you gave me the option of getting along with ISIS or taking an uncertain trek across the desert (where still more ISIS are marauding) in hopes of finding food, water, and shelter with my wife and kids, I would think very long and hard about doing whatever ISIS wanted. Sometimes all the options are just bad: for Obama, for the people of Iraq, for the aid organizations trying to make things right, etc.

Rick: I enjoyed hearing you speak about ISIS, but you startled everyone when you said, “the peacemaking community is sometimes completely out of touch with reality. Although I find this hard to say as a student of peacemaking, in the case of ISIS advancing on the city of Erbil, it seems to be that there did need to be a military response.” Please explain.

Jeremy: The U.S. left itself with no good options in Iraq due to numerous foreign policy decisions of the past:

  • In 1953 the CIA helped overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mossaddegh and installed the Shah.
  • After the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government against the Shia Iranians through the 1980s.
  • In 1991 the U.S. and its Allies waged war against Saddam’s regime and then the U.S. continued violent sanctions against Iraq through the 1990s.
  • In 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq claiming that Saddam’s regime was hiding WMD (weapons of mass destruction).
  • Paul Bremmer dismissed the Ba’ath party and all its government functionaries.
  • The U.S. then blindly backed Al-Maliki’s second term.

There are innumerable domestic and regional factors we can blame as well. But this is what each president has inherited, acted upon, and often made worse, while trying to do what is right.

So we need to admit the world is broken and we (the U.S., Christians, humans) cannot fix it in our own power.

I’m sober-minded about what the airstrikes will actually accomplish. We absolutely cannot bomb our way to peace. There are ideologies involved that only proliferate under violence. There are economic realities that cannot be healed through violence. There is a desire to be known, seen, and included in the political and social fabric of society that has been trampled underfoot. This stuff is highly combustible, and dropping bombs, even when it is necessary to stop further violence, only fuels the fire in other areas.

As long as we are honest about the specious efficacy of violence, and do not (as Christians, at least) celebrate the obliteration of our enemies through violence, I am willing to mournfully and repentantly say that sometimes enough is enough and otherwise innocent people need to be protected through military force.

Rick: I have often said I am a Just War theorist with a strong Pacifist leaning. So I appreciate what you are saying. We need to use both hard power (military might) and soft power (diplomacy and persuasion) when it comes to addressing violent extremism. But I think our country relies way too much on hard power. And we certainly do NOT adhere to Just War guidelines in most cases. I think we also need to confront the ideas behind the bombs and bullets of groups like ISIS. What do you think?

Jeremy: Agreed. But the “we” includes Muslims! We need to tackle this together. We need to understand the way this violence rips through “the mosque.” We need to realize how devastating this is to Muslim clerics and communities. We (the Christians) need to make relationship with Muslims a higher priority. Because Muslims are by far the best among us to address these radical ideologies and behaviors. And Muslims ARE denouncing ISIS, violence, and Islamism. But I think we would make the job much easier on them if they knew we were standing with them, supporting them, spurring them on toward love and good deeds. They shouldn’t have to constantly keep one eye looking over their shoulder for their Christian enemies and the other eye looking within for the jihadi Muslim enemy. Better to join arms and undertake this peacemaking work together, in harmony.