When I first saw Americans joining in solidarity with Iraqi Christians through the #WeAreN hashtag and protest campaign, I was encouraged. Our team at Preemptive Love Coalition had been sounding the alarm about the targeted persecution of minorities in Iraq through private emails and social media messages for weeks, in between making urgent appeals in our effort to provide lifesaving heart surgeries for children amid the violence.
Most of our efforts were largely unsuccessful before the “Islamic State” gave Mosul’s Christians an ultimatum to (1) convert to Islam; (2) pay a submission tax; or (3) “face the sword.”
After Islamist militants began marking the homes of Christians in red paint with the Arabic letter “N” (Nazarene) for extermination or expropriation, we tried again to use our proximity to the problem in Iraq to provoke our friends in America to pay attention by tagging a photo “#WeAreN,” in which I had symbolically marked myself with an Arabic “N.”
But it was not strictly an act of solidarity with Iraqi Christians. We had the targeting of Turkmen, Yezidi, Shabak, and even Sunni Muslims in view, as well. #WeAreN was more about the marking of Christians; less about the marking of Christians.
Muslims and minorities across Iraq immediately sensed the gravity of the tactics deployed by the Islamic State: if one group is marked, we are all marked. If we stand by in silence today while others are marked for extinction, our time will come, and there will be no one left to stand for us.
In response, Muslims across Iraq joined together in protest, prayer, and viral photographs saying “We are Iraqi. We are Christians.”
It’s hard to overstate how remarkable this is in light of recent events in Iraq. In June, ISIS overran the northern capital of Mosul and began a violent march southward, proclaiming the imminent destruction of Kerbala, Najaf, and Baghdad — strongholds of Shi’a religious and political power. Sectarianism reignited and militias re-armed. ISIS was a Sunni problem and the Shi’a were either fleeing or beating their chests in fear.
So, these few weeks later, with Christians and others being marked and driven from their homes, a Muslim movement that says, “We are all Christians,” is subversive in the most daring of ways. It taunts the Islamic State and says to suffering neighbors, “Doctrine aside, we see your humanity. You should not be marked for extermination. If they’ve marked you, then we will mark ourselves. If they come for you, they can come for us, as well.”
Sadly, when comparing Iraqi solidarity with the Western evangelical response, I fear we have not gone nearly far enough.
Iraqi Muslims have said they are Christians — not because they have converted to Christianity, but because they see themselves in their Christian neighbors. In the West, we have largely washed our hands of the entire Iraq project and hung both Muslims and Christians out to dry.
We meant #WeAreN to be a lighthouse that guided us back to the shores of humanity by recognizing all of the peoples of Iraq who have been targeted by the murderous Islamic State. Instead, through avatars and news articles that validated the suffering of our group, often to the exclusion of others, #WeAreN has become a siren, calling our ship off course and into the rocks of a dehumanizing Christian tribalism.
When we find tragedy in the suffering of some and gloss over the suffering of another, we have strayed far from The Way of Jesus.
Why is the Church standing with the Christians, who have largely made it out alive, and not the more numerous Turkmen who have been massacred or left in desert camps to die? Are we willing to say “We are Yezidi” with the ancient Zoroastrian sect? Will we kneel down with them on this Jericho road or is it too difficult to regard them as our own?
I understand our collective silence. To comment on Iraq at this point would force us to consider our own complicity in today’s circumstances. Things have gotten complicated, perhaps more so than when we had a simple villain like Saddam Hussein on whom to place the blame. But we don’t need to understand all the nuances or how we got here to say, “We’re sorry.”
We helped bring this about. We may have had good intentions. But this suffering, Christian and Muslim alike, is partially on us. We cannot fix it alone now, but we are implicated. We dare not walk away — or even decry the suffering of fellow Christians — as though we had nothing to do with it.
There is a humility that is sorely lacking in our patriotism and in our Christianity when we cannot say we got it wrong. Or when we realize we got it wrong, and that leads us to give up entirely.
If it was a preemptive strike that played a significant role in the suffering of today’s Iraq, perhaps it is a cruciform “preemptive love” that is needed to unmake this violence and make all things new.
Preemptive Love Coalition will soon provide our 1,000th heart operation for children in Iraq, in a daily effort to embody a solidarity that goes beyond hashtags and avatars. In giving our own blood to Yezidis, Turkmen, Kurds, Sunnis, Shi’a, and Shabak, we want to really mean it when we say, “We are Christians.”
Jeremy Courtney (@JCourt) is executive director of the Preemptive Love Coalition, an international development organization in Iraq, and author of Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time . To discuss hosting an event on the Preemptive Love Fall Tour, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.