Sectarian Voices on Twitter Hurt Iraq Peace Process

“Stop your flagellations and mourning,” tweets Ayad Jamaluddin, a popular author, politician and Shia cleric in Iraq. The tweet’s grim tone increases: “Your Karbala is in Mosul,” he says referencing the site of Imam Hussein’s (a key figure in Shia history) martyrdom, now a key pilgrimage destination. “Shimr and Yazid and their descendants and Ibn Taymiyyah,” the first two being the plotters of Hussein’s death and the third an intellectual grandfather of Wahhabism and ISIS from the 14th century, “are in Mosul. Do not continue if they continue,” Jamaluddin concludes, ominous and threatening.

With a click, however, Jamaluddin published his message to his 48,000 followers in Iraq and around the globe. It contains a strong sectarian message, one at odds with the praise given to him as an advocate for a secular Iraq by Western media. This tweet – along with others that he sent from his account following the bombings – remind of the real consequences to virtual vitriol.

The New Yorker showcased him as a secularist in 2004 profile amidst of heavy fighting for the city of Fallujah and the uprising of Shia militants under the leadership of Moqtada al-Sadr. In terms of Jamaluddin’s secularism, the praise is high but the substance vague. The profile mentions that he was “marginalized by the Shiite establishment” and espoused ideas about the separation of church and state “heretical” to a majority of Muslims. Jamaluddin “once believed in an Iranian-style velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of state affairs and administration by Islamic jurists but has since put those days behind him. No example of his party’s platform vis-a-vis secularism or proposed policies are mentioned.


Since the beginnings of ISIS, Twitter itself and Western media have known the importance of its online presence. A report by the Brookings Institute identified “Twitter and other forms of social media” as essential tools for the Raqqa-based group and similar organizations. Events online, the report noted, could influence events on the battlefield in a advantageous way for ISIS.

A presence on Twitter and other social media platforms was a noted part of ISIS media strategy. In a feedback loop generated by posting its content to the site, the group recruited, published propaganda and recruited again. Each post and the continued presence of ISIS-affiliated accounts on Twitter gave the group power of presence on the Internet.

Twitter, of course, is aware of the presence of ISIS-allied accounts on its website. As the Atlantic reported earlier this year, the company has shut down around 125,000 accounts affiliated with the terrorist organization since 2015.

Iraq is in a hard place. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government wages a grinding campaign to regain territory lost to ISIS. On the domestic front, it tries to maintain national unity in light of historic enmities between ethnic, religious, and tribal divisions. The country’s politicians and intellectuals must reckon with the question: What kind of state will Iraq be?

Jamaluddin’s message undermines his previous advocacy that he stated over a decade ago. At best his tweets suggest a secularism that permits the expression of religiously inspired messages in the public sphere à la the regular invocation of American politicians that “God bless the United States”. At worst, it implies a vision of Iraq dominated by its Shia majority, primed for tensions with its Christian and Sunni minorities.

His use of Twitter as the medium to convey his message, while not on the same level as ISIS, is still pernicious. The presence of ISIS sympathizers on Twitter does not, in and of itself, spell doom for Iraq. Perhaps the more sinister development is the nature of the medium itself. The loudest voice on the Internet draws in viewers, generates clicks and carries the debate.





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