How ordinary Iraqis resisted the Islamic State

A woman walks through rubble toward her home in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, in November. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg News)
A woman walks through rubble toward her home in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, in November. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg News)

The Islamic State is losing its last territorial foothold in Syria. This does not necessarily mean its end as a security threat and underground terrorist network — however, it does mean the end of the Islamic State as a state-aspiring entity. But how did civilians living under this regime react to the Islamic State’s authoritarian, repressive and radical rule?

In our recent (2018) survey, we interviewed 1,022 residents of Mosul, Iraq, who reported living in the predominantly Sunni Muslim city when it was taken over by the Islamic State in June 2014. At the time, the Islamic State was greeted by many as liberators, and a substantial portion of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims hoped they could push back against accelerating trends of Sunni disempowerment. Still, our survey data shows that the Islamic State and its radical enforcement of sharia law were also unpopular and resented among many of its would-be Sunni subjects.

Resistance against the Islamic State was multifaceted, with plenty of seemingly small acts of civil disobedience and noncooperation against the group’s established rules, such as defying the regular prayers, smoking and drinking alcohol. In fact, when we examine the distribution across all resistance categories, over 80 percent of respondents reported having engaged in some form of resistance. Although we cannot fully rule out the possibility that respondents exaggerated their opposition toward the Islamic State, there are strong indications that the respondents answered our questions truthfully on the whole.

A few people resisted in public

Given the repressive nature of the Islamic State, public resistance was extremely dangerous and thus least common. In our sample, 22 percent of the respondents said that they had engaged in acts of such open, high-risk activism, such as public demonstrations, displaying anti-Islamic State symbols and slogans, occupying public spaces and directly confronting the Islamic State members. The least common type of resistance was public demonstrations; only 6 percent reported having participated in such actions.

More people engaged in noncooperation

A more common type of resistance was to withdraw one’s full cooperation with the Islamic State authorities. After seizing control of Mosul, the Islamic State established a sophisticated bureaucracy and tax system. Public institutions were largely taken over and operated under the Islamic State’s control, including schools, universities and courts. Some residents manifested their defiance by not paying taxes, refusing to cooperate with the Islamic State’s legal institutions or withdrawing from schools and universities.

Our survey shows that this type of resistance was common and widespread: If we put all types of noncooperation together, 62 percent of the respondents reportedly engaged in at least one of them. While generally less risky because it was less visible, this type of resistance still entailed significant risks if detected. The Islamic State is known to have publicly whipped people for alleged tax evasion or because they taught private classes.

‘Everyday resistance’ was prevalent

The last category of resistance, which we refer to as “everyday resistance” (a term coined by James Scott in his 1985 book “Weapons of the Weak”), was the most prevalent. By engaging in disguised acts of defiance, residents of Mosul could avoid publicly confronting the Islamic State, thereby minimizing the risk of detection and punishment. With respect to this low-key type of activism, the line between political activism and decision-making in the personal sphere is not always clear. To manifest the Utopian Islamist society they sought to create, the Islamic State forced its citizens to behave in a religiously devout and pious manner. In such totalitarian state-formation projects, to disobey the rulers’ dictates, even if done for nonpolitical reasons, undermines the legitimacy of the whole project.

Under the Islamic State’s rule, everyday resistance manifested itself in many ways. This included civilians abstaining from going to the mandatory prayers; smoking; drinking alcohol; listening to and playing music; men shaving their beards; and women not fully covering their faces in public. For example, 22 percent reported having engaged in shirking as an act of resistance — intentionally dragging their feet when working under the Islamic State. If we consider all types of everyday resistance together, as much as 83 percent of respondents reported having engaged in these types of behavior.

How do we know respondents were truthful?

Studying resistance through self-reported behavior is obviously difficult. Given that the Islamic State is now discredited and defeated, there is a risk that residents of Mosul will overreport their resistance toward the Islamic State, not least because the Iraqi government applies draconian measures against alleged Islamic State supporters. While the risk of strategic misrepresentation cannot be completely ruled out, there are indications that the risk of inflated responses is less severe than expected.

First, the vast majority of respondents openly reported that they considered the Islamic State to have improved governance in Mosul on a number of levels, something that would be unlikely if respondents were trying to present themselves as more opposed to the Islamic State than they actually were.

Second, in each of the resistance categories, it was only a minority (around a few percent to maximum 37 percent) that reportedly engaged in this particular type of behavior.

Third, we asked whether the respondents had observed other people engaging in resistance — the overlap with self-reported resistance was roughly similar in most categories. Moreover, respondents filled in the survey privately on digital devices, which helped to secure a high degree of confidentiality.

Iraqi government’s crackdown on Islamic State supporters

Our research is particularly important in light of the present Shiite-led backlash against the Sunni minority, a policy that builds on the assumption that all Sunnis collaborated fully with the Islamic State. Our research shows that this assumption is, most likely, not true.

Recently, a comparable survey in Mosul by Mara Revkin and Kristen Kao demonstrated that the Iraqi government’s crackdown against alleged Islamic State supporters has little public support. Our research further indicates that civilians in Mosul worked to undermine, refused to fully cooperate with, or engaged in defiance and resistance against the Islamic State’s occupation in a multifaceted way.

Isak Svensson is a professor, Jonathan Hall is an assistant professor, Dino Krause is a research assistant and Eric Skoog is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in Sweden.

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