The following is a guest piece on Quilliam’s blog, written by Dr Benedict Greening:

As tens of thousands of Iraq’s minority Yazidi community face a choice between death by dehydration on a mountainside in north-west Iraq or slaughter by advancing Islamic State (IS) militants, the Manichean dimensions of the struggle over Mesopotamia seem clearer than ever.

The assault on religious minorities such as the Yazidis, as well as the massacre and victimization of Iraqi Christians in captured centres such as Qaraqosh, makes vivid the need for a robust response by the world.

The destruction of a Shiite shrine by IS militants as they entered the city of Sinjar on August 3 called to mind the discrepant quality of another act of profanity that had taken place thirteen years before. In early March 2001, the world’s two largest standing Buddhas were brought crashing to the ground by Taliban dynamite in the Bamiyan Valley in the Hindu Kush mountains of central Afghanistan.

According to journalist Jason Burke in The 9/11 Wars, the destruction of the 1,700 year old statues was intended partly as an act of political consolidation on the part of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. However, it was also part of a campaign to ‘do God’s work’ to remove all pre-Islamic and ‘un-Afghan’ elements from the country.

Yet this was no hasty act of scored-earth desecration. Rather, it was preceded by a period of international consultation. Omar’s Foreign Minister had met with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in a hotel in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in the days before, while efforts at dissuasion were also made by the Qatar-based Egyptian cleric, and present Al Jazeera television personality Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who made a futile trip to Afghanistan in an attempt to persuade Omar to postpone the act. Despite these attempts, Omar’s final appeal for approval to Afghanistan’s conservative Supreme Court ensured the dynamiting went ahead.

The hesitant approach of Omar here seems quaint in contrast to IS’s onslaught, which has combined mass executions with rampant acts of destruction, including the demolition of a 14th century mosque in Mosul.

While the Taliban is a localised Deobandi phenomenon unique to that part of Central Asia, and while Al Qaeda was founded by Osama bin-Laden as an Islamist manifestation of globalisation aimed at banding together dispersed Islamist extremists from all over the Muslim-majority world, IS has the dimensions of a sectarian struggle that has taken on expansionist pretensions and means.

The situation has been supercharged by the group’s capture of millions of pounds of currency, of stores of high-tech weaponry and by the vertiginous oil wealth of the Persian Gulf region. Meanwhile, in only three years, more foreign fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq than went to Afghanistan during the whole of the decade-long war and its aftermath in the 1980s and 1990s.

The right to freedom of religion and conscience has been enshrined in the form of the Articles 2 and 18 of the UN Charter under which every person is able ‘to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’. It also finds justification in in the writings of Islamic theologians and jurists over the years, as Quilliam’s senior researcher in Islamic Studies Dr Usama Hasan makes clear.

In Dr Hasan’s words, ‘the prohibition of compulsion in religious matters is a fundamental Qur’anic principle: true faith is based on free will and free choice’. For example, ‘the Qu’ranic verse: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) is proverbial and regarded as expressing a fundamental Islamic value’.

Protections for religious freedom were also honoured by the central Asian Mughal Empire from the time of Muhammad bin Qasim until Emperor Aurangzeb and during the Ottoman Empire by instruments such as the Treaty of Umar ibn al-Khattab, which guaranteed the Christians of Jerusalem total religious freedom and safety.

In the words of Karl Marx, ‘the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism’.

Yet it is also worth noting that the Enlightenment was the product not just of scientific discovery and industrial development. It also emerged out of the determination by dissidents such as John Milton and Thomas Paine to argue that more than one idea of God can exist. In his 1659 Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes, Milton launched a searing defence of individual conscience at the English parliament, noting it is ‘not lawfull for any power on earth to compell in matters of religion’.

Thus, secularism is not an atheists’ charter but an enshrinement of the right of the individual to be as devout as she or he chooses.  In essence, religious freedom is a bulwark of private observance rather than its undoing. In this sense freedom and community are ideals that are ensconced in the tapestry of cultural richness produced by religious pluralism.

Despite this admirable legacy, however, the international community seems to lack the will to defend its own espoused principles. United States aid to Iraq is being filtered through the factional complexities of the divisions between the government of Nouri al-Maliki and the Kurds, among whom the Yazidis count themselves as a minority community.

On August 3, a Yazidi lawmaker broke down in tears in Iraq’s parliament as she urged the government and the world to stand up to save her people from extinction. It is time for the West to take an intelligibly vertebrate stance against an existential enemy.

Most immediately, the UK should bolster humanitarian support and the succession of emergency airdrops of food and supplies already being conducted by the Iraqi government for Yazidi families in the Sinjar mountains. Help could take the form of the direct provision of arms and military assistance to the Kurds rather than its filtering through Iraqi channels.

In the longer term, the UK and its allies must stand resolutely behind the Kurds, who with a population reaching more than 30 million, embody the largest body of people without a state in the world and one of the most effective forces currently engaged in battle with IS.

IS are a threat not just to the region and to the wider world but also to civilisation’s most cherished traditions. Failure to take coherent action will amount to a historic indictment of the fragmentation and the lack of confidence currently manifested by the international community.

This piece was written by Dr Benedict Greening, contributor to Quilliam’s blog, and are his own views. If you would like to become a contributor, please send an email to [email protected]