GENEVA — The Islamic State’s executions of 13 Sunni Muslim clerics last month in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, were a move by the radical Sunni movement to silence moderate voices among Iraq’s Sunnis, and they deserve greater attention than they've received, the top United Nations expert on religious freedom said.
“Here a Sunni movement is executing Sunni religious leaders. That should make us think,” Heiner Bielefeldt, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, told McClatchy. “It’s important to focus more attention on these particular killings, because here we are not talking about Sunnis versus Shias. This is a very clear case of atrocities committed against their own people, against religious leaders from Sunni Islam who probably have a less simplistic understanding of what Islam means.”
The executions are particularly poignant in the wake of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leading prayers last Friday in Mosul’s Great Nurridin Mosque. One of the first clerics executed in Mosul, according to the United Nations, was the imam of that very mosque, Muhammad al-Mansuri.
Al-Mansuri was killed June 12, the U.N. said, for failing to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, which released a 21-minute video Saturday of al-Baghdadi preaching from the same minbar, or pulpit, that al-Mansuri once occupied.
Twelve other Sunni clerics were executed June 14, the U.N. says.
Al-Baghdadi has asserted that all Muslims owe allegiance to the Islamic caliphate — which the Islamic State declared June 29 and now exists in the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq — and to al-Baghdadi, who now calls himself Caliph Ibrahim.
Bielefeldt, a professor of human rights and human rights politics at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany, said the purpose of such executions was to silence critics of extreme movements. Those who oppose the movement, he said, “don’t dare to say this publicly because it can be a matter of life and death.”
The executions apparently have had an effect. A resident of Mosul who once worked at the Great Nurridin Mosque told McClatchy on Saturday that the Islamic State is now dictating the content of Friday sermons in Mosul. The resident cannot be identified for security reasons.
Bielefeldt said understanding that the executions were meant to silence those who dissented was crucial in seeing the conflict in Iraq as not simply one of Sunni Muslims versus Shiite Muslims.
The vast majority of Muslims worldwide “find it horrendous,” he said. “One should not think that people are very sympathetic.”
The problem of religious extremism goes beyond Islam, Bielefeldt said.
“You also see atrocities committed by Buddhist monks in Myanmar and also by radical Buddhists in Sri Lanka,” he said.
“There will always be sectarian movements, but in some countries they find fertile ground,” he said. “Obviously that’s the case in Iraq.”