Sighs and moans came from all over the small auditorium. The audience took in pictures of a mass exodus from the husk of a fallen city. They were told of the horrors in Syria and Iraq. They were shown gasp-inducing numbers on the refugee crisis. Each moan and sigh marked another casualty in the war for hearts and minds. In the struggle against the social media juggernaut that is ISIS, those moans and sighs are war cries from an altogether different battlefield.
March 16 marked the 27th anniversary of the Halabja massacre, when over 15, 000 Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime in Iraqi Kurdistan. Dozens from Ottawa’s Kurdish community gathered for a night of remembrance, reflection and learning about the Kurd’s ongoing conflict against ISIS.
Twenty-Seven years has hardly brought peace to the Kurds. They now find themselves embroiled in another brutal war against another deadly regime, but unlike Halabja, this war has a second front on the web.
Social media’s impact on the ground
CNN reports that between 15, 000 – 20, 000 foreign fighters have gone to join ISIS. Over 2000 of those fighters are from the West. ISIS is known, among other things, for it’s crisp and well-produced videos and overseas recruitment. Some of the videos are meant to bring people over to their cause. Others show off ISIS’s sheer brutality in what some journalists have called ‘murder porn’.
MP Royal Galipeau, a speaker at the remembrance ceremony, spoke about social media’s role in ISIS’s recruiting strategy.
“It’s a forever battle,” he said, “but not because the task is insurmountable. We’re not giving up. If we’re not involved with stopping them [online], we’re going to have to deal with them [in Canada]. There’s already recruitment being done here. We’re not going put up with it.”
Yosuf Celik, vice-president of the Kurdish Youth Association of Canada, is aware of the need to spread awareness of Kurdish plight.
“Doing peaceful events like this remembering the Halabja genocide and likewise other Kurdish genocides brings people together and reminds them their history,” he said. “Day by day we are achieving more and more political attention around the world.”
Celik hopes that the more attention the Kurds receive, the more likely they’ll be able to combat the draw, power, and social media presence of ISIS.
What social media can and can’t accomplish
Rebar Jaff, country director in Iraq of humanitarian NGO QANDIL and speaker at the Halabja remembrance, cautioned that social media isn’t alone going to defeat ISIS.
“Spreading awareness is one way to help the victims of the ISIS attacks,” he said, “[but] I’m not sure if it’s the best way to combat ISIS. ISIS has been very active through social media, [but] I think ISIS is much bigger than [just] the humanitarian crisis. It needs political will from various dimensions to be able to really tackle the problem.”
Jaff reported that Iraqi Kurdistan is now harbouring some 1.5 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees, most of whom are Kurdish.
MP Royal Galipeau weighs in with his thoughts on the social media battle
“We’re not much in the propaganda business,” said Galipeau, “we’re more in the action business. If [Canada was] better at propaganda, we’d have a more popular government. But we’re busy getting things done.”
Galipeau acknowledged that social media is a good way to spread awareness, but said that “somebody else is going to have to do it. I know what I can do. What I can do right now is to sensitive the government of Canada to join with the Kurdish refugees and try and alleviate their pain.”
Galipeau mentioned controversial Bill C-51 as something that can help “save lives” by allowing agencies to work more closely together in their pursuit of ISIS.
“I’m not very good as social media,” Galipeau admitted, “but I answer my own phone, and when [the organizers] called me to be [at the Halabja remembrance], I said ‘hello,’ and here I am.”
That, at least, is a start.
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