Review Aarseth, Mathilde Becker, Mosul Under ISIS, Eyewitness Accounts Of Life In The Caliphate, London, New York, Oxford, New Delhi, Sydney: I.B. Tauris, 2021
Mosul Under ISIS, Eyewitness Accounts Of Life In The Caliphate by Mathilde Becker Aarseth is a short read on how the Islamic State ran Mosul and Ninewa province after it seized the area in 2014. It covers law and order, education and health under the militants. Each chapter starts with some theoretical discussion on how armed groups like IS were supposed to use these services, what IS claimed it did, what others thought about its actions, and then what the author found in her interviews and research. Aarseth disagrees with much of what IS said and Western analysts thought about its governance style. The book argues that the rebels were corrupt, unpredictable, opportunistic and discriminatory in how they ruled which undermined their legitimacy.
The chapter on policing is a perfect example of what the book is like. The police were the first sign of Islamic State governance in Mosul. There were two main police forces, one was the regular police for law enforcement that answered to the Justice Ministry and the morality police which had its own ministry. Some claimed that the police provided stability to the city after years of instability and abuse by the central government. IS said that its police reduced crime and that its laws were not manmade which meant people could not do what they wanted like government times. Aarseth disagreed with both of these views.
The author’s interviews found that the police were arbitrary. For instance, the regular police could decide punishments on the spot if they encountered an issue not explicitly mentioned in the Sharia. What happened was completely up to the police involved meaning there was no consistency. IS members were also not treated the same as normal citizens. Some low level members were punished for thinks like stealing but the higher ups could do what they wanted. Worse yet were the morality police. They were intimately involved in people’s day to day lives monitoring clothing, prayers, gender segregation and more. The number of things they outlawed also increased partly to extend its control over society but also to raise more money. They were greatly resented as a result. The author concludes that the Islamic State did not provide relief from the chaos caused by Baghdad’s rule but rather instituted their own instability. It did not reduce crime nor provide equal justice. The group did not gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public but were disliked.
There is only one real fault with the book. Its subtitle is Eyewitness Accounts Of Life In The Caliphate. That’s a bit misleading. There are quotes by people that Aarseth talked with but most of the book is her synthesizing what she heard. This is not a collection of firsthand accounts.
Otherwise Mosul Under ISIS is a very short and interesting read on the Islamic State’s governance in Mosul. It provides a convincing argument that IS failed at providing an alternative to the Iraqi government and proved to be far worse. This contradicts a lot of commentary that argued that the militants were able to get the trains to run on time. Much of that was based off of the group’s internal documents but Aarseth shows what IS wrote about and promoted in its propaganda often didn’t happen in real life.
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