One of the most troubling aspects of the recent gang-rape and murder of a 60-year-old Christian teacher in Syria was reported on Arabic media as follows (in translation):
Her rapists and murderers are from the [jihadi] organization, al-Nusra. Some of them are foreigners but others are from the area. In other words, those who raped and stoned her are themselves from among her former students and neighbors, whom she taught Arabic in school over the course of 30 years.... Surely she never dreamt to see such depraved savagery in the eyes of her former students.... Nonetheless, they preyed on her like wild beasts—even though wild beasts do not rape their mothers (emphasis added).
Such is the third category of Muslims that lurks between "moderates" and "radicals": "Sleepers"—Muslims who appear "moderate" but who turn "radical" once circumstances become favorable. For instance, after the Islamic State ("ISIS") entered the Syrian city of Hassakè, prompting a mass exodus of Christians, many otherwise "normal" Muslims joined ranks with ISIS, instantly turning on their longtime Christian neighbors.
Many otherwise 'moderate' Muslims joined ISIS and turned on their longtime Christian neighbors.
This shift has played out countless times over whenever and wherever Islamic terror groups infiltrate. The following are testimonials from non-Muslims, mostly Christian refuges from those regions of Iraq and Syria that came under ISIS or other jihadi control. Consider what they say about their longtime Muslim neighbors who appeared "moderate"—or at least nonviolent—but who, once the jihad came to town, exposed their true colors:
Georgios, a man from the ancient Christian town of Ma'loula, Syria, tells of how Muslim neighbors he knew all his life turned once al-Nusra—the same jihadi outfit that gang-raped and murdered the aforementioned 60-year-old Christian women—invaded in 2013:
We knew our Muslim neighbours all our lives. Yes, we knew the Diab family were quite radical, but we thought they would never betray us. We ate with them. We are one people. A few of the Diab family had left months ago and we guessed they were with the Nusra. But their wives and children were still here. We looked after them. Then, two days before the Nusra attacked, the families suddenly left the town. We didn't know why. And then our neighbours led our enemies in among us (emphasis added).
After explaining how he saw a young member of the Diab family whom he knew from youth holding a sword and leading foreign jihadis to Christian homes, Georgios continues:
We had excellent relations. It never occurred to us that Muslim neighbours would betray us. We all said "please let this town live in peace — we don't have to kill each other." But now there is bad blood. They brought in the Nusra to throw out the Christians and get rid of us forever. Some of the Muslims who lived with us are good people but I will never trust 90 per cent of them again.
A teenage Christian girl from Homs, Syria, relates her story:
We left because they were trying to kill us. . . . They wanted to kill us because we were Christians. They were calling us Kaffirs [infidels], even little children saying these things. Those who were our neighbors turned against us. At the end, when we ran away, we went through balconies. We did not even dare go out on the street in front of our house. I've kept in touch with the few Christian friends left back home, but I cannot speak to my Muslim friends any more. I feel very sorry about that. (Crucified Again, p. 207; emphasis added).
When asked who exactly threatened and drove Christians out of Mosul, Iraq, another anonymous Christian refugee explained:
We left Mosul because ISIS came to the city. The [Sunni Muslim] people of Mosul embraced ISIS and drove the Christians out of the city. When ISIS entered Mosul, the people hailed them and drove out the Christians.... The people who embraced ISIS, the people who lived there with us... Yes, my neighbors. Our neighbors and other people threatened us. They said: "Leave before ISIS get you." What does that mean? Where would we go?... Christians have no support in Iraq (emphasis added).
Other "infidels," Yazidis for example, have experienced the same betrayal. Discussing the ISIS invasion of his village, a 68-year-old Yazidi man said:
The (non-Iraqi) jihadists were Afghans, Bosnians, Arabs and even Americans and British fighters.... But the worst killings came from the people living among us, our (Sunni) Muslim neighbours.... The Metwet, Khawata and Kejala tribes—they were all our neighbours. But they joined the IS, took heavy weapons from them, and informed on who was Yazidi and who was not. Our neighbours made the IS takeover possible (emphasis added).
When asked during an interview why people she grew up with her whole life suddenly joined ISIS and savagely turned on her people, a Yazidi woman replied:
I can't tell you exactly, but it has to be religion. It has to be religion. They constantly asked us to convert, but we refused. Before this, they never mentioned it. Prior, we thought of each other as family. But I say, it has to be religion (emphasis added).
This phenomenon is not limited to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In Nigeria—a nation that shares little with Syria and Iraq, other than for its Islam—a jihadi attack that left five churches destroyed and several Christians killed was enabled by "local Muslims" who were previously on friendly terms with the region's Christians.
Nor is this phenomenon connected to any of those contemporary Muslim "grievances"—whether the existence of Israel, "blasphemous" cartoons, or "lack of job opportunities"—Western talking heads often cite to rationalize away Muslim hatred. The following anecdote, over one century old and from the Ottoman Empire, speaks for itself:
Then one night, my husband came home and told me that the padisha [sultan] had sent word that we were to kill all the Christians in our village, and that we would have to kill our neighbours. I was very angry, and told him that I did not care who gave such orders, they were wrong. These neighbours had always been kind to us... but he killed them — killed them with his own hand (Sir Edwin Pears, Turkey and Its People, London: Methuen and Co., 1911, p. 39; emphasis added).
This, then, is the other, forgotten group of Muslims that lurk between "moderates" and "radicals": sleepers, whose allegiance can and does shift at the drop of a dime.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Judith Friedman Rosen Fellow at the Middle East Forum.