Scholarship on the front line: life in Iraq and interviewing IS

Academic Victoria Fontan has borne witness to Iraq’s unfolding tragedy. She discusses encounters with Islamic State and US troops and her fears for the country’s future

July 16, 2015
Armed Iraqi fighters standing on smoke-covered road
Source: Getty

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The street was in turmoil as the American soldiers went from door to door, making arrests. When they reached the end of the street, they came across a corner shop. The trader stepped out and, clocking a visibly overwhelmed soldier, said: “You must be thirsty after all this.”

As the shopkeeper offered the soldier some water, the tension in the air dissipated. In the words of Victoria Fontan, who was watching on that day in Fallujah in May 2003, “people just went back to being normal people again”.

The episode was over in minutes, but Fontan says she remembers it “as clearly as 12 years’ passing would permit”.

To her, it demonstrated the warmth of the Iraqi people and showed that most of them were just trying to live normal lives as chaos unfolded around them.

Since then, Fontan has returned to Iraq on several occasions as her academic career has developed. She has interviewed members of Islamic State (IS), faced kidnap and believes she was the last Westerner to leave Fallujah as the city descended once more into chaos in 2013.

French-born Fontan is now completing a PhD (her third, following doctorates at the Republic of Ireland’s University of Limerick and Costa Rica’s De La Salle University) at King’s College London. At the same time, she has moved her life and family to Iraq to become director of the Centre for Peace and Human Security at the American University Duhok Kurdistan.

So what drives a researcher to eschew the comforts of Western society for a life on the front line? For Fontan, it is the urge to tell the story of the Iraqi people’s resilience and their desire to live in peace.

“I feel that if I can show the humanity of the people, if I can show them to others the way I see them, maybe I am contributing to a normalisation of relations,” she says, referring to ties between the Western world and the Middle East. “As an academic you can be detached and you can bring some objectivity and…a different narrative to the same story.”

Fontan’s interest in the Middle East was sparked by her time as a politics undergraduate at the University of Sussex in the late 1990s, where her lecturer, Michael Johnson, gave a class on Lebanon during the 1960s and 1970s.

She was fascinated by the society but at that point had never even met an Arab. All she had come across was the anti-Arab racism that permeated French society.

“To me, it was like watching The Godfather, but the godfather was the [Lebanese] president,” she says. “Studying Lebanon made me want to understand more and know why these people were supposed to hate us and why they were always denigrated.”

While completing her first PhD, Fontan spent two and a half years as a research associate at the American University of Beirut (2001-03) developing her thinking about the role of humiliation in insurgencies. There she made contact with the militant group Hezbollah – simply by looking them up in the phone book – and it gave her carte blanche to speak to anyone she wanted. She also met Robert Fisk, The Independent’s Middle East correspondent. As her time in Lebanon drew to a close, she decided to take up his offer to come to Iraq to work as a researcher for his book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005).

An introductory letter from Hezbollah helped her to make contacts in the country, which was descending into sectarian violence in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s downfall. She interviewed local residents before and after street raids in Fallujah and elsewhere.

As in the case of the shopkeeper, Fontan says that while there was a lot of bloodshed, there was often a “theatrical” sense to it: one moment there would be peace, then there would be an outburst of violence, but before long normality would return.

Over time, however, she witnessed an escalation of the violence, driven largely, she believes, by US aggression and the failure of its military to make suitable amends for its actions in a tribal society. Iraq became an increasingly dangerous place and Fontan was hardly immune: an invitation to dine with a cleric at a Baghdad mosque in 2005 was a cover, she believes, for a planned abduction, but she managed to escape after being warned that the would-be host was notorious for kidnapping foreigners. Indeed, later that year the cleric’s group held the French journalist Florence Aubenas hostage for more than five months.

There were car bombs; Fontan had a US rifle pointed at her on many occasions, such as when she was caught between a platoon of soldiers and an Iraqi woman who did not want to let them search her home, and when she tried to enter Baghdad’s international Green Zone five minutes after curfew.

The US soldiers were “very jumpy and trigger-happy”, Fontan recalls, but she was not deterred. “You just understand you are not there by chance: you make a choice to be there at that moment and you hope for the best. I was never scared in that sense, I was just thinking: ‘Maybe this is it, [but] this is your choice.’ ”

Victoria Fontan with Fallujah peace movement spokesman
Peace and war: the spokesman of a Fallujah peace movement, above, with Fontan, was unsupported by government

From 2005, Fontan spent nine years as a professor at Costa Rica’s University for Peace. However, she continued to visit Iraq to collect the stories eventually published as Voices from Post-Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency, and New Forms of Tyranny (2008).

Returning to Iraq for another visit in 2013, she interviewed IS members in Erbil, discussing their activities and motivations over tea and biscuits in a rented apartment. The men she spoke to were former al-Qaeda members who, as Sunnis, had never been reconciled to the US presence and the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki. Although IS had not yet begun the campaign of beheadings for which it is now internationally reviled, some of her interviewees did go on to become suicide bombers.

Fontan does not condone IS’ actions, but understands why some people who are in a state of “complete desperation” decide to join it. Those she knows to have done so include a father who saw his children hit by stray bullets as the US military raided a nearby street, and another who believed his child’s congenital malformations were the result of the alleged use of depleted uranium during the 2004 US offensive.

“If you are being impoverished so much by your government and your government is retaliating against you because you happen to be a Sunni Muslim, of course you will join IS because what alternative do you have?” she says.

Fontan’s research took her to Fallujah one final time in 2013, as she strived to learn more about demonstrations against the al-Maliki government and investigate whether depleted uranium had been used there. She was smuggled into the city wearing a niqab by a host family she had got to know on previous visits. However, as IS took control of the city, she had to leave when neighbours “started asking questions”. She was, she believes, the last Westerner to get out before Fallujah fell.

Fontan emphasises that IS is not a monolithic organisation and she hopes that more moderate elements come to the fore. Nevertheless, she is depressed by how Iraq has deteriorated over the past 12 years.

“I have seen the Iraqi sectarian divide unfold and the steady fall into the abyss that Iraq is in now,” Fontan says. “I always think that things cannot get any worse, and I am always surprised at the extent of the worsening of the situation.”

Indeed, she now feels that the country in its current form, created after the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution, is “finished”.

“It will never recover from the sectarian divisions created by the [al-Maliki] government and [being] taken advantage of by IS,” she says. “There is no solution in sight unless the current government drastically changes course.”

Instead of backing the Shiite-led government, Fontan thinks that the West should invest in a “real political solution” that recognises the Sunni minority. And if Kurdistan wants independence, that should not be opposed.

At the same time, Fontan recognises that Western intervention is inherently problematic. Her second book, Decolonizing Peace (2012), argues that the Global North is “addicted” to “infantilising” the Global South through what she calls the “peace industry”. Furthermore, intervention is always likely to be interpreted locally as taking sides, resulting in the marginalisation of some. So the more the West tries to solve problems, the more it creates fresh conflict: precisely the process, she believes, that created IS.

Fontan is working on her third book, which considers the resilience of insurgencies in Fallujah. This is also the subject of her King’s thesis: she comes to London twice a year to discuss its progress with her supervisors, David Betz and Thomas Rid, respectively reader and professor in security studies at the department of war studies. But while she recognises that Western-based scholars can play an important role in the study of Iraq, she feels that being on the front line is best for her.

“I would say that 90 per cent of the literature [about Iraq] comes out of secondary sources,” she says. “Who takes the time to go and speak to people who are labelled as terrorists? There are always so many shades of the same truth, but…if I get my information from the horse’s mouth then, to me, maybe this information could be more accurate than a report coming from a thinktank that was based on a declassified CIA report.”

For this reason, despite her pessimism about Iraq’s future, Fontan chose last February to move permanently to the country. Although her husband, a businessman, works in Baghdad, she insists that Kurdistan itself – where they live with their seven-year-old daughter – is “perfectly safe”. She shares an anecdote of how, when travelling to Pakistan earlier this year, a hotel employee who had learned she had travelled from Iraq asked her: “Aren’t you scared?”

Fontan’s colleagues, by contrast, had told her to be careful because she was going to Pakistan.

It is easy to see other places as “conflict-ridden trouble spots”, she says, but “at the end of the day, we all lead perfectly normal lives”.

She regards the world in general as a violent place, one where Western prosperity has been built on exporting violence to other parts of the globe.

“Someone in Berlin could pass judgement on Iraq but wouldn’t like to know that their government participates in conflict from far away,” she says. “I prefer to live in a conflict area because I live in reality and I am part of establishing peace.

“I don’t think we have peaceful places in the world: some are just more privileged than others. I couldn’t be in a better place right now.”

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