After a four-month battle, American-backed forces in Syria captured Raqqa on Oct. 17, taking back a city that was the center of power for Islamic State’s “caliphate” since 2014. While the victory was a military one, the real heroes may be the Muslim civilians forced to live under the harsh rule of Islamic State (ISIS) but who silently withheld support. Many never bought into the ISIS notion that religious belief can be enforced, and that violence can triumph over individual conscience.
In fact, one of the best “weapons” used to help liberate ISIS-controlled cities in Syria, Iraq, and Libya over the past two years has been media interviews with Muslims who experienced the group’s brutality. Their tales have been so damaging to the ISIS propaganda machine that the group released an audio clip in September with this command from its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:
“Behold, soldiers of Islam and supporters of the Caliphate everywhere!... Make the centers of information of those infidels your targets.”
Despite Mr. Baghdadi’s call to censor the truth about ISIS, journalists will now start to interview many of the 200,000 people who lived in Raqqa, a city on the banks of the Euphrates River. Their stories of quiet defiance, like the stories that came out after the liberation of Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq, will no doubt resonate in the few remaining ISIS-controlled areas.
Another theocracy long ruled by the power of the gun is also collapsing. The militant Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip has lost so much support because of its misrule that it agreed in early October to let the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank take over control of civilian functions in Gaza.
The lesson from the slow demise of both ISIS and Hamas is that people will not easily give up their liberty of religious belief, or their understanding that God speaks to each individual and not only to a select few. The real liberation of Raqqa took shape in the thoughts of its residents, long before anti-ISIS soldiers entered the city.