In an exclusive interview with Jahady.ir, Altaf Ahmad, a warzone correspondent with Press TV, said, "Today, what we see in Syria and in Iraq being committed are very reminiscent of what Yazid did against the household of the prophet of Islam.”
She also pointed out that Western media, through propaganda, tries to show the conflict in Syria and Iraq as a Sunni-Shia conflict."It is a common misconception and actually one of the main tools of the propaganda to present what is happening in Syria and Iraq as Sunni versus Shia conflict,” she said.
In what follows, the full transcript of the interview has been presented.
Q: You've described Sayyidah Zaynab as the first female warzone correspondent. How has this shaped your personal experience in reporting from the warzone?
A: First and foremost, Sayyidah Zaynab raised the bar so high. This is the first thing that anyone could say. But before that, we should look subjectively at the epic battle of Karbala, which is considered to be the single most important battle on the history of Islam.
We saw Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, go out for the religion of his grandfather at a time when the Ummah had seen unprecedented oppression, injustice and suppression of Muslims, especially those who were followers of the Imams–of Imam Ali, of Imam Hassan and so on.
For decades before the battle of Karbala, the Umayyad caliphs of Yazid ibn Muawiya and his father Muawiya had practiced a very vicious campaign of propaganda against the Imams. It is said when Imam Ali was martyred while praying some people really asked if Imam Ali prayed at all.
That exposes the level of propaganda against the household of the prophet of Islam and against our Imams. And if we look at the battle of Karbala very closely, we find that it has two faces. It has one face where Imam Hussein is the commander and another face where Sayyidah Zaynab is the commander.
The former was the military side of the world and Imam Hussein was the commander-in-chief of the military warfare. However, it was Sayyidah Zaynab who took on the task of being the commander-in-chief of the media warfare and she was the main counter-propaganda force against the Umayyads–Yazid and his father.
Had it not been for Sayyidah Zaynab, we not only wouldn't have known what happened on tenth of Muharram in 688, but also maybe even the revolution, which Imam Hussein watered with his own blood and the blood of his brother, his sons and kin and so on, would have been erased. The mention of this revolution would have been erased had it not been preserved by Sayyidah Zaynab. This is true if we don’t even want to look at the fact that Sayyidah Zaynab even protected Imamate by preventing the assassination of Imam Zayn al-Abidin, who is the fourth Shia Imam.
So Sayyidah Zaynab had the job of going out in her chador, facing what she had to face, watching her kin, her brothers, her sons, her relatives be martyred in front of her, their bodies maimed in the most atrocious ways imaginable and their heads raised on spears.
She also had the job of collecting and gathering all of the orphans and the widows and those who remained from the household of the prophet of Islam and the household of Imam Hussein in the battle of Karbala, going as prisoner from Karbala to Kufa and correcting those people who thought that the relatives of Imam Hussein were Khawarij and the battle that Yazid had led against them was a battle to preserve Islam and to prove to everyone that the battle was indeed against Islam and then from there going to Syria and standing in the face of the tyrant Yazid and telling him: whatever you may do, you will never erase the mention of Ahl al-Bayt, or you will never erase the mention of pure Islam. This was what Sayyidah Zaynab did.
Going out to the battlefield and having all of this and much more in mind, keeping this sort of information in mind, I feel that what I do–no matter how hard it is, no matter how difficult it may be, no matter what sort of conditions I am under–I will never be in one percent of the conditions that she was in. I am privileged in so many ways. I don't have to see my brothers or my sons get martyred in front of me and see their heads raised on spears. I am not surrounded by an army of tens of thousands who have pledged loyalty to a criminal tyrant.
I don’t have to walk and be taken prisoner from one country into another and so on and so forth. When I go out to the battlefield, I am privileged in so many ways. I am protected by the security forces. I am transferred in armored vehicles. I know that we are not outnumbered, that we are not surrounded and that we are not isolated. No matter what I do, it will never ever match up to one percent of what she did.
So she really raised the bar so high and I think no matter what I do in my life, I will never reach that level. It’s like when we pray, we don't really have the confidence to say that God is going to accept my prayer. We never have that sort of confidence, but we don’t stop praying. And this is me, I won't stop trying to walk her path. I know that I will never ever match up to what she did, but whatever she did has forever molded my mind, heart and soul to be fearless of everything.
We saw the worst happen on the tenth of Muharram in 688. No matter what happens to us, it's always going to be less than that. So we have no weakness point, we only have strength upon strength, alhamdulillah.
Q: How can one compare the fight against ISIS in our time to the events that occurred in Ashura day?
A: First of all, that was an attack against Islam and this is also an attack against Islam. What happened in Ashura, in Muharram of 688, was an attack by the most vicious anti-Muslim power of that time, that being the tyrant of that time Yazid ibn Muawiyah, against the pure teachings of Rasool'Allah, the prophet of Islam, against the pure teachings of his households and of the Imams'. And today, what we see in Syria and in Iraq being committed are very reminiscent of what Yazid did against the household of the prophet of Islam.
The worst kind of crimes and atrocities that can be committed against human beings had been committed in Karbala, and they are now the school which inspires Daesh, Al-Qaeda and their likes. So this is why we, as Muslims, have an ethical duty. The revolution that Imam Hussein watered with his own precious and pure blood in Ashura was the lesson or the school to which we derive all our lessons. I think today we are trying to apply these lessons with the sons of Yazid, who are Daesh.
So we are now trying to practice or to put into action all the lessons that we have received from Ashura, because again, that was an attack against Islam and this is an attack against Islam as well.
It is a common misconception and actually one of the main tools of the propaganda to present what is happening in Syria and Iraq as Sunni versus Shia conflict. No, it is a Muslim versus Takfiri conflict. It is Islam versus Wahhabism.
It is Islam versus Salafism. These concepts which were brought to us are inspired by the Saudi Regime and are now prevalent in Saudi Arabia. This is what we are trying to stand against, the cutting of heads and the lashing and taking people as prisoners and selling of women as slaves that is happening in the 21 century for God’s sake.
This is a crime that should never be forgotten. So, I think it is our role today to stand as Imam Hussein did in Ashura in protection of our religion and in protection of humanity. Just as Imam Hussein presented a universal message to all mankind, to everybody who is a free person in the world. It wasn't only a message to protect Islam. One of the main lessons we can learn from Imam Hussein is that he went out to Karbala, taking along people who were Christian or dark-skinned for example. So Imam Hussein was trying to teach us from that time not to discriminate between Christians and Muslims or between other religions. Imam Hussein from that time was trying to teach us not to discriminate between races and I think today we have to take all of the lessons that he left and put them into action to defend humanity. This is what we are defending.
Before defending Islam, we as human beings have to stand against the enemy of humanity. It is human versus inhuman first and then second Islam versus Wahhabism, Takfirism and Salafism, all of which are schools which are represented to us by Saudi Arabia. And I think today we have the moral duty to stand as Imam Hussein did even if we were to be outnumbered, even if we were to sacrifice our own blood. Those are prices that we might have to pay but they are not going to be a hefty price for the sake of protecting our religion and everything we believe in.
Q: How do you respond to those who see ISIS as an Islamic group?
A: First of all, I want to ask them a question. If indeed Daesh was an Islamic group, why is it that the majority of the victims of Daesh are Muslims? Have they ever thought of that? Whether they are in Syria or Iraq, the majority of those who were killed or injured or those who are even fighting Daesh are Muslims. Iraq is a Muslim-majority country, same thing with Syria. And both armies in both countries are fighting these so-called Muslims.
The Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi fighters, the popular mobilization units in Iraq, are predominantly Muslim and they are fighting these so-called Muslim groups. So why is it that the majority of those who are hurt and harmed by Daesh are Muslim groups if Daesh was indeed a Muslim group itself? If it was, why isn't it them protecting Muslims? Or why is it not protecting the rights of Muslims?
Why is it attacking and murdering Muslims en masse? These are all questions that they should ask. And on top of that, if indeed this was a Muslim group, why is it that the Muslims are the most vocal people in condemning the crimes of Daesh? Why is it that whenever Daesh commits a crime, you find that the Muslims are the first ones to jump in to deplore and to reject the crimes of the Daesh and to say "not in our name” and "not in the name of our religion.” Nothing Daesh is doing is Islamic, nothing at all.
They are trying to give this mono-colored version of Islam, they are trying to actually defame Islam. From what I've seen in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, if I could describe Daesh as one thing, I would say it is the main enemy of Islam, it is the main plot to destroy Islam, which is to defame Islam and to contaminate the pure image of Islam in the minds of so many people. Right now many people across the world naturalized the tie between Islam and terrorism.
This is the mean war going on. Daesh indeed is first and foremost a war against Islam, not a war for Islam. This is something that they should really think about, and if they want proof to that, they could just simply trace the map and see how many victims - just read the statistics - how many of the victims of Daesh have been Muslim?
They are going to find that the hundreds of thousands of civilians who were killed and the millions of the people who were displaced and whose homes have been looted and robbed and whose girls have been abducted into slavery and so on–the majority of them are Muslim. So I think this should be evident enough for anyone in their right mind not to believe that this is actually an Islamic group.
Q: What's your take on the presence of foreign reporters in the areas you've been?
A: There have been a lot of channels from all over the world and all languages you can imagine, which have come to Iraq and have covered the war on Daesh. However, their coverage has been minimal. They come for maybe a couple of weeks. They film a couple of stories and then they leave.
I don't think that they have really given the people of the Iraq, the millions and millions of people who have been affected by the war, the time they deserve. I don't think they have done enough to tell the world what's really going on. Also, they have tried time and again to push for the story and the narrative that the U.S.-led coalition was the one spearheading the campaign to fight terrorism or Daesh in Iraq. But even though if anyone with their right mind and with basic military experience or basic military analysis is going to tell you that such thing even on military level could not be true.
The last battle in the city of Mosul was spearheaded by ground forces and the U.S. doesn't have ground forces in Iraq. They do have ground forces who maybe provide advice or counselling and consulting support and help for the Iraqi government with the consent of the Iraqi government. However, it is not fair to say that the U.S.-led coalition is the one which has gained this victory alongside the Iraqi forces. That’s no true at all. They are really minimizing the role of the Iraqi forces.
They are really at some sense disrespecting the Iraqi blood which has been spilled whether it is from the civilian blood or the Iraqi forces in defense of their country.
They are belittling this blood to give a further attention to the U.S.-led coalition. That’s how they present themselves in Iraq. Also, they have downplayed the atrocities that have been committed by Daesh and I feel it is because of the countries that they are coming from or the outlets that they are representing.
Of course I'm not generalizing, but I'm talking about the mainstream media and many of the mainstream media reporters that we saw were not talking about the role of some regional countries in supporting Daesh, in funneling arms for Daesh, in funneling finances for Daesh. They don't really focus or pay attention to this issue or highlight it.
They don't highlight the question why is it that Daesh has for example anti-armored missiles? Where did these anti-armored missiles come from? They don't highlight the fact that Daesh has used chemical weapons and they don't say for example why and how Daesh has drones, and who provided these drones.
They don't really steer up questions about the things they have witnessed and documented while they were present on the ground, and they don't highlight them.
The countries, some regional countries, which have played the pivotal role in supporting Daesh financially and through armament, are at the same time giving the channels which they belong to a lot of financial support and a lot of aid.
Q: What difference do you see between Iranian media and Western media in reporting the conflicts in the region? How do the citizens of the war-torn region see Iranian media?
A: Well, the major difference is how people and how the security forces receive us. In Iraq–whether it is the security forces or the people–when I come up to them and tell them that I represent Press TV, which is Iran's English speaking channel, their reaction is usually a very big smile on their faces, because they know that there is nothing bad or no threat coming from that direction. They don't expect something bad from Iran. If they are ordinary people, they usually start saying things like "Sardar Soleimani” or "Mr. Qassem Soleimani”, and that "he is a hero”, that "he has supported us”, and so forth. That's how people react.
When it comes to security forces, it's usually the Iranians who are our brothers and they have actually allowed us into a lot of places deeper into the front lines than what they would allow other media outlets, especially the western and the mainstream media outlets. They have trusted us because they don’t expect us to expose their posts in a bad way or to show their positions in a way which is going to give Daesh the upper hand of knowing where they are or of attacking them or just going to expose basically their posts to Daesh in a way which is going to leave them weak. Also they don’t expect that an Iranian media outlet is going to come with the narrative which is against their country Iraq and Iraqi forces.
Unfortunately, we saw a lot of media outlets trying to frame the Iraqi forces, saying the Iraqi forces have committed violations against civilian homes, the Iraqi forces have done this and that, the Popular Mobilization Forces (the Hashd Al-Sha'abi) have attacked civilians, even without getting any sort of evidence to back these claims. They don’t really expect such stories from us, because this is not what we saw.
Not one time did we witness any violation against Iraqi people's homes or their properties or civilians being attacked by the Iraqi forces. Some foreign media outlets have time and again tried to circulate things that were later proven to be untrue.
These stories which aim at belittling the victory of the Iraqi forces are not usually common with Iranian media outlets and are not the type of stories that the Iraqi people, forces and government expect from Iranian media.
Alhamdulillah, whether it is at the level of officials or military commanders or people, the Iranian government's support for the Iraqi government is only complementary to the role of Iraqi officials, whether it is in Baghdad or in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, Erbil.
Officials in the Kurdistan Region and in the central government in Baghdad have admitted time and again and thanked Iran for being the first country which stood by Iraq and opened its arms depots to Iraq. This is why we have had the trust of the Iraqi forces and the Iraqi people who are very welcoming to us, even in areas we didn’t expect we would be welcomed. Alhamdulillah, we have never come under attack.
Such cases we saw with other media outlets which have come out saying that they were attacked or expelled from some areas. Not even once did Press TV say I was kicked out from an area. We were never kicked out from anywhere. We were always welcomed everywhere, because everybody, Alhamdulillah, expects support from Iranian media, in addition to the support that they saw from the Iranian government and the Iranian people.
Q: How do you view the liberation of Mosul and other areas? Is ISIS' rule in the region coming to an end?
A: Definitely. I think in June 2014, when I would go live and my colleagues in Tehran would ask me, Altaf, what is the situation of Daesh in Iraq, we were saying honestly that almost one third of the country had fallen under the control of Daesh.
Today we can confidently say that Daesh has lost almost all of its territory in Iraq. What is left is only very few areas. These areas are sub-districts and smaller districts which are along the borders with Syria and which will be liberated very soon Insha'Allah. However, the Iraqi-Syrian borders have been secured.
The city of Mosul, the so-called capital of Daesh has fallen and the Iraqi forces have liberated it. Unfortunately, there has been a common misconception that they have accepted or welcomed Daesh. That was not the case. It was something beyond their capability, it was a regional crisis that was being solved on Iraqi territory.
Unfortunately, there were some tools in Iraq, namely the remnants of the Baath's regime which had helped fan the flames of this crisis and contributed to the expansion of this crisis in Iraq.
However, alhamdulillah today we can see that the Takfiris have less than three percent of Iraq's territory under their control and very soon, Iraq will eradicate the Takfiris from its territory. There is no future for Daesh in Iraq as well as in the region.
I think if we hear in the future about Daesh, it's going to be about sleeper cells here and there which tried to commit security breaches, and here I stress only security breaches as minor operations. But they don't have a force, they don’t have a power to launch an offensive to occupy territories.
They’ll just commit surprise attacks to sort of just tell the world that they are present somewhere and then they would retreat like the cowards they are.
This is Daesh, this is the future of Daesh. But I think this issue is going to fall upon the Iraqi government as well as some regional governments including the Syrian government, the Iranian government, and other regional countries which I think have to make a decision to exchange intelligence information about the whereabouts of the remnants of Daesh, so that there could be a final eradication of Daesh from this region for good, but it has no future, it cannot survive and alhamdulillah it has not survived. I think Daesh is taking its last breath and after its eradication, Insha'Allah Iraq is going to have a very beautiful future with reconstruction, with people going back to their homes, with children going back to their schools.
And I hope that we can find a solution to the crisis of the Yezidi girls who have been abducted from their homes and sold into slave markets by the Takfiris. Speaking to one of the elderly women of the Yezidi minority, she said to me that when Sayyidah Zaynab was taken as prisoner from Karbala to Syria–from Karbala to Kufa, then to Baghdad, then to Mosul, then to Sinjar, then to Syria–she said that their ancestors, the Yezidis' ancestors in Sinjar cried tears of blood for Sayyidah Zaynab, and she said "isn't it strange how our girls are now prisoners just as Sayyidah Zaynab was prisoner one day”.
So I hope that for the sake of Sayyidah Zaynab, for the sake of all the girls and everybody's sisters, we look at that case of the Yezidi girls as if we are looking at our sisters and our mothers and our daughters, because they must not be forgotten.