ISIS: The Invisible Enemy
“To empathise with those most different from one’s own moral culture, without necessarily sympathising. This is our call to comprehend. If we can only grasp why otherwise normal humans would want to die killing masses of other humans who have harmed no one, we might ourselves better avoid killing and being killed.”
Scott Atran, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in England
Like with any other totalitarian movements we need History to lend us a hand not only to understand ISIS but help us define it. Many ideas have been put forward addressing this particular phenomenon in many columns; this blog is no exception. This part will look at its broad socio-political argument, likely causes and ideological sustainability within it's perceptual religious and political lenses. I try to establish how terror and destruction are natural, indeed vital, state activity and its lifeline. Significant in that aim the horrendous historical mistakes that were to cause a turning point, with consequences unforeseen at the time, fundamentally changed Middle East History if not the world.
The shedding of the Ottoman yolk at the turn of the twentieth century was within reach, and the Saudi and Wahhabi Nationalist dream for the independence of Muslim Arabia was a promise yet to realise. However, like many dreams and hopes they are likely to become nightmares. The final emancipation when it arrived came packaged with Christian ribbons: inside the infidel’s sphere of influence. Iraq placed under British Mandate in contradiction to US President Wilson’s January 1918, 14 points peace settlement of self-determination which promised, “nationalities which are now under Turkish rule […] unmolested opportunity of autonomous development”. Despite American objections British forces occupied Baghdad and Jerusalem proclaimed that they came as liberators, promising Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his son Faisal, an Arab State, an Independence and Freedom cloaked in Statehood and Sovereignty. Alas like many other assurances given to the Arabs, these promises wrung hollow. To add insult to injuries the realisation of 1916 Sykes-Picot agreements, The Balfour Declaration dated 2 November 1917 in which the British gave what was not theirs to give, was another insult to an already grievous harm. Here is what US secretary of state Edward Lansing wrote in a memorandum of 9 May 1919 that: “… It may be years before these suppressed peoples can throw off the yoke, but as sure as day follows night, the time will come when they will make the effort.” In the event, the San Remo Resolution of April 25, 1920, was fatally flawed. The name ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is a clear marker to the aggressive intentions. To be sure this is more than a stirring political dissatisfaction but more of a cultural revolt rooted in a historical context.
Far too many grievous harms and great travesties of justice the Muslim Arabs and their ‘religious islands’ have had to endure through the centuries. In all likelihood would carry deep scars going forward but sadly emboldened by the gratification of revenge in its quest of National regeneration. The hurt post-WWI was enough to unite for the first time the Shia-Sunni divide. Battles raged against British mandatory rule with their collaborators including Nuri al-Said and his brother-in-law Jafar al-Askari that had earlier placed Faisal, a discarded material, on the throne of Iraq. An agreement was finally reached and ratified on October 3, 1932, when the League of Nations voted unanimously to admit the Kingdom of Iraq to membership. The reluctance to do so says Susan Pedersen in her paper, the community “feared that the primary victims of independence might be some segments of the Iraqi population itself.”
According to Al-Jazeera and other publications “As the man in charge of the so-called reconstruction effort in post-Saddam Iraq, [Paul] Bremer ordered the disbanding of the Iraqi army and banned members of the Ba'ath Party from holding public office. These measures, critics say, were directly responsible for Iraq's descent into chaos.” Indeed confusion and humiliation for taking away a traditional Sunni government control to pass on to Shia authorities that were not used in instruments of government let alone parliamentary democracy. With Iran’s Shia vengeful standpoint this was the ideal scenario for widening its sphere of influence on political as well as on religious grounds. Sectarianism was a fundamental determinant that has so far destroyed thousands of lives and still on-going ten to twelve years later. This turnaround significantly lent a hand in creating radical Sunni Islamist political and terrorist groups.
One needs to define the movement objectively free from emotional encumbrances and subjective prejudices. It is vital to go beyond the ad-lib of ISIS challenge but to understand what it is that ISIS is challenging. We can then value its cause and evaluate its weakness, by association, its ‘under-belly’. For some, the very name has now become synonymous with beheading, murder and terrorism – evil. The spread of their interpretation of Islam has also subjected its opponents in multi-dimensional psychological warfare that have so far met with outdated and hitherto, ineffective one dimensional and defensive weaponry. Treating the Islamic State as merely a form of terrorism or violent extremism masks the menace. For sure will make no headway to counterbalance what has so far clearly unbalanced, western strategy in their single dimension hit back. Daily on the lips of every man woman and child ISIS must be the most written and spoken four letter word and ‘Islam’ as the corollary. ‘ISIS’ has come to rival ‘America.'
ISIS idealist intent options are to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. To that end it adheres to an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam and seeks, through jihad (holy war), to establish an Islamic state ruled by a caliph (a religious leader) and the strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). Originating in 2004 as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS became so brutal that even al-Qaeda disowned it in 2014. Particularly brutal were its beheadings of Western hostages, which it broadcast on the Internet, and its massacres and forced conversions of Christians and Yazidis in northern Iraq. By autumn 2014 it was well entrenched; led by an Iraqi ex-army personnel Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it had 30,000 fighters, including 8,000 foreigners from Chechnya and Europe, and was the world's best-funded militant group, with $2 billion in cash and assets. It was believed to receive financial support from individuals in some Arab Gulf states and had become self-financing through the cash and bullion it looted from banks in conquered towns and gas and oilfield revenues. The leadership took full advantage of the civil war in Syria and the schismatic turmoil raging in Iraq. In April 2013, al-Baghdadi merged his forces in Iraq and Syria to create the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, or ISIL).
To Setting up a state with a name ‘Islamic’ is a shrewd political move and to cap it with a Caliphate is also a political movement as a religious synonym to a cult figure; an incumbent on all followers of Islam to follow. Despite the fact that Muslim scholars and movements from across the Sunni Islamic spectrum have rejected the caliphate, but without a central body for Islam, they can only throw an element of little doubt that can dangerously ignite further sectarianism, breakaways and dissensions each aided by terror as a weapon in favour to rhetoric or discourse. Farid Senzai says "The Baghdadi caliphate is rejected by most mainstream Islamists because they feel it damages their cause to establish an Islamic system through peaceful means," Such mild and unqualified condemnation desperately lacks conviction. As I see it, there is a definite build-up of forces of attraction through empathy propagated by common religious beliefs often this is translated in ' terrorist cells'. They hope this fanatic “blood and soil” revolutionary ideology would sweep away decadent and discredited western ideals, borders, and institutions to replace them with a new baseline of Arab Koranic and disciplined cohesive society. For some especially the young and impressionable it is seen steeped in excitement energy and novelty generating renewal and reborn pride. It remains; the cornerstone of this proliferation is terror enshrined with repressive and regressive apparatus of religion.
To understand ISIS religious cleansing is to look at historical models and briefly at National Socialists – Hitler’s Nazi party, in Germany, during the inter-war period. Ethnic cleaning fuelled by an ideology of racial superiority impacted by racial cleansing. Immediately after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, his vague totalitarian ideas were set in motion. Europe and America did not see his macabre coming for the bigger enemy at the time was Communism where Fascism was lesser of two evils. As today with ISIS, the world completely underestimated the challenges the ‘Caliphate’ doctrines were about to unleash on the world stage. ISIS ideology was also similar to an ideology that, one way or another was responsible for a war that caused nearly 60 million. We must also remember nearing the end of 1932 the Nazi party enjoyed massive electoral support not necessarily brought about by coercion and intimidation and fear.
It is very likely that supporters of ISIS at every level do not need to know what their leadership is thinking; they merely have to imagine it. What it was they came to understand what the Koran was saying was embedded solely on a hermeneutic interpretation that was given by their so-called theologians as their version of the truth. Truth as they saw it. The followers’ limitations ventured no room for knowledge, to decipher the Islamic scriptures but to merely believe the word of their God on their terms. In other words, to do the atrocities on the idea what the decision makers would want them to do rather than from a universally acknowledged Koranic directives. Which also means murder by any means or at any time is justified by their Islam. Most probably they are conscious of their expected execration by the world but to a large extent by those who would not understand the ‘cleansing’ motive or the Koranic significance of such actions. At the same time, the community’s attempts at indoctrination were multidimensional giving plenty of thought as raw material for constructing social attitude and its enlivening effects to penetrate deep into the psyche of the likes of Jihadi John and his ilk – The Enemy Within!
Despite the fact that ISIS has come to polarise Islamic society nevertheless for many Muslims, irrespective of the intensity colouring their religious belief, bombing the Islamic state can never be a sideshow. The swathe of territory conquered at unscrupulous speed is nothing short of emulating the lightning spread of Islam in the Eighth century. The current air strikes serve ISIS’ cause in their relentless propaganda to win the 'lost' hearts to their Faith." - The Sympathisers. Little does the West realise, for some Islamists, they are also bombing Islam’s ancestral heritage. It does not need number-crunchers to figure out how much mayhem 0.25 percent or less of 1.5Billion of potential suicide bombers can cause. Despite many Muslims denials that ISIS is un-Islamic; at a stroke, ISIS would re-authenticates for many its substance by reciting the Koran. Hence, to counteract this imbalance, there is a need therefore to diffusing or dilute its ideological character. It needs to implode by an enemy within unseen and unobtrusive to dislodge the dangerous myths embedded in their beliefs that substantiate the pillars of their Islam. The orthodox Islamic world needs to defend itself from the “un-Islamic”. Not only from those radicalised but also who are harder to detect, those who sympathise and carry grudges – The Invisible Enemy.
To preserve the Enlightenment that has so far reached its fringes, Islam, therefore, needs to be ready, willing and have the capacity to expunge from its backyard the intoxication that has infiltrated its beliefs and values. Every effort must be taken to counter these ‘on-a-roll’ of loose cannons from causing further damage to an old established orthodoxy of Faith. Islam needs to find one cohesive voice, a central agency brave and responsible enough to de-legitimise, de-authenticate even to
de-Islamise the movement to drain it to impotence in outlook and ideology. The setting up of an ecumenical council to ensure explicitly ordered social and political hierarchies bounded by law. There is every chance this will demoralise the faithful, more importantly, prevent armed splinter groups from causing further harm; dissuading them from continued use of religion as carapace to avenge grievances and to murder. To initiate major social change, advocate prioritisation of reform over the slanders of proselytism, homosexuality or woman's infidelity. The esoterics needs to establish a template with final infallible authority on the interpretation of the scriptures. The old structure may be one-sided and unbalanced and is nearly in ruins but what matters for this moment, not to despair, but to rebuild.