The 1999 film The Matrix has familiarised many with the ongoing merger of what we think is real with what is officially known as virtual.
On the surface, nothing is more harshly real than the protean group ‘Islamic State of the Syria and the Levant’, otherwise known as the ISIL, Daesh or the State of the Islamic Khalifate. It combines at least three different phenomena.
- First, it is a tribal uprising, led by loyalists of the former Saddam regime against Shi’te dominated governments in Iraq and Syria, openly claiming the historic succession of Bagdad’s medieval Abbasid Khalifate and waving its black banner to challenge the green standard of the house of Saud.
- Secondly, it is a multinational cluster of warriors and guerillas attempting to shake the hegemony of western powers over West Asia and Africa.
- And thirdly, it consists of a sophisticated psychological multi-media operation, taking its cue from videogames, reality TV shows and horror cinema to produce compelling images – for its target audience – of revenge and hatred against hated icons: the West and its ‘culture’ in general and NATO powers in particular, as well as submissive Muslim regimes and Shi’ite traditional adversaries.
Symbolic and explicit references to the video game culture
in the communications of the Islamic State
Those three faces of the ISIS should not be logically compatible. The Baathist leadership of Iraq was resolutely secular, at least in the sense that it rejected theocratic notions of government and the imposition of sharia law. Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri, the former Saddam lieutenant who is said to provide the bulk of the soldiers for the ISIS state from his Naqshbandi army described himself as a Sufi, and mystical Islam is anathema to the Takfiris. He is now never heard of, and one only sees the international brigades of the Daesh in action.
Rigid salafists saw Saddam and his followers as implacable kafir enemies and they are supposed to reject the use of cinema and the representation of human images as a demonic heresy, as the Afghan Taliban demonstrated in practice.
For a clandestine guerilla leader to be able to unite three inimical ingredients into a single force, take over a vast area of the Middle East and proclaim himself khalif not long after spending years in American captivity is quite astonishing. It is at least as strange that after years of extensive military and intelligence operations in Iraq and of building up, supporting and interacting with the anti-Assad rebels in Syria, the US government should have all along been in the dark about the identity and whereabouts of the ‘khalif’ and should declare itself unable to beat a rag-tag army for years to come. Indeed the former US secretary of defence Leon Panetta has predicted that a “thirty year war” would be required to defeat that foe. Thus, sudden avowal of impotence coincides with the meteoric rise of the ISIS, helped by vast amounts of brand new US supplied equipment and military hardware, relinquished by Iraqi army units, themselves trained by the US for years.
Although there is no controversy about the role played by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Kuwait, at the official and private levels, in propping up the ISIS, the attitude of western powers, especially the USA, Britain and France is less scrutinised, and yet it arises legitimate misgivings.
Saudi Arabia and its allied Arab monarchies have shown a clear commitment to eradicate the Shi’ite pro-Iranian strategic influence in the Near and Middle East, and the ISIS may be seen a tool of choice to fight the ‘Sassanids’. On the other hand, Turkey never wants to see an independent Kurdish state solidify on its South Eastern borders with Iranian support, and thus has helped the only force capable of crushing the Kurds, the ISIS militants. Israel makes no mystery of its glee while watching Arabs kill each other and destroy their own states, thereby reverting to the condition of warring tribes in a chaotic region, and thus forcing Iran to spend vast resources in order to defend its Shi’ite allies.
The Middle Eastern alliances
If the interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey coincide in keeping the ‘ISIS pot’ boiling, there can be little active disagreement in Washington or London with the positions of three key, highly influential allies. Saudi Arabia has the oil, the gas and the money, Turkey the armed clout and Israel the political and financial heft to ensure the compliance of the USA and Western Europe. It is hence no wonder to see the US plead helplessness while the ISIS carries on and broadcasts the spectacle of its abductions, executions, massacres and ravages, which can only put all Muslims everywhere on the defensive and rally in reaction most civilisations and countries around the coalition of Atlantic powers and the conservative Arab states formed to ‘fight the ISIS’.
For the Western-Israeli-Saudi alliance, the ISIS is a useful, if hardly controllable weapon it trains against Iran and its Iraqi and Hezbollah confederates – not to mention Russia’s assets in the region, just as Al Qaida and the Mujahideen were built up and launched against the Red Army in Afghanistan and some Chechen factions were operated against Moscow’s interests in the Caucasus.
Various press reports coming from Iranian and Iraqi news agencies have alleged in recent weeks that British planes loaded with supplies for the ISIS have been downed and retrieved by the Iraqi forces, and that military advisers to the ISIS from the US, Israel and Gulf countries were captured near Nineveh in the course of Baghdad’s “Scorpion Tail” offensive to reclaim territory held by the ‘Khalifate’. Such reports have been picked in many countries but ignored by major western media, which regard the sources as partisan and unreliable. However, the larger picture would seem to lend some plausibility to at least part of these claims.
The ISIS may be regarded as a virus which, like many viruses, is a mutant. It carries the legacy of rage and revenge of the destroyed Baathist Iraqi Republic, the ancestral humiliation of Arabs broken up into various artificial states by Anglo-French intrigue and the deep alienation felt by the younger generations of Muslims born on western soil and seeking to reconnect with their roots in past times of legendary power and greatness.
The methods of the ISIS are not all new. They are inspired by many historic precedents, beginning perhaps with the bloody uprising of Al Saffah against the ‘infidel’ Ummayad khalifs, and they draw on the ruthless commandments voiced by the 14th century legist Ibn Taimiya, but their technological savvy and understanding of crowd psychology can only have been taught by masters in the trade. Many of the ISIS leaders and media advisers could turn out to have been trained by the Intelligence agencies of certain western powers to which they may remain close to this day.
A recent study by the Brookings Institution concludes that there are more than 50 000 Twitter accounts held by the ISIS members and supporters, and that the organisation is served by an “army of professionals and media experts” educated in the West, and in many cases, of non-Muslim origin.
In a video programme of Truth in Media entitled “The Origin of ISIS”, American journalist Ben Swann shows that the ISIS is not simply “a creation of US inaction” but rather “a product of US action” whose militants are trained and armed with weapons supplied by the CIA to the Free Syrian Army (which has been for the most part, he points out, an alias for the ISIS) and to Iraq, where they fell, in mind condition, into the hands of the Islamic Khalifate, absent any prompt US intervention to destroy or remove those weapons. Neither has Washington made any serious effort to sanction or freeze the accounts of banks and oil companies involved in trading the oil controlled by that declared enemy. Turkey, a key NATO member, has admitted “on humanitarian grounds” giving assistance and occasional shelter to ISIS commanders and fighters. And the Obama administration has repeatedly disclosed in advance war plans of Iraq and Jordan against ISIS, as if it wished to derail or delay their execution.
The political, historical virus of Arab anti-Persian and anti-Crusader ‘irredentism’ has mutated into a ‘super virus’, destructive for Muslim civilisation more than for any other. The question may be asked: who had the skill and the knowledge of human psychology and of the regional culture to effect this mutation? The jury may not remain out forever, even if the answer is likely to be a complex one.
How soon would dear-bought experience proclaim that when a people or family so divide, it never fails to be against themselves.
— John Jay (1788)
In the spring of 2003, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime by the Coalition marked the first collapse of Sunni Arab power in Iraq in almost eight decades. This was followed by Presidential Envoy L. Paul Bremer III’s initiation of a process known as de-Ba’athification, dissolving all security institutions that supported Saddam’s regime — including the Iraqi Armed Forces, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Information, and the Special Republican — and putting an estimated 350,000-400,000 soldiers and Ministry employees out of work. The disbandment of Iraq’s security forces resulted in a thorough security vacuum, sparked the first Sunni scepticisms and fears that the U.S. liberation was sectarian, favouring the Shi’a majority, and also, gave rise to the first insurgencies, fuelled by religious fervour, nationalism, honour, revenge, and pride, aiming to expel the Coalition troops from the country.
By the end of the eight-year-long U.S. military occupation of Iraq, the country was gripped by conflict. Nearly 500,000 people died due to war-related causes and over 100,000 had passed through detention camps. Moreover, the interplay of strategic interests on domestic, regional, and international levels had far-reaching reverberations in the Middle Eastern region, affecting the balance of power, stability and survival of nation-state systems, societal and sectarian dynamics, prevalence of insurgencies and non-state actors, and mass forced migration of people. This became the framework out of which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria would emerge.
Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions
— Friedrich Nietzsche
The ISIS ideology, particularly, took root during the post-war years, in the disaffected and marginalised factions of the regions characterised by lawlessness, disorder, and war. The ISIS is inspired by a very narrow interpretation of Islam which has, over the years, become known as jihadi Salafism. It was first introduced by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyed Qutb in the early 20th century and advocated the re-establishment of the Islamic caliphate by means of waging jihad against the apostates and heretics.
Sayyed Qutb: re-birth of a jihad-based Islamic ideology
Throughout the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, jihadi Salafist ideology was further radicalised by another Egyptian ideologue, known by the alias of Abu Bakr Naji. In his text, titled The Management of Savagery, Naji surgically separated jihad from Islam and defined its practical meaning as synonymous with “violence, crudeness, terrorism, displacement, and massacring”. Jihad was to be the foundation of his theory, where all opposition would be eliminated, regardless of political or sectarian affiliation. The struggle, he outlined, must be waged by a military leader, it should comprise the entire community, with a high level of organisation, it should conduct an elaborate media campaign, strengthened through the brutal killing of hostages, it must transform societies into two opposing groups, and it should unequivocally reject bargaining and negotiation.
It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
— Niccolò Machiavelli (1515)
The ISIS’ extreme ideology, and its very existence, can be viewed as a manifestation of the Middle East’s political, economic, social, and cultural failures, which have gradually accumulated over the past half-century. The so-called state that the ISIS has coercively established is not sustainable in the long term. The current situation will require a sustainable state-building process in the Middle East – a combined effort of domestic, regional, and international initiatives, addressing the political, economic, social, religious, and cultural dimensions of the status quo.
First, the state-building process begins with the establishment of a social contract resting upon three fundamental pillars:
- First, consent: the majority of citizens agree to relinquish their rights to the community and surrender their power in common to form one commonwealth, where obedience is proportionate to protection and the public good;
- Secondly, legitimacy and authority: a supreme authority is freely appointed to represent the combined power of citizens, set standing laws that are limited by purpose, and enforce the laws upon the members;
- And third, mediation: a peaceful agreement is negotiated with the factions not in explicit agreement with commonwealth, to consolidate the states’ sovereignty.
To develop these concepts, domestic and regional academic and religious scholars, as well as government and civil society representatives, must use them as departure points for laying down the foundations of the emerging civil governments in the Middle East. In a quadripartite, standard-setting initiative: political scholars play the role of crafting the broad lines of the governance structure, whether unitary, federalist, or confederation; religious scholars help update the Islamic principles and law according to a timely and contextualised application of the Qur’an and Hadith; government representatives play the role of providing the political context for which the scholars of both domains can debate and develop the state-building concepts, thereby securing the feasibility of the resulting agreements; and finally, civil society representatives voice the interests and demands of citizens.
Nation-building in the Middle East:
the underlying problem behind IS
On the domestic level, state governments can foster this state-building process through a joint initiative among their respective academic, religious, governmental, and civil society institutions, to ensure that it directly targets the status quo of each state. On the regional level, a quadripartite conference or committee comprised of the above scholars and representatives should be formed to coordinate and harmonise the efforts. Redefining the application of the social contract domestically and regionally reconciles politics and religion on a broader scale, while appealing to the majority of people who wish to see the restoration of a humanist-inspired, progressive Islamic movement. This step is of crucial importance as it deals with the fundamental culprit in the region, i.e. the lack of indigenous state-building, based on the political, social, religious, and cultural needs of Middle Eastern countries.
Second, the inviolability of borders must be preserved to prevent infiltration and curb activities of non-state actors. Prioritising border security affairs improves the protection of states’ sovereignty, assists in the containment and elimination of threats within specific regions, and prevents the secessionist movements aiming to partition states further. It will also require the cooperation of domestic and regional military forces, government security services, civil society, and tribes.
Finally, the existing power and security vacuum in the Middle East being filled by extremism is an international phenomenon that affects regional and international countries alike. Therefore, it necessitates state cooperation beyond the scope of military intervention, in the domain of politics. On the regional level, an ad-hoc security organisation — comparable in capability, competence, and swiftness of the NATO — should be established. On the international level, international instruments, such as the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee, should be utilised to help national authorities further understand and reverse the causes and facilitators of terrorism. These ideas will undoubtedly confront the on-going lack of consensus, chaos, and acute sectarian conflict when considering their implementation in the Middle East, yet, within them are the preliminary variables to solving the Middle Eastern paradox.