Islamists in the Arab world have always consciously or unconsciously attempted to replicate leftist models of revolution and insurgency, but without importing ideological content. With the rise of ISIL, this pattern is continuing in surprising and disturbing ways.
The Muslim Brotherhood has long been strikingly reminiscent of Leninist movements. They organised along cellular lines, established sister parties abroad, were cautious about violence, emphasised services to the public and grounded themselves in the urban middle classes. When the Arab left was robust, it dismissed the Brotherhood as reactionary and retrograde. But as the left has atrophied, it has developed a bizarre crush on Brotherhood parties. Some Arab leftists are attracted precisely by these structural characteristics – despite having irreconcilably opposed ideological content and values – that mirror a Leninist ideal.
Most Salafist-Jihadist groups, by contrast, have typically behaved in a manner reminiscent of ultra-left groups prominent in the 1960s and 1970s such as the Red Army Faction. Both focused on urban terrorism and attacks aimed at highly symbolic targets. They share a deep attachment to theatrical, spectacular and carefully staged political mayhem, wherein violence comes to virtually constitute an end in itself.
But now, with the rise of ISIL, a new generation of radical Islamists are evoking an entirely different historical analogue. In some crucial ways their strategic modus operandi looks strikingly similar to that of the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by Mao Zedong, in the late 1930s through to the late 1940s.
In contrast to more typical Salafist-Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda, ISIL concentrates on using both conventional military and guerrilla tactics to seize and control territory and assets in order to establish secured areas of governance.
There is a great deal in common between Mao’s revolutionary strategies and Abu Bakr Naji’s concept of “the management of savagery”, in which jihadist groups seek to frustrate and exhaust their opponents. The key idea inspiring ISIL is to first create and “manage” chaos, and then to offer a form of order, thereby imposing their control in a given area.
Having been driven out of China’s urban centres, the CPC established its first rural stronghold “Soviet” in Jiangxi in the early 1930s. The experiment was a failure, but the subsequent establishment, directly under Mao, of a second rural base headquartered in the remote city of Yan’an, proved the key to eventual victory.
In Yan’an, Mao secured a stronghold from where his forces could fan out to continually expand the areas under his control. ISIL is using essentially the same model from Raqqa, the de facto capital of its “caliphate”, to spread its tentacles further in Syria and Iraq.
ISIL is also beginning to migrate its governance model. For example, its “educational curriculum” first developed in Raqqa, is now being introduced in schools in recently acquired territories such as Mosul.
In both cases, the quest for state power was based in these remote redoubts. CPC rule in Yan’an was harsh, puritanical, uncompromising, but also highly idealistic and disciplined.
For some, it held a certain romantic appeal, as does ISIL’s new “caliphate”. The call is essentially the same: come join us, migrate and be part of the new “Soviet”, or “State”. Yet in both cases there is also evident anxiety about newcomers, meaning long-standing affiliations are incongruously prioritised.
A further uncanny echo is an ability to dominate perceptions of a popular liberation struggle without actually being a major part of it. Despite their intensive propaganda to the contrary, both the CPC and its nationalist rivals preferred to fight each other rather than the Japanese invaders. Similarly, ISIL – which absurdly poses as the champion of the Syrian rebellion – and the Al Assad regime avoid direct confrontation whenever possible.
Both Mao and ISIL skillfully manipulate the mystique of narratives framed in a mythical space and time. Both claim to be operating in the service of an all-powerful authority that determines outcomes: history and God respectively. Both frame society in stark binaries, preaching the absolute necessity of ruthless violence combined with endless patience.
There are infinitely more differences between Mao and ISIL than similarities, and no moral equivalency or ideological affinity whatsoever. ISIL is obsessed with tawhid (the oneness of God) which suggests a fundamental unity of all creation under divine sovereignty. The central tenets of Mao’s dialectics insist everything can, should and always will be endlessly divided. Mao despised tradition. ISIL romanticises the past. Mao cultivated an affable image. ISIL projects a calculatedly terrifying one. At most registers, the two have absolutely nothing in common.
Yet the clearly recognisable ways in which ISIL is indeed replicating key elements of Mao’s revolutionary methodology are unmistakable precisely because any such comparison is so incongruous. The analogy at first seems far-fetched, but proves actually compelling and alarming.
The current generation of jihadists is not only more extreme than ever. It’s also either reading from, or channelling, the most effective playbook for insurgency in developing societies.
President Barack Obama and his administration may have found themselves caught in a tangle of mixed messaging, but American power is now clearly directed at ISIL.
Mr Obama maintains that ISIL will be “degraded and destroyed”, two fundamentally different objectives. The White House says the US is at “war” with ISIL in the same way it has been at war with Al Qaeda, while the state department insists there is no “war”.
And there’s unmistakable tension between categorical assurances that ISIL will be defeated and strong commitments to the American public that no major undertaking is underway.
But such quibbles aside, this is indeed a necessary, unavoidable and morally unimpeachable war.
In their own interests, key US Arab allies can and must play central roles to ensure success. Since this is almost equally important to all the relevant parties, the burden should be similarly shared: from each according to their ability and to each according to their need.
Those Arabs dissatisfied with present levels of American commitment need to recognise several key realities.
First, the US is the only major outside player to have taken significant, concrete and direct action against these fanatics.
Second, it’s taking the initiative in building a much-needed international and regional coalition to address this cancerous menace. Third, the US is doing this reluctantly.
Fourth, sustaining and developing this American leadership commitment will depend, in part, on the US government and public believing that it has the appropriate level of regional and Arab support.
Mr Obama has already engaged in, and described to the American public, what amounts to an organically developing campaign.
US air strikes were initially said to be limited to protecting Erbil and relieving stranded Yazidi refugees. Then came the reconquest of the strategically vital Mosul Dam.
Later still, American air strikes supported various local forces combating ISIL in disparate places and for different purposes.
Now, Mr Obama says he’s authorising air strikes in Syria, a contingency virtually ruled out only a matter of a few weeks ago.
Moreover, the Obama administration has been moving quickly to frame the campaign against ISIL for the American public in widely acceptable counterterrorism and “war on terror” terms, and disassociate it from the highly unpopular war in Iraq.
Since ISIL is a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Mr Obama has previously campaigned heavily in support of a “war” against Al Qaeda, this argument resonates with the American public, who now overwhelmingly support the air campaign.
Some Arabs doubt that such an international coalition is required to defeat ISIL, saying instead that such a broad partnership should target a wide range of violent extremists.
But the battle against ISIL alone will indeed be challenging and complex, particularly dislodging it from its strongholds in Syria, and arranging the ground forces required to defeat them. The CIA now estimates there are more than 30,000 ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq. This won’t be quite so quick or easy.
To be effective against ISIL, local ground forces cannot be perceived as sectarian, or sectarian-led. Sunni-majority Arab states have an essential role in developing effective anti-ISIL troops, and training and arming them.
They must be credible in the eyes of the deeply aggrieved Sunni populations that ISIL rules and claims to represent. Hassan Hassan, a columnist for this newspaper, describes these forces as a potential “Sunni peshmerga”, an equivalent to Kurdish militias that have, at times, successfully combated ISIL.
Arab states should also help shape public opinion so this campaign both isn’t, and isn’t seen as, bolstering sectarian anti-Sunni interests or benefiting the Assad dictatorship in Syria.
The Jeddah Communique of September 11 was a positive development that challenged sectarian divisions. The new Iraqi government, which was recognised as essential, joined the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon in jointly endorsing the American-led coalition. Saudi Arabia may finally reestablish a Baghdad embassy, amid other signs of a crucial thaw in regional tensions.
Some Arab states will have political, social, intelligence and air power capabilities that can be crucial in creating an effective and broad-based coalition against ISIL.
Other forms of cooperation such as enhanced ground support, fly-over arrangements and various forms of covert activity will also certainly be required, as will cracking down against fund-raising and recruiting. So the key Arab states have indispensable symbolic and practical roles in the struggle to crush ISIL.
But, in order to maintain the American momentum, Arab support must be enthusiastic and concrete and not vague or non-committal. While there are many other American perceptions, the New York Times’ immediate response to the Jeddah Communique was a story with the headline: Arabs Give Tepid Support to US Fight Against ISIS.
The mere presence of such an impression in the American conversation ought to be enough to urgently prompt Arab states and societies to ensure their support for the campaign against ISIL is never again mistaken in Washington as “tepid.”
By its recklessness and miscalculations, ISIS has created a huge coalition against itself
At last the essential building blocks of a coalition against the ultra-violent criminal conspiracy that used to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and now calls itself simply the Islamic State (IS) are falling into place. Everyone was caught off guard by their surge out of fairly remote areas of north and eastern Syria into western Iraq, and slow off the mark in responding. But with the United States having initiated airstrikes against the organization in Iraq – and having declared, in effect, a long-term war to destroy the organization’s capability to be a menace regionally and globally – the long-overdue effort to destroy these extremists is finally underway.
One of the most important recent developments is a massive shift in American public opinion, largely engineered by ISIS itself. By beheading two American journalists it was holding as hostages for ransom – James Foley and Steven Sotloff – and threatening to murder more Westerners in the event of additional American airstrikes, and, even more foolishly, by depicting these gruesome killings in Internet videos, the fanatics have roused the American public out of its war-weary risk-aversion.
The shift is nothing less than extraordinary. A Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that 71% of Americans now favor air attacks against ISIS positions in Iraq, an increase of 17% over three weeks and 26% since mid-June. A majority still does not favor a ground intervention, but “boots on the ground” in any significant numbers are not required at this stage. Other opinion polls and surveys show a similarly dramatic shift in public opinion on the need for force against ISIS and the extent to which it’s recognized by the public as a significant threat to American interests.
Some observers have misinterpreted the ghastly ISIS beheading videos as a kind of provocation to the United States, hoping to elicit further airstrikes for reasons that are convoluted and difficult to explain. This is obviously incorrect. It’s quite clear, on the contrary, that ISIS fanatics were actually trying to use murder as leverage over Americans and their allies to dissuade them from further engagement.
It’s backfired spectacularly, of course, but it’s understandable how ISIS so badly misread the American mindset. For the past six years, dating back to a period in which ISIS itself did not exist except in the form of its precursor organization of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), these fanatics have watched the United States draw down from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and resist other provocations. They are used to the idea of an America that is backing, and perhaps in their own twisted thinking, running, away from Middle Eastern conflict.
What they failed to understand, it seems, is that what most Americans objected to was a war in Iraq that had no clear purpose and was a gigantic strategic miscalculation that cost their country enormously in terms of blood and treasure (not to mention international prestige) without yielding any clear gains. Indeed, many Americans now see the invasion of Iraq as a virtually unprecedented blunder, rivaled only by the extraordinary mistake of trying to seize control of Canada in 1812, only to have the British burn down most official buildings in Washington DC, including the White House.
But Americans don’t object to, and will support, a necessary campaign to break an extremist organization that is directly threatening their interests, murdering their compatriots and wreaking havoc in a region that is still essential to the United States. The much-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” was always also implicitly a pivot away from the Middle East. Such a “pivot” never even began, and it isn’t going to in the foreseeable future, because, no matter how fed up and frustrated Americans have become with Middle Eastern conflicts given the Iraq fiasco, the Middle East remains essential to American national interests and a broad-based disengagement is simply not realistic.
International support for such a campaign is also clearly growing. British and American appeals to NATO allies last week reportedly met with a generally positive response. And support in the Middle East, particularly from the Arab allies of the United States, is obviously growing. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, recently declared: “The ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism … have nothing to do with Islam and (their proponents) are the enemy number one of Islam.” He specifically singled out ISIS as the primary example of this paramount enemy.
And in an extraordinary commentary article in the The Wall Street Journal, Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, issued what amounted to a declaration of war not only against ISIS, but against “radical Islam” in general. “Now is the time to act,” he wrote. “The international community needs an urgent, coordinated and sustained international effort to confront a threat that will, if unchecked, have global ramifications for decades to come.”
“The Islamic State may be the most obvious and dominant threat at present, but it is far from the only one,” Otaiba pointed out. He maintains that “an international response must confront dangerous Islamist extremists of all stripes across the region,” and called for a wide-ranging campaign of “direct intervention” to combat an “existential threat” from “the entire militant ideological and financial complex that is the lifeblood of extremism.”
This is by far the strongest, boldest and most far-reaching statement from a representative of any Arab government about what is at stake in the battle against ISIS and similar terrorists and extremists. There’s no doubt that the Ambassador is speaking on behalf of his government and, moreover, that although the UAE is taking a very public leadership role through such statements, its essential assessment is shared by a broader group of key Arab states that increasingly see an urgent need to combat violent extremism.
Meanwhile, the battle against ISIS will almost certainly continue to gain momentum. Tonight, US President Barack Obama will explain his strategy for dealing with these fanatics to the American public. While he’s likely to reassure them about “boots on the ground,” he’s also likely to stake out a strong position that ISIS must be destroyed, at least in the sense that it is rendered largely irrelevant.
Obama was elected president in the first place partly on the basis of his strong opposition to the Iraq war. He was right in this assessment, and also in his criticism of the prolonged nation-building folly in Afghanistan. And there was broad public support for his promise to end both campaigns, which he has indeed done. Some critics on the far left and right will no doubt claim that he is now leading the United States back into Iraq and resuming the conflict he promised, and was elected, to resolve.
Such critics can and should be prevented from making this specious claim, because while Obama was opposed to the war in Iraq, he was strongly supportive of the “war on terror,” which he specified as a war against Al Qaeda. And this is a war (of sorts) that his administration has pursued vigorously, most notably through covert actions and controversial drone strikes that have succeeded in killing terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.
Obama and his Administration can and should present the battle against ISIS not only as necessary and unavoidable, but also as a continuation of the war against Al Qaeda, since the group is a direct spinoff of the AQI. The battle against Al Qaeda was always Obama’s war, and it has now evolved into the struggle to defeat ISIS. Even with strong US public, international, and regional support, it may take time (the Obama administration is speaking in terms of three years or so) and require an intricate series of deft political and strategic maneuvers. But prevailing against the most dangerous group of extremists to have arisen in the Arab world in living memory is now both necessary and achievable.
As this review was going to press, the latest bout of hostilities between Hamas and other Gaza-based militants and Israel had become even more bloody and destructive than 2009’s brutally named Israeli incursion into Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. An estimated 1,700 people have been killed. Between 70 and 80 percent of them were Palestinian civilians, and at least 200 were children. Israel has so far attacked seven UN schools serving as refugee shelters, provoking harsh condemnation even from the United States. Meanwhile, Hamas has drawn criticism from the global community for using abandoned schools to store ordnance. Sixty-four Israeli troops have been killed, along with three civilians—a stark contrast to Operation Cast Lead, which claimed the lives of just nine Israeli soldiers, four of them killed by friendly fire. The cost reckoned in damage to infrastructure and property in Gaza remains all but impossible to calculate. The war has reportedly displaced some 460,000 people—nearly a quarter of Gaza’s entire population. The present conflict appears unlikely to come to a complete stop—and if it does, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t flare up again at any moment.
With so much international attention focused on Gaza, it’s finally occurring to many Americans and other Westerners that the region has its own history, and that this history is key to sorting out the present conflict. So in this sense, Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Gaza: A History arrives at a propitious moment; if anything, Filiu’s book—“the first comprehensive history of Gaza in any language,” the publisher claims, probably correctly—is long overdue. Gaza isn’t exactly exhaustive; it dashes through the area’s lengthy and complex ancient, classical, and Islamic imperial histories in a mere thirty pages or so.
Filiu’s account of Gaza’s modern political history is certainly comprehensive. However, the book lacks narrative flair and at times gets bogged down in laundry-list details; it also follows a rigid chronological sequence that can be downright turgid. On the other hand, anyone who makes it through Filiu’s relentless chronology will be thoroughly briefed in a way one could not be from any other source.
Filiu explains how the narrow-yet-pivotal terrain known as the Gaza Strip has shaped the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, he notes, almost all of its inhabitants are refugees from southern Israel displaced by the hostilities of 1947–48. Other Palestinian refugee populations, including those in the occupied West Bank, are much farther from the Israeli border. But here is a huge group of refugees who can virtually see their former lands, and who contend with the Israeli occupation on a daily basis. Second, Filiu lays out Gaza’s strategic location between Egypt (and hence the rest of Africa) and Palestine (and hence the rest of Asia)—a convergence of influence that has shaped the region’s history since ancient times. Even the British campaigns that targeted Palestine during the First World War had to pass through Gaza.
For those and other crucial reasons, Gaza has always played an outsize political role in Palestinian collective life. The first aborted attempt at creating a Palestinian national government arose and failed in Gaza after the 1948 war. Gaza was also home to several of the core parties of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and many of its leaders. As Filiu notes, “It was in Gaza that the fedayin [the early Palestinian guerrilla fighters] were moulded and the Jewish State would soon make Gaza pay for it dearly.”
But also, crucially, the Muslim Brotherhood laid down deep roots in the territory—both under Egyptian rule, following 1948, and after Israel’s conquest of Gaza in 1967. For most of its history, the Brotherhood in Palestine was quietist, refusing to engage in or endorse the PLO’s armed struggle. But under the leadership of Ahmed Yassin, the Brotherhood in Palestine acquired a political arm, Mujamma, that increasingly developed militant tendencies. As Filiu notes, at the end of 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood “finally called for a struggle against the occupation” and founded Hamas.
It was no accident this decision came a mere five days after the outbreak of the first intifada, which began in Gaza. Hamas was a militant enterprise from the outset, with an allied faction attempting to capture Israeli soldiers. But it was only in December 1991 that Hamas fully established its paramilitary wing, the Ezzedin al-Qassam brigades.
The second intifada did not begin in Gaza, but its first iconic—and still highly controversial—moment happened there: the 2000 death of twelve-year-old Mohammed al-Durra. Hamas quickly seized the initiative through violent attacks on Israel, including suicide bombings, which were fueled by the group’s confrontational religious rhetoric. Their secular-nationalist rivals in Fatah mimicked both of these stratagems, in order not to be outbid, but repeatedly called for the demilitarization of the intifada, which Hamas flatly rejected. Palestinian president Yasser Arafat ordered the arrest of Yassin and outlawed his brigades. As the fighting continued, Israel assassinated Yassin and a slew of other Hamas leaders, while also carrying out more generalized onslaughts against Gaza.
As Filiu notes, by the mid-aughts, with both Arafat and Yassin dead, the two rival Palestinian movements “had not yet finished their work of dividing the Gaza Strip, now the orphan child of both its iconic leaders.” This division was subsequently finalized by a twofold process. First, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon strategically pulled Israeli troops and settlers from the center of Gaza, transforming the occupation to one based on controlling the periphery rather than the heart of the Strip. Hamas claimed that the shift in Israeli tactics vindicated the group’s policy of armed “resistance.” Second, while Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah won the 2005 presidential election with 62 percent of the vote, a year later Hamas-backed candidates got 44 percent in legislative elections and secured the largest bloc in parliament.
The experiment in cohabitation was tense from the outset and soon proved unworkable. Then as now, the square peg of Hamas’s commitment to armed struggle could not fit into the round hole of the PLO’s commitment to a negotiated peace agreement with Israel. Adding to the tensions have been completely incompatible visions of Palestinian society: the roles of religion, women, minority groups, and so forth. The only thing the two groups really agree on is that their members are all Palestinians.
These tensions boiled over in 2007, when Hamas violently seized control of Gaza, and Fatah moved to consolidate control of Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank. The division was complete.
As Filiu puts it, the public was now faced with “one Palestine against another.” The new governing structure was, and is, a veritable Noah’s Ark, with two of everything. As Hamas rule commenced, “the trap was closing on the Gaza Strip,” Filiu adds. Israel and a number of other nations subjected the territory to a significant blockade, and Gaza faced at least two major conflicts with the Israelis, in 2009 and 2012. Hamas and the Gaza economy found some relief through smuggling tunnels to Egypt and support from sponsors.
But in recent years, the crisis for Hamas and Gaza has metastasized. Because of the dispute within the Arab world over the Syrian civil war, Gazan leaders lost their major sponsors in Damascus and Tehran. An even more bitter blow was the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by a major Egyptian-government crackdown on both the Brotherhood and Hamas and its smuggling tunnels. Both Hamas and the Gazan economy went into complete financial meltdown, with virtually no goods leaving the Strip—and therefore no income or foreign exchange coming in.
This is the immediate backdrop to the “national unity” agreement with the Palestinian Authority and the current conflict with Israel. Hamas is desperately looking for a way to open Gaza and to get beyond it, into the West Bank. As Filiu puts it, “Only inter-Palestinian reconciliation would permit the reversal of the long-term downward spiral” in Gaza. However, this reconciliation is, and will remain, largely meaningless until elections are held—and, far more important, security forces are merged. If Hamas were to keep its independent brigades in the context of a unified political Palestinian entity, the result would be much like what Hezbollah has experienced in Lebanon, with Hamas serving nominally as part of the political system but also retaining an independent military and foreign policy. The ensuing merger would produce unity in name only.
Challenging as this scenario may be, Filiu is right to conclude that a viable political destiny for Gazans will be elusive “unless the nationalist and Islamist components of the Palestinian resistance, both of which had come into existence in the territory, were able to reach an agreement on peace between themselves.” The problem, which he does not acknowledge, is that to achieve such a Hegelian (or, perhaps more properly speaking, Maoist) synthesis of opposites, one group must prevail over the other. A militant group committed to armed struggle cannot have a coordinated strategy with a diplomatic organization focused on negotiations and being part of the international community. Until one party or the other is ascendant, the division will almost certainly continue to bedevil Palestinians and play directly into the hands of Israeli hard-liners.
Nonetheless, Filiu is undoubtedly correct that Gaza has no future without the rest of Palestine, and that Palestine needs Gaza: “It is vain to imagine that a territory so replete with foundational experiences can be ignored ormarginalised.” The present round of violence is yet another demonstration of this obvious and undeniable truth.
Opportunism, prejudices and emotional baggage often interfere with the accurate evaluation of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood movement and more extreme Salafist-jihadist groups. At the extremes are ideas promoting a conflation of the two trends in Islamism versus those that suggest Brotherhood ideology is the natural and appropriate corrective to violent extremism.
Both of these assessments are clearly wrong.The Brotherhood is a radical movement, but that doesn’t make it the equivalent of more extreme and violent groups.
But the fact that it is clearly different from groups to its religious and political right doesn’t mean that the Brotherhood is an effective or appropriate corrective to the growth of more violent extremist groups.
The conflation agenda is currently being pushed most vigorously by Israel and its various supporters, particularly in the United States. Ever since the murder of journalist James Foley, they have been pushing the line that “Hamas = ISIL”, trying to draw connections between the Palestinian militant group and the murderous extremists who now control large swathes of Syria and Iraq.
This is pure opportunism, of course. Israeli officials have a long history of doing this. Recall that immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States by Al Qaeda, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon famously pronounced that “Arafat is our Bin Laden”.
Having just emerged from a bruising battle with Hamas in Gaza – which took its toll, among other things, on Israel’s international reputation with more than 2,000 Palestinians killed and a quarter of the population rendered homeless – Israel’s political leadership clearly saw the opportunity to try to score more points with their friends and others by drawing this direct analogy with ISIL.
As with previous uses of this kind of propaganda, its effect is very limited. Even some of Israel’s closest supporters can be seen, quite literally, rolling their eyes at this.
Those who tried to defend the analogy sounded distinctly desperate and flailing. Yet it will have some impact among those already primed not to distinguish too carefully between Islamists.
Yet such a distinction is important where there are obviously clear differences. Otherwise, the policy approach to them will be similarly conflated, and therefore similarly confused.
Groups like Hamas are, in the end, nationalistic ones, rather than global in their perspective. They do not practice “takfir”, as defined by the process of declaring other Muslims to be apostates worthy of death. And their attitude towards others is much more nuanced. The Brotherhood appears to be willing to live with the existing regional and global state system, whereas ISIL is in open warfare with it.
On the other hand, there are those in the United States, as well as in the Middle East and Europe, who overcompensate in the opposite direction.
They have held from the outset of the “Arab Spring” that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only real authentic and legitimate political force among the Sunni Arabs.
Moreover, these voices insist, “moderate” Islamism is the only real hedge against more violent, extreme Islamism.
If only the Muslim Brotherhood were better positioned in the contemporary Arab world to be a major political force, this argument suggests, the more stability there would be and the less appeal more extreme groups would have.
What this argument fails to acknowledge is that in spite of their clear differences, there are also too many points of commonality between the Brotherhood ideology and more extreme groups like the Islamic State for Islamists to check each other.
One of the founding aims of the Brotherhood is, in fact, the restoration of the caliphate.
But while the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t talk much about the caliphate these days, it hasn’t changed its fundamental attitude either.
Of course, it shares this desire with many Muslims around the world, but the concept has been uninterrogated in any meaningful sense.
No one has really picked apart what this would mean in the present day, who can make such a declaration, and whether it’s really significant or desirable in the modern era. Instead, that has simply left the “caliphate” card to be picked up by ISIL, which has become just the latest in a long line of contemporary claimants.
ISIL is among the most violent groups in the world, and while many Brotherhood-aligned parties have turned away from violence as a primary strategy or publicly-acknowledged policy, it doesn’t have a doctrinal prohibition on violence.
Brotherhood groups have used it in the past, and always made an exception when it comes to the Palestinians – and this long before the advent of Hamas.
Both groups also publicly espouse the virtue and necessity of “jihad”.
Clearly each of them mean rather different things with this same term, but both groups of Islamists appeal to the same core language about “holy war”.
There are just too many common origins for Brotherhood-style Islamism to serve as a plausible corrective to ISIL-style more extreme Islamism.
It’s no coincidence or surprise that it was Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb who did more to inspire the takfiri and Salafist-jihadist movements than any other modern figure.
If nothing else, Qutb demonstrates the hinge that links Brotherhood-Islamism to more extreme and violent versions now most terrifyingly embodied by ISIL. This is a continuum, not a corrective.
The IS is trying to indoctrinate a loyal citizenry for its new “caliphate”
One of the many striking differences between the so-called “Islamic State” (IS; formerly ISIS) and its ideological brethren and predecessors in the Salafist-jihadist movement is the unusual degree of interest the IS has shown in children and education. This reveals a great deal about how the organization conceptualizes the “state” it is trying to construct and what its long-term vision for the future looks like. All of this underscores how different and dangerous the IS is, even as compared to other offshoots of al-Qaeda.
For well over a year, the IS and its rivals in the “official” al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – Jabhat al-Nusra, among others – have stood accused of indoctrinating, conscripting, and fielding child soldiers and terrorists, particularly teenage boys. Human Rights Watch recently released a report in which the IS is specifically accused of having “recruited children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training, and have given them dangerous tasks, including suicide bombing missions.”
A 13-year-old boy going by the assumed name of “Mohammed” is making the rounds in Western media telling harrowing tales of conditions and activities taking place in IS youth camps. He says he and others were forced to watch gruesome punishments such as crucifixions and stonings, and were being groomed as future terrorists and suicide bombers.
But the IS’s twisted relationship with children, particularly in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, goes far beyond the exploitation of youths in combat. Reports from Raqqa about the IS approach to ruling a sizable Syrian city in which it has developed uncontested control suggest implicit surprise that the new “caliphate” would be involved in entertainments and activities aimed at seducing and winning over to their ideology the children under their control. The group was said to be “holding ‘fun days’ for kids replete with ice cream and inflatable slides.”
What is really going on is a long-term project to create, through indoctrination and brainwashing posing as education, a new generation of genuine, committed followers of the IS’s new “caliphate.” They reportedly see the children under their control as the up-and-coming “generation of the Khilafah.” This reflects an implicit understanding that most of the Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis who have come under their control, or either fought alongside or not opposed the IS, did so out of desperation. The IS knows full well that their sudden rise says more about the policies of Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki than it does about the specific or long-term appeal of the IS ideology and worldview.
So it’s no surprise at all that the IS – which believes it really is a state, and which is consciously trying to think and act like a state (or at least how it thinks a state would conduct itself) – would be so interested in children and education. As a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War explains, “both ISIS rhetoric and the resources it has devoted to educational programming suggest its core motivation is to train the next generation of ISIS members, the actual citizenry of the Caliphate. ISIS sees itself not as a terrorist organization indoctrinating children, but as a sovereign state educating its citizens.”
In this context, it’s vital to understand that the IS sees its new “state” as not just another state, but another kind of state. This is not the familiar challenge to the existing state system of an entity that wishes to join it, with or without permission of a majority of others. Rather, it is a thoroughgoing and absolute rejection of the existing state system, particularly among the world’s Muslims, but ultimately globally. The stated and explicit intention of the IS is to bring down that system altogether and replace it with… you guessed it: itself.
Needless to say, this seems vainglorious bordering on the insane. But the IS is seducing youth online throughout the Muslim world and beyond to come and join it as fighters. And it is indoctrinating and brainwashing the children under its control in its new educational systems. Its schools insist on endless rote learning of the most retrograde and literalistic versions of Islamic fundamentalism, and have reportedly “permanently” banned numerous subjects including philosophy, chemistry, “fine arts, music, civics, social studies, history, psychology, and religion, including Islamic and Christian studies.”
Like all good hardcore revolutionaries, the IS is attempting to create a new man and a new society for the entire world. And it hopes to do that by exploiting these young people both now and into the future. Of course this is an absurdity that will fail spectacularly in the long run. But until it actually does collapse under the weight of its own bizarre contradictions, the fanatical project of the Islamic State threatens to consume all those who encounter it.
Chief among these victims will be the young people who have the dreadful misfortune of finding themselves caught in that maelstrom. It’s the worst form of child abuse imaginable.
As the dust settles in Gaza – and both Israel and Hamas fatuously claim “victory” in a conflict that, yet again, produced no real victors – there is no question who the biggest losers were: the long-suffering people of Gaza. For all its empty boasting, Hamas’s strategy of armed struggle has once again been exposed as not merely a dead-end for securing Palestinian rights, but a disaster.
Yet the diplomatic impasse – with no continuing process or talks, or grounds for expecting, or even hoping for, a significant breakthrough in the short-term – leaves the Palestinian movement agonising over what approach to national liberation would secure successes and not cause more harm than good.
Multilateral diplomacy at the United Nations and various agencies can be costly while delivering limited benefits. And they cannot change any core political and strategic realities on the ground. Boycotts of Israel’s settlements are heartening, but hardly game-changers. Israel and its occupation project are more offended than threatened by them.
But, combined with other non-violent approaches – especially state and institution-building initiatives as pioneered by former prime minister Salam Fayyad – astute, well-calculated multilateral initiatives and precise, focused anti-settlement boycotts could be significant tactical elements in a broader, integrated and effective Palestinian national strategy.
As many have long noted, perhaps the single most powerful such tool that the Palestinians potentially have at their disposal – but which has not been systematically implemented or adopted as a core tactic by the national movement – is non-violent resistance to occupation on the ground. The occupation is a system of discipline and control over a subjugated people by a powerful foreign army. Worse, one of the main tasks of those occupying troops is to facilitate and protect the settlement project, which basically means taking land from its owners and illegally giving it to colonists.
The settlements themselves, and all the hideous apparatus of the occupation like the checkpoints, walls, bypass roads and closed areas, are perfect targets for strictly non-violent mass protests, disruptions, non-cooperation techniques and so forth. To be effective, such efforts would have to be carefully integrated into a coordinated society-wide programme that allows the national leadership to translate gains into political results towards national liberation. But even more crucially, Palestinians would have to be firmly united and highly disciplined to maintain its strictly non-violent character (no stone-throwing, for instance).
This would be exceptionally challenging since Israeli occupation forces would, almost certainly, and quickly, resort to violent responses to a campaign of sustained, nationwide and relentless non-violent protests. Palestinian extremist groups would then seek to hijack this non-violent movement through violent retaliation of their own. Unless this was unanimously and forcefully repudiated and rejected by Palestinian society rising as one to insist on maintaining non-violence in the face of the occupation’s violence, all would be lost. Such discipline would also be key in allowing Palestinians to become an unruly people towards the occupation yet an orderly one in developing self-governance.
But how to accomplish this in a context in which Israelis and Palestinians have been primarily communicating with each other through the language of violence for decades? Where in Palestinian culture can an ethos of non-violence ground itself? To be sure Palestinians have always used non-violent, as well as violent, forms of resistance. But how could non-violent protests become sufficiently hegemonic as to truly define Palestinian resistance to occupation?
One path could be to redefine one of the central tenets of the Palestinian struggle: martyrdom. Although in the West it is sometimes thought Palestinians mainly refer to militants as “martyrs,” in fact they define everyone who perishes in the conflict with Israel as a martyr. The term has traditionally been used indiscriminately, including everyone from babies killed in their sleep to suicide bombers.
Not only is there no need to dispense with the concept of martyrdom in the Palestinian cause. There is a crying need to clarify the term and strictly apply it to those who willingly risk – and unfortunately who will have to also give – their own lives for freedom without trying to harm others. Those who damage the Palestinian cause through counterproductive violence should be excluded from this honorific. But so, too, should random victims.
Martyrdom status should instead be reserved for those who actually act like martyrs and who step forward to accept injury or death, without evil intent towards anyone else, in order to free their people from outrageous oppression.
Religious leaders, especially, and other Palestinian opinion-shapers, would be key figures in a conscious, coordinated and sustained campaign for as long as it takes to change the way martyrdom is understood in Palestinian society.
Is this an absurd pipe-dream? Possibly. But there is no other way to successfully unleash the massive power potentially at the disposal of the Palestinian people. Israel would have no effective answer to a campaign of non-violence, and the power-dynamics between the occupier and occupied would be totally upended.
Just imagine if 2,100 Palestinians had died in a campaign of non-violent protests instead of the Gaza war. If Palestinians ever embrace an ethos of non-violent martyrdom as part of a broader national strategy, Israel’s occupation wouldn’t stand a chance. The Palestinians would actually and decisively win.
The Assad dictatorship has worked hard to create a binary between itself and extremists. The destruction of the IS will leave the dictatorship exposed and vulnerable as never before.
With the United States being sucked inexorably into an unavoidable and wider conflict with the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS; formerly ISIS) in Iraq, attention has quickly turned to the fact that the terrorist group’s main redoubt is in northern Syria. Therefore, if there is to be a broad confrontation with the IS, as US military Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey warned last week, it would have to extend itself into Syria. And there is every indication that the United States is preparing contingencies for just that.
Inevitably, the cry has gone up in some quarters that the only logical thing to do is to partner with the ghastly dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in order to defeat these crazed fanatics. Indeed, a recent report, although apparently based largely on conjecture, by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent, suggests that Western intelligence agencies are already sharing information on the IS with the Damascus dictatorship through the German intelligence agency.
The Assad regime smells yet another opportunity to rehabilitate itself, similar to the outrageous chemical weapons deal that was struck after numerous instances of chemical attacks against Syrian civilians and rebels. That turned Assad into a partner of the West, at least insofar as the chemical weapons decommissioning project was concerned. But that implied that Assad had to keep controlling key areas of the country and that his rule had an important, positive purpose, at least in that narrow framework. He discovered a new formula in international relations: dumping chemical weapons on innocent people is a potential path to new diplomatic and political legitimacy.
And how has that gone? Well, in May, France and Human Rights Watch simultaneously accused the Syrian dictatorship of continuing to use chemical weapons, including chlorine gas. Big success!
But the notion that Assad is a plausible or useful long-term ally against the IS can only be based on the most superficial and pseudo-logical understanding of Syrian realities. In fact, the IS has been, and remains, the linchpin of the survival of the Damascus regime.
From the outset of the uprising against him, even when he was faced by only unarmed demonstrators, Assad and his cronies wove an elaborate mythology about an assault by international jihadists backed by Al Qaeda. And over the course of the next year-and-a-half his regime worked night and day to ensure that this mythology became a reality.
And, after all, the Syrian regime had a long-standing relationship with the Islamic State’s immediate predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Throughout the American occupation, Damascus gave a laissez passé to foreign fighters who wanted to go to Iraq and join the AQI in order to attack Americans, Shiites and others. As long as they kept their heads down in Syria, they were welcome to pass through. So these two entities have a very long history of not only knowing each other, but knowing how to make each other useful. The sordid history of Assad-AQI/ISIS collaboration was neatly encapsulated in a short but invaluable essay by Peter Neumann in the London Review of Books last April.
As the uprising gained steam, the Syrian dictatorship released the most notorious Salafist-jihadists they were holding from prison. They concentrated their fire power on the Free Syrian Army and other nationalist groups that actually threatened to potentially overthrow the regime successfully, while ignoring the steady gains of ISIS. As Hassan Hassan has pointed out, “When [ISIS] Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, … the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.” Instead, it did nothing. Except purchase large quantities of oil from ISIS, fattening their coffers even further.
It’s not so much that the regime welcomes the loss of these relatively remote areas in northern and eastern Syria. It’s that it can do without them if it has to. What’s central to the survival of the Assad dictatorship is a long strip in the western half of the country beginning at the Lebanon border, continuing up through Qalamoun, Damascus, and Homs and thence into the Alawite heartland around Latakia. As long as those areas can be secured, the fundamental interests of the dictatorship are guaranteed. If Kurdish areas in the north fall to local fighters, or the IS overruns large areas of the West, that’s just unfortunate.
But there is a distinct upside to the rise of the IS for the regime. It has established, in the minds of many Syrians, and particularly many in the West, a false binary in which the choice is between deranged jihadist monsters versus a criminal mafia regime that is largely responsible for the death of at least 200,000 people in the past three years and that will stop at nothing to cling to power.
So now Assad and his henchmen say they want to be part of the battle against the IS. It’s a perfect example of the arsonist showing up at an uncontrolled blaze posing as a fireman. Obviously, nobody wants to have an uprising against them. But if you must have enemies, the more deranged and terrifying they are, the better. So as long as there is a war in Syria, Assad simply cannot do without the Islamic State or something extremely similar.
The notion of partnering with the Syrian government against the IS is just silly at every level.
First, his forces show no interest or ability in actually or effectively fighting these lunatics. Indeed, they just lost control of the Tabqa airfield, 25 miles outside the IS’s stronghold and capital of Raqqa. This means that Raqqa Province is the first region of Syria to fall entirely out of the control of the regime, and it should surprise absolutely no one that it has fallen to the IS.
Second, for the Damascus dictatorship, the IS is the perfect enemy. It’s not as if there won’t still be an uprising afterwards, should the IS be defeated or badly degraded. On the contrary, it’s likely that opposition forces would be greatly strengthened and the arguments and appeal of the regime profoundly weakened.
So, in the short run, Assad might want to try to pose as a partner to the West in attacking the terrorists. But in the long run, he needs them, and he knows it. He cannot afford a situation in which less-repulsive alternatives present themselves, or his chances of losing power will increase exponentially. The battle against the IS was first a mythology, and then a reality, that he created with a great deal of calculation and skill. Abandoning that strategy in the long run is almost unthinkable for him.
Finally, the IS cannot be successfully countered by sectarian non-Sunni troops, either in Syria or Iraq. Anyone who imagines that an Alawite-dominated Syrian army or extremist Shiite militias in Iraq can be the solution to crushing or profoundly degrading the IS has failed to understand how and why the group has risen to prominence. It feeds off of the deepest Sunni Muslim rage, both locally and internationally.
Therefore, neither Damascus nor Baghdad, directly, are the key to defeating them. The IS clearly can only be countered by other, local Sunni Muslim forces on the ground, and by an international coalition that does not reflect the sectarian and dictatorial tendencies of Assad and outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This has been done before, and it can be done again. There are innumerable incentives and disincentives (weapons, money, intelligence, etc.) that can tap into already-existing and profound discontent with Islamic State extremism in local and national Sunni groupings in both Syria and Iraq. And, of course, Arab Sunni-majority regional powers need to be heavily involved in this effort.
The key fact is that attacking the IS in Syria is, in the long run, a way of attacking the Assad regime as well. At the very least, it deeply damages, if not destroys, their primary political strategy for survival. Note the profoundly ambivalent reaction of regime henchman to the idea that Western powers might intervene – as some imagine, “on their behalf,” against the IS – a contingency that is surely coming sooner rather than later.
Having, on the one hand, pledged an interest in partnering with the UN and others in combating the IS, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Monday declared categorical opposition to any American or international airstrikes against the group in Syria. “Any breach of Syrian sovereignty by any side constitutes an act of aggression,” he thundered.
It’s hardly surprising. Where would the Damascus regime be without the bogeyman rival that it dreamt up and tirelessly to bring into reality? Even a temporary marriage of convenience against the IS with Damascus would be entirely fraudulent, and would be undermined by the Assad dictatorship at every stage, probably even more brazenly than the chemical weapons farce.
In the end, the Catch-22 for Assad and his cronies is that the only real way to defeat the IS and similar groups is not only to crush them militarily and strangle them financially, although that is immediately necessary. No one should be interested in Syrian or Russian objections to airstrikes against IS positions on the now-erased Syrian/Iraqi border. The deeper threat is that really defeating these extremists means creating new power structures in both Syria and Iraq that give Sunni Muslim communities in those countries a stake in the future and a reason not to listen to the rantings of new “caliphates” and criminal gangs posing as saviors.
It means, in short, an end to the family, clan and sect (in that order) rule of Syria by the Assads, their relatives in the broadest sense, and their privileged Alawite community. 200,000 dead people in three years mean that the old regime, in the long run, simply cannot survive except in a rump form, and if it does, that will mean that the IS and similar groups will continue to thrive. Much the same applies in Iraq, where the Sunni minority urgently needs to be courted and included both in the new systems and in the struggle against the IS, which, on the ground, they will have to be a major part of.
Creating a new reality in which such terrorists do not run rampage will instead require building more inclusive, less repressive and more equitable structures of government in both Syria and Iraq in which the rights of Sunni Arabs are respected and lunatics are not able to pose as their protectors. That means, by definition, an end in Syria to the Assad dictatorship as we have known it.
Does anybody really imagine that the Assad dictatorship is going to be a genuine partner in its own demise? Because that’s what finally defeating the IS is going to take, and that’s what that victory is ultimately going to mean. And the regime knows it. Attacking the IS, in the long run, IS attacking Assad and his rotten, brutal dictatorship. All the more reason not to hesitate for a moment in this necessary, moral, and unavoidable war against two monstrously evil targets – the Islamic State directly and immediately, and Assad indirectly and in the long run.
Although most Americans don’t know it, and certainly haven’t endorsed it, the United States is back at war in the Middle East. Its latest, and most hideous, antagonist is the monstrous aberration that calls itself the Islamic State. And no matter what the present intentions, there seems no way this conflict in Iraq and Syria can fail to metastasise.
For the past year or so, the Islamic State has been on a roll and a rampage, sweeping across huge sections of northern Syria and, more recently, western Iraq. Nobody did much of anything to stop them, and American intelligence officials have acknowledged that they were taken aback by the lightning speed of the Islamic State’s advance.
Last week, the Islamic State presented the Obama administration with an impossible two-fold conundrum. On the one hand, it had driven thousands of Yazidi religious minorities onto an isolated mountaintop where they faced certain death if not relieved. On the other hand, it was threatening to advance towards the Kurdistan Regional Government capital of Ebril where the United States has a consulate and numerous offices. From both a humanitarian and a practical point of view, the president had no choice.
Barack Obama interrupted his holiday to inform Americans he had authorised the first US air strikes in Iraq in years, to address both problems. In the event, they turned out to also be acting in direct support of a counter- offensive by elite Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters aimed at seizing control of the strategically vital Mosul Dam from Islamic State terrorists. The US has now flown dozens of sorties and Mr Obama says the retaking of the dam was successful.
No one was quite sure where that left matters, but subsequent events seem to have answered all questions. First, the use of American air power against the terrorists continues. Second, Islamic State fanatics, apparently operating in their Syrian stronghold, beheaded a captured American journalist, James Foley, on video. They openly said it was retaliation for the American air strikes and threatened to murder more captured Americans, at least one of whom was displayed on camera. They also threatened to drown westerners with blood and issued similar blood-curdling threats.
It is often said that the Islamic State is a crafty and calculating organisation. There is no sign of that here. Had they been intelligent, the fanatics would have allowed the American system to produce its own push back against Mr Obama’s initiative to challenge them. There was, and still is, a good deal of scepticism in Congress and among the public against any further American military engagement in Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East.
But with the Foley murder, and particularly the gruesome video and photographs they distributed, the Islamic State poked the lion in the eye.
The Islamic State seemed to be sending a series of calculated messages with the video: if you attack us, we will murder you. You didn’t pay the $132 million ransom for this guy we demanded, so it’s only natural that we kill him, especially if you are attacking us. I’m speaking loudly and clearly in a distinctly British accent, so understand that we can very easily come to you. And don’t forget that our main base is in Syria, and you’re not coming here.
If I had wanted to give the followers of the new “caliphate” terrible advice, I couldn’t have come up with anything more foolish than that. It strongly suggests that the Islamic State just doesn’t know what it’s dealing with in the United States. Such threats will only provoke Americans, particularly the implicit threat to carry out terrorist attacks in the West and, especially, in the United States itself.
Given the way that the stakes have been raised by both sides very quickly, it’s hard to imagine that they will not continue to escalate. It’s true that a month ago, few Americans would have been ready to embrace the current conflict, and many still are not. But they’re getting there quickly. The threat, and even more, the reality of terrorist attacks against Americans will only increase that determination.
This is, after all, very much already Mr Obama’s war. In campaigning for the nomination and the presidency, he emphasised his opposition to the war in Iraq and the nation-building programme in Afghanistan, contrasting them with the war on terrorism that he strongly supported. And he’s proven that during his presidency with covert actions and drone attacks that have been controversial, but gained such scalps as Osama bin Laden.
The Islamic State is, US administration officials now admit, a terrorist threat on a magnitude not seen before. It seems a combination of the worst of the Taliban and the worst of Al Qaeda rolled together, in the heart of the Middle East and with a growing contingent of international fanatical volunteers, including many westerners.
How, precisely, to roll them back without relying on sectarian Shiite forces in Iraq or, even worse, aiding Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, are conundrums inherent in the mission. But America’s new war in the Middle East is a necessary, and not optional or avoidable, one.