ISIS and Tunisia-Iran: a deeper link

The anger and ideals of excluded young people contain a story of the world's disorder.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 January 2018

"In 2018 the market basket is empty": this man attends a speech by the general secretary of the Tunisian General Labour Union during the Tunisian revolution's 7th anniversary, 2018. Chedly Ben Ibrahim/PA images. All rights reserved.Two recent columns in this series examined ISIS's future after the loss of its caliphate. The group, it was suggested, might in future pursue a threefold course: build on its affiliations with paramilitary groups across the Middle East, north Africa and south Asia; increase its attacks in the “far enemy” countries of the west; and transition towards a new insurgency in Iraq (see "The next war: ISIS plus expertise", 21 December 2017); and "ISIS: the comeback", 4 January 2018).  

The Iraqi part of this strategy is already well under way. A grim series of attacks in and around Baghdad has taken hundreds of lives in the past year, even during the coalition assaults on Mosul and Raqqa. The latest hit the capital early in the morning of 15 January, when two suicide-bombers detonated their devices at Tayaran Square where day-labourers gather for work. The results were terrible: at least thirty-five people killed and ninety injured. Some of the Shi’a dead were carried off for burial that day in the holy city of Najaf.  

Such operations confirm that ISIS paramilitaries remain active and are able to strike, including in the heart of Baghdad. In this respect the intense military campaign to dislodge the group from its former areas of control is double-edged. The United States-led coalition's aerial pounding inflicted huge damage on Iraqi urban centres, with hardly any sign of reconstruction so far. That risks the further marginalisation of the Sunni minority that contributed to ISIS's rise in the first place. In doing its utmost to encourage that process, ISIS is intent also on targeting districts mainly populated by Iraq's majority Shi’a population.

Such operations confirm that ISIS paramilitaries remain active and are able to strike, including in the heart of Baghdad.

If an ISIS insurgency in Iraq continues to sprout from the urban ruins, Donald Trump’s hollow claim that the movement is defeated will look even more boastful. But a more awkward issue is at stake here: namely, whether ISIS is also just a symptom of a much more fundamental problem (see "Al-Qaida, and a global revolt", 22 May 2014).

What is clear is that this extraordinary movement has attracted far wider support than most western politicians would dare acknowledge. Within the few years of its existence, many tens of thousands of young people from the Middle East, north Africa, south Asia, and western countries went to fight for and otherwise support ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Police and security sources in western Europe have records of over 40,000 people still involved.

Some may have been prone to violence before their departure, and be  attracted by an exciting and dangerous endeavour. But there is evidence that far more were actually attracted by what they believed to be an ideal – the chance to participate in a new kind of society that might help deliver them from an otherwise bleak future with few prospects. Azadeh Moaveni's perceptive analysis raises this issue, from a perspective that few non-Muslim westerners might grasp (see “The Lingering Dream of an Islamic State”, New York Times, 16 January 2018).

The idea of a "dream" is powerful. Religious-political fusions – often termed “caliphate” – have been prominent features of Islamic societies, some of them long-lasting and sophisticated in their organisation. The Abbasid caliphate across much of the Middle East for three centuries from 750 CE is a notable example. 

It would be perverse to equate ISIS with what, in its own time, was a world centre of civilisation. That is certainly not Moaveni's point. Rather, she raises the possibility that ISIS's proclamation of a new caliphate struck a deep chord with very large numbers of today's Muslims: not just in autocratic, repressive and elitist Middle East societies, but among disaffected minority diasporas in Britain, France and elsewhere.

On the ground in Iraq and Syria, brutality and repression were justified as necessary to maintain the caliphate's purity of purpose. But from the outside, it might have been possible to maintain a seductive vision that something much better was being realised – Azadeh Moaveni’s "lingering dream". That view is supported by many of the early returnees to Britain and France, who turned out to be bitterly disappointed at what they had actually found.

If this theme needs to be explored further, it is also directly relevant to the serious anti-authority public disturbances in Iran and Tunisia during the past month. Not, it should be emphasised, because either upsurge is in any way rooted in direct support for the likes of ISIS. In both cases the protests were unorganised and decentralised. Yet underlying common factors helped to spark them.

There is the possibility that ISIS's proclamation of a new caliphate struck a deep chord with very large numbers of today's Muslims.

Tunisia, the origin of the short-lived "Arab spring" in December 2010, has made tortuous progress towards more democratic governance in these seven years. But its pre-existing economic inequalities remain, consigning hundreds of thousands of educated young people to lives with few prospects. Iran is a similarly young country with huge numbers of young people also yearning for a decent life. These are but two examples of many states in the region and beyond where the basic social contours are near identical. Indeed, there are connections here with the anti-austerity sentiment evolving in different directions in wealthy western states (see "Tunisia and the world: roots of turmoil", 24 January 2011).

In its own context, ISIS can be seen as a singularly brutal extremist movement led by clever men seeking power in the name of religious belief. That perception makes of the movement an isolated “one-off”: a problem to be crushed and made to disappear by the use of sufficient military force. But adjust the gaze, and ISIS can appear in a different light: namely, as one symptom of a world in serious disarray (see "A world in trouble: drought, war, food, flight", 6 July 2017).

Many people in the Middle East and beyond are living in an economic and social order which acts against their basic needs and reasonable interests. That makes for an uncomfortably direct link between ISIS, Tunisia and Iran. Recognising it is the first step towards a different approach to human security, one which sees past the symptom to address the deep source.

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