North Africa, West Asia

Islamic State: more popular than you think

The powerful rise of religious fascism, though exacerbated by economic and political crises, is rooted in the ethnic and religious intolerance that has thrived in the region for decades.

Saladdin Ahmed
17 June 2015

A recent Al-Jazeera Arabic online poll shatters the dominant narrative that the Islamic State enjoys the support of only an isolated fraction of Arab Sunnis. Even considering the demonstrated online mobilisation of Islamic State supporters, it is sobering that 46,060 people (accounting for 81 percent of poll respondents) voted “Yes” in response to the question “Do you consider the Islamic State’s advances in Iraq and Syria in the interest of the region?”

Protest calling for the Khlifah in London. Guy Corbishley/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Protest calling for the Khlifah in London. Guy Corbishley/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Not surprisingly, Islamic State followers on social media were quick to circulate the results of the poll as clear evidence of the group’s popularity. If many of the 19 percent of respondents who selected “No” are non-Sunnis and/or non-Arabs, the percentage of Sunni readers of who support the Islamic State could be even higher than the poll suggests. 

In spite of the clear popularity of the Islamic State—evidenced by the ease with which its fighters overtook exclusively Sunni-majority areas in Iraq and Syria—it is nonetheless understandable that observers have largely underestimated this mass appeal. After all, it is difficult to accept the disturbing truth that there are masses who not only excuse murder, torture, rape, sexual enslavement, and genocide against minorities, but also consider them religious duties.

The first step to addressing any crisis, however, must be to accurately comprehend its scope. Islamism is not the result of foreign occupation or the recent political mismanagement of certain countries in the Middle East; it has existed for decades as a primary rival to Arab nationalism. 

The initial rise of Islamism can be dated to the brutal suppression of secular progressive movements by Arab military regimes. Although Arab nationalism and anti-Semitism were on the rise in the region in the 1950s and 1960s, there was also a strong political current calling for equality and freedoms for men and women of all backgrounds.

With the eradication of these competing political movements and the weakening of the Baath regime in Iraq in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein began integrating Islamist elements into his nationalist discourse. By the time of the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, Baathists were acutely aware of the unique potentialities of an Arab nationalist political enterprise grounded in Sunni Islamist rhetoric. Likewise, after 2003, the Syrian Baath regime, fearing a fate similar to that of its Iraqi counterpart, began allowing the growth of Islamism and the passage of jihadists to Iraq to fight the coalition forces.

The Islamic State thus partly grew out of the deterioration of the Baath regime in Iraq and the disastrous pragmatism of the Syrian Baath regime, which included the release of thousands of Syrian Islamists from prison in 2011. Ideologically, the Islamic State appeals to fanatic Islamist discourse inherited from Al-Qaeda, and in terms of state organisation and advanced methods of warfare, it relies on the knowledge of former Iraqi Baathist officials.

Today, the main rival of Sunni Islamism is not a secular movement, but another branch of Islamism—namely Shi'a—which differs little in its expansionist ambitions and rejection of other peoples' right to life. Aside from resistance on the part of Kurds and religious minorities, the power struggle is being waged between two popular forces that are both rooted in and motivated by the same fatal mythology.

The ultimate point to be made is that the world is facing the powerful rise of religious fascism no less dangerous than the Nazism of the 1930s, both in terms of violence and popularity. In the place of Nazism’s pseudoscientific justifications of its fascist imperial project, Islamism relies on religious teachings to justify its genocidal campaigns against the different Other. Like Nazism, Islamism openly celebrates war and the establishment of an empire on the mass graves of entire peoples.

Attempts to justify the popular rise of the Islamic State on the bases of the US-led invasion of Iraq or Al-Maliki’s sectarian politics are no less problematic than attempts to reduce Nazism to a reaction to the conditions imposed on Germany after WWI. The discourse of the complete rejection of the Other has a long history in both Islamism and Arab nationalism, which is largely independent of contemporary political and economic crises.

Granted, economic and political crises in the last dozen years have exacerbated underlying sectarian divisions—mainly between Sunnis and Shi'a. However, ethnic and religious intolerance have thrived in the region for decades, as Jews, Kurds, Copts, and the indigenous people of North Africa know only too well.

International approaches to confronting Islamism by supporting one faction against another are neither pragmatic nor ethical. From the western support of jihadists in Afghanistan against the Soviets, to Syria’s support of jihadists against coalition forces in Iraq, such strategies have always proven fatal.

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