North Africa, West Asia

ISIS airstrikes: between imperialism and orientalism

Maged Mandour

Islamic radicalism is the product of societal developments and it is not directly related to the religion of Islam. The lessons of Iraq are being actively ignored by the US and the west in general. The main tenets of American foreign policy, which have done well for extremism, are unchanged.

Maged Mandour
12 October 2014

“No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force”.

This was the message of President Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly, followed by a call to the Muslim community and I quote:

“It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL”. 

This came after the American President was interviewed by CBC when he stated that the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East was “the biggest cause of conflict — not just in the Middle East, but in the world”.

I apologise for the cumbersome quotations at the beginning of this article. I believe they are necessary to convey the orientalist, almost childlike, discourse that is downplaying the complex regional dynamics that led to the birth of ISIS, as well as the role that the west, especially the United States, has played in the development of radicalism in the region. 

The rhetoric employed is no different than that used by President Bush before the invasion of Iraq in 2003: one only needs to replace ISIS with Saddam Hussein. The aims of this rhetoric are rather simple. First is to dilute any sense of responsibility that the US in particular, and the west in general, should feel about the rise of ISIS.

Second, to frame the conflict as a sectarian conflict, between Sunnis and Shias, ignoring other more important factors, such as societal power distribution, especially among elite groups. In essence, this rhetoric has followed an ahistorical approach, framing the rise of ISIS as the last of a series of the religious wars that have ravaged 'the Arab world' over a millennia. Thus, playing the orientalist card of the savage nature of the Middle East and its never changing nature.

Third, the quote above, which asks the Muslim community to forsake ISIS, is once again placing the global Muslim community in the role of 'usual suspect' who needs to prove its innocence every step of the way. As such, washing the US’ hands from its role in creating this new wave of radicalism in the Middle East and beyond.

Finally, are the continous attempts to whitewash Arab dictators, who play an integral role as part of the coalition fighting ISIS, by framing them as the polar opposites of ISIS, thus creating an image of moderation and civility.

The US has had a long, and complicated, history in fostering radicalism in the Middle East. Most analysts would argue that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to a wave of Sunni radicalism in Iraq, what Fawaz Gerges calls "the Iraq generation of jihadists", who are much more violent, sectarian and indiscriminate than the previous generation of jihadists. A generation that eventually gave birth to ISIS.

Furthermore, many will argue that this result was not unforeseen, as Professor George Joffe states in this interview. Joffe was part of a group of experts who advised Prime Minister Blair and warned him of the dire consequences of the invasion of Iraq.

However, I would argue that the American history of fostering radicalism goes much further back, at least to the beginning of their direct intervention in the region and their sponsored coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mossadeq, in 1954. This was an event that signaled the beginnings of a policy of supporting autocratic regimes against democratic secular forces, which in the end led to the triumph of autocrats and, indirectly, to the rise of radical Islamism.

Examples of this policy abound: from the intervention against Mossadeq extending to the support given the Shah till 1979; the support for the Egyptian military regime against its democratic opponents; to the close relationship the US has to the bastion of conservatism, Saudi Arabia, who play an active role in opposing any kind of progressive forces in the region. Thus, in essence, fostering conservatism and creating a fertile breeding ground for radicalism.

The second statement made by Obama that need tackling is where he says that the essence of the conflict is a religious sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias. This claim distorts the nature of the complex dynamic on the ground.

First, it frames the conflict as the latest in a long-term historical dynamic attributed to what is perceived as ancient hatreds, rather than recent political and social developments. It also ignores the nature of ISIS and the behavior of this group - for example, the fact that ISIS has lately been targeting Kurdish regions who are also Sunni, not because of religious hatred, but in an attempt to gain access to oil fields in Iraq and consolidate border controls in Syria. Thus, ISIS has behaved in a manner that was not at all motivated by religious hatred, but for tactical and strategic military reasons.

It also ignores the fact that ISIS avoided confrontation with the Assad regime in Syria and has opted to attack other, weaker, rebel groups in an attempt to consolidate control over more territory and resources. Most importantly, it ignores the fact that ISIS’ fiercest enemies are other Islamist rebels groups, like Ahrar El Sham and the El-Nusra front, the official branch of Al Qaeda, who, according to the above argument, would be natural allies.

Finally, this argument ignores the notion that the rise of secertranism in the Arab World increased dramatically with the Iraq war and that the traditional division in the Arab World was between radical and conservatist regimes, rather than Sunni/Shia.

Take when Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni country, intervened to support the Shia Imam of Yemen, in 1962, during the Yemeni civil war.

Framing the conflict in religious terms serves to absolve the US from its role in marginalizing the Sunni community in Iraq, by dissolving the Iraqi army, the backbone of the Iraqi regime, and replacing it with an openly sectarian and exclusive regime which has pushed Iraq to the verge of disintegration.

Finally comes the US President’s comment regarding the need for the Muslim community to distance itself from ISIS, an appeal that implicitly places the Muslim community under suspicion and treats the entire Muslim world as one homogenous block; once again, absolving the US from its role in the current catastrophe.

This rhetoric ignores an important issue; the social and political diversity of the Muslim world. It also ignores the fact that the phenomenon of radicalism is not an exclusively Muslim phenomenon, but that it arises due to social, economic and political grievances that manifest themselves through radicalism, in many forms, including secular forms. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany is an example of a nationwide violent extremism that manifested itself, due to German economic and social collapse after World War I.

In other words, Islamic radicalism is the product of societal developments and it is not directly related to the religion of Islam. As such, Islamic radicalism becomes the ideological vehicle to attract followers and to give form grievances. The same way that National Socialism allowed the German petty-bourgeois, closely followed by the bourgeoisie proper, as Eric Hobsbawm argued, to channel their grievances.

In the end, it seems to me that the lessons of Iraq are being actively ignored by the United States and the west in general. The main tenets of American foreign policy, which have served vioent extremists well, seem unchanged. The US has embarked on another long war, with no clear exit strategy, and has strengthened the power of Arab autocrats, which will increase the appeal of ISIS. The logic of the “Axis of Evil” still pervades American thinking.

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