What if the so-called Islamic State (IS) didn’t exist?
In order to answer this question, one has to liberate the argument from its geopolitical and ideological confines.
Many in the media (Western, Arab, etc) use the reference “Islamist” to brand any movement at all whether it be political, militant or even charity-focused. If it is dominated by men with beards or women with headscarves that make references to the Holy Koran and Islam as the motivator behind their ideas, violent tactics or even good deeds, then the word “Islamist” is the language of choice.
According to this overbearing logic, a Malaysia-based charity can be as ‘Islamist’ as the militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria. When the term “Islamist” was first introduced to the debate on Islam and politics, it carried mostly intellectual connotations. Even some “Islamists” used it in reference to their political thought. Now, it can be moulded to mean many things.
This is not the only convenient term that is being tossed around so deliberately in the discourse pertaining to Islam and politics. Many are already familiar with how the term “terrorism” manifested itself in the myriad of ways that fit any country’s national or foreign policy agenda – from the US’ George W. Bush to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In fact, some of these leaders accused one another of practicing, encouraging or engendering terrorism while positioning themselves as the crusaders against terror. The American version of the “war on terror” gained much attention and bad repute because it was highly destructive. But many other governments launched their own wars to various degrees of violent outcomes.
The flexibility of the usage of language very much stands at the heart of this story, including that of IS. We are told the group is mostly made of foreign jihadists. This could have much truth to it, but this notion cannot be accepted without much contention.
Why does the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad insist on the ‘foreign jihadists’ claim and did so even when the civil war plaguing his country was still at the stage of infancy, teetering between a popular uprising and an armed insurgency? It is for the same reason that Israel insists on infusing the Iranian threat, and its supposedly “genocidal” intents towards Israel in every discussion about the Hamas-led resistance in Palestine, and Hezbollah’s in Lebanon. Of course, there is a Hamas-Iran connection, although it has been weakened in recent years by regional circumstances. But for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran has to be at the heart of the discourse.
There are ample examples of governments of the Middle East ingraining the “foreign menace” factor when dealing with solely international phenomena, violence or otherwise. The logic behind it is simple: if the Syrian civil war is fuelled by foreign fanatics, then al-Assad can exact his violence against rebelling Syrians in the name of fighting the foreigners/jihadists/terrorists. According to this logic, Bashar becomes a national hero, as opposed to a despotic dictator.
Netanyahu remains the master of political diversion. He vacillates between peace talks and Iran-backed Palestinian “terror” groups in whatever way he finds suitable. The desired outcome is placing Israel as a victim of and a crusader against foreign-inspired terrorism. Just days after Israel carried out what was described by many as a genocide in Gaza – killing over 2,200 and wounded over 11,000 – he once more tried to shift global attention by claiming that the so-called Islamic State was at the Israeli border.
The “foreign hordes on the border” notion is being utilized, although so far ineffectively, by Egypt’s Abdul-Fatah al-Sisi also. Desperate to gain access to this convenient discourse, he has made numerous claims of foreigners being at the border of Libya, Sudan and Sinai. Few have paid attention aside from the unintelligible Egyptian state-controlled media. However, one must not neglect the events that took place in Egypt when he himself overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratically-elected government of Mohamed Morsi last year.
When US President Barack Obama decided to launch his war on IS, Sisi lined up to enlist his country in a fight against the “Islamists” as he sees them as part and parcel of the war against the supporters of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood. After all, they are both “Islamists.”
For the US and their western allies, the logic behind the war is hardly removed from the war discourse engendered by previous US administrations, most notably that of W. Bush and his father. It is another chapter of the unfinished wars that the US had unleashed in Iraq over the last 25 years. In some way, IS, with its brutal tactics, is the worst possible manifestation of American interventionism.
In the first Iraq war (1990-91), the US-led coalition seemed determined to achieve the clear goal of driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, and to use that as a starting point to achieve complete US dominance over the Middle East. Back then, George Bush had feared that pushing beyond that goal could lead to the kind of consequences that would alter the entire region and empower Iran at the expense of America’s Arab allies. Instead of carrying out regime change in Iraq itself, the US opted to subject Iraq to a decade of economic torment – a suffocating blockade that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. That was the golden age of America’s “containment” policy in the region.
However, US policy in the Middle East, under Bush’s son, W. Bush, was reinvigorated by new elements that somewhat altered the political landscape leading to the second Iraq war in 2003. Firstly, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were dubiously used to mislead the public into another war by linking Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda; and secondly, there was the rise of the neoconservative political ideology that dominated Washington at the time. The neo-cons strongly believed in the regime-change doctrine that has since then proven to be a complete failure.
It was not just a failure, but rather, a calamity. Today’s rise of IS is in fact a mere bullet point in a tragic Iraq timeline which started the moment W. Bush began his “shock and awe campaign.” This was followed by the fall of Baghdad, the dismantling of the country’s institutions (the de-Baathification of Iraq) and the “missions accomplished” speech. Since then, it has been one adversity after another. The US strategy in Iraq was predicated on destroying Iraqi nationalism and replacing it with a dangerous form of sectarianism that used the proverbial “divide and conquer” stratagem. But neither the Shia remained united, nor did the Sunni accept their new lower status, or did the Kurds stay committed to being part of an untied Iraq.
The US has indeed succeeded in dividing Iraq, maybe not territorially, but certainly in every other way. Moreover, the war brought al-Qaeda to Iraq. The group used the atrocities inflicted by the US war and invasion to recruit fighters from Iraq and throughout the Middle East. And like a bull in a china shop, the US wrecked more havoc on Iraq, playing around with sectarian and tribal cards to lower the intensity of the resistance and to busy Iraqis with fighting each other.
When the US combat troops allegedly departed Iraq, they left behind a country in ruins, millions of refugees on the run, deep sectarian divides, a brutal government, and an army made mostly of loosely united Shia-militias with a blood-soaked past.
Al-Qaeda was supposedly weakened in Iraq by then. In actuality, while al-Qaeda didn’t exist in Iraq prior to the US invasion, at the eve of the US withdrawal, al-Qaeda had branched off into other militant manifestations. They were able to move with greater agility in the region, and when the Syrian uprising was intentionally-armed by regional and international powers, al-Qaeda resurfaced with incredible power, fighting with prowess and unparalleled influence. Despite the misinformation about the roots of IS, IS and al-Qaeda in Iraq are the same. They share the same ideology and had only branched off into various groupings in Syria. Their differences are an internal matter, but their objectives are ultimately identical.
The reason the above point is often ignored, is that such an assertion would be a clear indictment that the Iraq war created IS, and that the irresponsible handling of the Syria conflict empowered the group to actually form a sectarian state that extends from the north-east of Syria to the heart of Iraq.
IS Must Exist
US-Western and Arab motives in the war against IS might differ. But both sides have keen interest in partaking in the war and an even keener interest in refusing to accept that such violence is not created in a vacuum. The US and its western allies refuse to see the obvious link between IS, al-Qaeda and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Arab leaders insist that their countries are also victims of some “Islamist” terror, produced, not of their own anti-democratic and oppressive policies, but by Chechenia and other foreign fighters who are bringing dark-age violence to otherwise perfectly peaceable and stable political landscapes.
The lie is further cemented by most media when they highlight the horror of IS but refuse to speak of other horrors that preceded and accompanied the existence of the group. They insist on speaking of IS as if a fully independent phenomenon devoid of any contexts, meanings and representations.
For the US-led coalition, IS must exist, although every member of the coalition has their own self-serving reasoning to explain their involvement. And since IS mostly made of “foreign jihadists” from faraway lands, speaking languages that few Arabs and westerners understand, then, somehow, no one is guilty, and the current upheaval in the Middle East is someone else’s fault. Thus, there is no need to speak of Syrian massacres, or Egyptian massacres, or of Iraq wars and its massacres, for the problem is obviously foreign.
If the so-called Islamic State didn’t exist, many in the region would be keen on creating one.
Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People’s History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).