Kayla Mueller was a hostage held by the Islamic State (ISIS) when she was killed. Ironically, it may have been an air attack on ISIS that killed her. Yet the US has no plans to investigate how she was killed, preferring instead to use the death as an excuse to ramp up the war against the Islamic State. (The Islamic State, meanwhile continues broadcasting its particularly grotesque murders.) While Obama introduces a plan to intensify the air war and various ground attacks by Special Forces troops, the warmongers in Congress (primarily from the Republican Party) are demanding he go in with every gun blazing. In other words: stepped up air assaults, Special Forces and regular ground troops. Beyond the fact that there is no military solution to the conflicts of the Middle East, the idea of returning with ground troops is just plain bullheaded and stupid. With all due respect to this young woman’s memory, we should not fall for the “white girl mutilated by the scary dark men” narrative being used here. ISIS exists because of US policy in the Middle East. Continuing to use pointless military means in a vain attempt to change the situation the US did so much to help create in that part of the world has never worked. It won’t now, either. Instead of one or two Americans dead, there will be hundreds, not to mention the innocents killed who are not white or from the US. Her murder is being manipulated by those who profit from every war—the defense contractors, politicians and generals.
It seems safe to assume that the members of Congress, the President and his staff, and the rest of official Washington have very little true understanding of what the Islamic State is. Instead, like their constituents, they rely on poor intelligence, minimal historical knowledge, a misguided view of the effects of the last thirty years of war on the Muslim peoples, and a general ignorance couched in an Orientalist mindset. This actuality is ultimately self-fulfilling, in that it ends up creating the very enemies and troubles it describes. Furthermore, it repeats this scenario over and over, each time resulting in an ever more complicated situation. If the US is to find a way to deal with the Islamic State, it must first expand and alter the way it understands it. Yet, in a time when the military solution is usually the only one presented, this need becomes even more difficult, although not impossible.
Recently, economist and journalist Loretta Napoleoni released a book titled The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East, which attempts a new understanding of ISIS. Succinct and clear, the text is an attempt to explain the Islamic State phenomenon in relation to the history of Salafism, western colonialism/imperialism in the Middle East and the seemingly endless war on the Muslim people by the nominally Christian west. She is careful to explain, however, that the religious aspect is not the fundamental cause of these wars. Instead, like the wars between Protestants and Catholics in Europe around the time of the Reformation, the underlying reasons for the war are power and conquest. Never denying the ugly brutality of IS methods and what she terms its genocidal war on adherents of the Shia wing of Islam, Napoleoni also points out a basic difference between the strategy of the Islamic Sate when contrasted with its predecessors/contemporaries like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In regards to the genocidal aspect of the Islamic State’s war, it is more akin to the genocide ravaged upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas than more modern genocides, especially if one considers the fact that ISIS does not kill those “infidels” who convert.
In numerous ways, ISIS is a modern phenomenon. Its goals are not a return to a time before modernity, at least not when it comes to communications, industry and other contemporary economic phenomena. The Islamic State’s sophisticated use of social media proves this. Indeed, their understanding that media can create perceptions not born out by facts is essential to ISIS’s public relations effort. In addition, its corralling of and profiting from important natural resources are also evidence of this fact. Women and girls are treated slightly different, too. Even though girls are usually allowed to attend school, the Islamic State’s misogynistic interpretation of Islam makes females’ freedom to move about incredibly difficult and even dangerous. Music is heard in towns and villages recently incorporated into ISIS territory.
The crucial difference between the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations is its emphasis on controlling territory. This essentially certifies their intention to create an actual state. In order to create this future state—a state based on a religious/cultural identity—it is considered necessary to destroy the existing Arab states, who in the eyes of the Islamic State are illegitimate because of how they were created and because they have become servants of the West. By taking advantage of political and other differences between the various factions and states of the Arab world, IS has been able to consolidate territory at a rapid pace.
Ultimately, the leaders of ISIS hope to truly create a modern nation state based on the Salafist Islam understanding of the world, not the understanding of European colonialists, US imperialists or their ideologies. Challenging those who refuse to accept the idea that such a state is either justified or possible, Napoleoni asks the reader if it wasn’t a similar concept—the retrieval of land historically claimed by a people who once lived there—that informed the creation of Israel. Continuing the Israel analogy, she points out that Israel, too, was created through a campaign of terror.
Napoleoni boldly asks if officials of the US may one day be shaking hands with officials of a recognized Islamic State. Although the current political situation seems to indicate this scenario will never happen, the only military solution that could end ISIS’s existence is one that would likely kill thousands of innocents. Military solutions have never worked in the long-term (and rarely in the short term) in the Arab world. There is nothing to indicate that this has changed. Napoleoni ends her short book with a call for all parties to attempt consensus, no matter how difficult it might be; no matter how repulsive each party finds the other. The likelihood of negotiations is currently quite remote and growing more so with each day. There exists little will on any side of the conflict in Iraq and Syria for talking, much less consensus. Napoleoni’s book is but a small contribution towards a potentially different future. One wonders how much bloodshed it will take before those in a position to consider the ideas in her text will do so. One also wonders if by then it will be too late.
As for those of us who are not in officialdom elected or otherwise, our best choice is to oppose the attempt to sell a military solution to a situation that has repeatedly shown there is no military solution. If there is one theme that runs through The Islamist Phoenix, it is that ISIS understands the nature of the current world disorder, perhaps better than any other organized entity, state and non-state. Their manipulation of the media, approach to jihad and battle, and their ability to take advantage of virtually every twist and turn of the Middle East wars indicates this. The response of Washington, its allies and Muslim clients is more of the same—a seemingly endless cycle of war and death. Israel, meanwhile, operates behind the scenes sowing its own discord. This is not in any way a rationalization of the murderous tactics of ISIS, nor is it an expression of support for their war or goals. What is needed is a new way of looking at the challenge that is the Middle East in all its manifestations; a way that considers the fact of ISIS and the sentiments it is tapping into as equal to every other fact present. Dismissing them and other jihadists because of one’s distaste for their tactics or beliefs is guaranteeing more of the same.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.