The recent beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians by the Islamic State (IS) has drawn worldwide condemnation and led the Egyptian military to launch air strikes in Libya. The beheadings are part of a self-conscious form of political spectacle, one intended to garner worldwide media attention – which it did. The violent actions were also intended to rally support for the organization’s goal of establishing a caliphate, an orthodox Islamic state controlled by a single political and religious leader and governed under Sharia law.
Equally critical to its campaign, and too-often unappreciated by media pundits, IS seeks to redraw the traditional borders of what was once known as the Levant. This is a geographic territory little mentioned today, but since Old Testament days has been a war zone of contesting armies and belief systems. Among these confrontations were the Christian Crusades, eight campaigns that dragged on from 1095 to 1272 AD; some say it lasted until 1798.
National borders are not fixed, divinely established and eternal. Rather, they are political constructs, revealing more of the dynamics of political power then the identity of those so governed. No better example of this is the U.S., in which any number of tactics was used to both extend and preserve the nation’s borders. These efforts include outright theft (land of Native peoples), purchase (Louisiana territory), war (with Mexico), subversion (seizure of Hawaii) and civil war (to stop the South from succeeding).
IS is aggressively pursuing a campaign to reverse traditional notions of territoriality, particularly that established by European colonialists following World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Is the Islamic State’s violent challenge to existing boarders of Middle East countries a negative rebellion against globalization?
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The word “Levant” derives from the French term, lever, “to rise,” and refers to the direction of the rising sun from the perspective of the eastern Mediterranean of ancient Greece and Rome. It is synonymous with “Mashriq,” referring to “the east” or “the sunrise.”
The Levant roughly extends 400 miles north from the Taurus Mountains to the Arabian Desert at the south, and across some 70 to 100 miles east from the Mediterranean Sea into the Zagros Mountains of Upper Mesopotamia. Some insist that it includes Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus and part of southern Turkey, but not the Caucasus Mountains or the Arabian Peninsula. In Biblical times, the Levant’s southern part – what’s known as Syria today — was called Canaan.
In June 2014, IS released a video, “Breaking of the Borders,” following its capture of the frontier crossing between northern Syria and Iraq. The victory was a stepping-stone to its capture of Mosul, Iraq’s largest northern city, and which it still controls. “This is not the first border we will break, we will break other borders,” proclaimed the video’s narrator.
“I say to the Islamic Ummah [community],” the speaker adds: “Now we are in Iraq. Allah, glorified and exalted … smashed these borders, the borders of Sykes-Picot, and now the Muslim can enter Iraq without a passport.”
The reference to “the borders of Sykes-Picot” recalls a secret deal concocted by Great Britain and France in May 1916 to carve up the Ottoman Empire in anticipation of victory in the Great War. During the war, the Ottomans allied with Germany and the Central Powers against Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. With war’s end, the victors took out their knives and carved up a territory dating from 1299.
Six centuries of pre-modern rule came to an end and with it a new geopolitical order came to power. The deal, cut by Sir Mark Sykes (Britain) and Francois Georges Picot (France), established spheres of influence for the European great powers. The deal was rooted in the negotiators’ desire to secure control over the principle 20th century energy source, oil. France claimed Syria; Britain got the southern part of Syria covering parts of Mesopotamia (what would become Iraq, Lebanon and parts of Palestine); and an international zone included parts of Palestine. The boundaries established by the deal remain more-or-less in place today.
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The 2007 movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, makes merry the CIA’s adventures in Afghanistan in the early-‘80s. It wonderfully recalls the good-old days of the last great battle of the Cold War and how ever-clever U.S. politicians and undercover operatives fueled a local insurgency that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The movie makes insurgency great fun.
As evident from the experience of Osama bin Laden, many Islamic warriors got their start collaborating with U.S. interests in Afghanistan. The U.S. invasion of Iraq planted the seed from which IS evolved as both a political and military entity. In 2002, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian and leader of Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Organization of Monotheism and Jihad), established al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Following Zarqawi’s death in 2006, AQI morphed into Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). In April 2013, ISI, with a military presence in Iraq and Syria, was rebranded the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The Islamic State (IS) was decreed in June 2014.
IS seeks to overturn the Great Powers’ division of the Levant, thus reshaping traditional national territories into a religious-political caliphate. It has a military and political presence in Syria and Iraq; it is creeping into Lebanon and now Libya (involving the murder of Christian Egyptians). IS even promises to “free Palestine.”
IS is but one of the insurgent movements challenging European colonists’ notions of the nation state set up by Sykes-Picot or other such schemes.
The European Union (EU) suggests one failed approach. It was established in 1957 to facilitate the economic, social and cultural integration – symbolized by the euro and open boarders — of individual countries. It originally consisted of six countries and, today, involves 28 countries and over 500 million people. Since it’s founding, there’ve been calls for the EU to become a “United States of Europe,” with individual countries becoming analogous to U.S. states. However, with the rise of rightwing movements in the France, the UK and other countries as well as Greece’s possible exit, a further reconfiguration of Europe seems unlikely.
The Kurds suggest an alternative transnational political identity. Based in a well-run and strongly militarized area of northern Iraq, it could well emerge as an independent nation state if (as many hypothesize) Iraq breaks up. More troubling, it could then serve as an anchor state aligned with Kurdish separatists in Turkey, a NATO state.
An IS off-shoot, “AfPak,” is spearheading a campaign to create what it calls Islamic State of Khorasan. It covers a region spanning Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as parts of Iran, Central Asia, India, and Bangladesh. (The border between Pakistan and India was established in 1947 under what is known as the “Radcliffe Line,” laid out by yet another British colonialist, Sir Cyril Radcliffe.)
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden,” is terrorizing northern Nigeria. An Islamic fundamentalist group, it has engaged in beheadings, mass killings and the kidnapping of schoolgirl. It originally sought to unite Anglophone Nigeria with its Francophone neighbor Niger, which has a larger Muslims population. It is extending its terrifying tentacles into Niger, Cameroonian and Chad.
The aggressive violence of Islamic fundamentalists in the Levant and Nigeria are reactionary responses to a profoundly destabilized world order. They represent a rejection of what is understood in the West as “civilization,” of secularism, science, democracy, arts, gender equality and sexual pleasure. They are the latest – last? — battles of patriarchy.