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Many factors combined to produce the nightmare that is Daesh (ISIS): the US invasion of Iraq, Gulf Arab sponsorship and financing, as well as Turkish complicity on many levels. To this list could be added the growing power of Iran, the sectarian reign of Iraq’s former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, the barrel bombs of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Hizballah’s intervention into Syria (a list that is de rigueur for the Gulf and Western media complex).
The roots of Daesh, however, go much deeper and are much older. To uproot them would take a great deal of time. But that does not mean that Daesh—easily one of the greatest dangers this region has ever faced—cannot be defeated. The fact that the group has decided to stake out a territory, a first among radical Islamist groups, is the key to its destruction.
Utopia by the Sword
Hardcore Islamist groups may operate in specific areas out of the reach of the authorities, far away from the major population centers. But these monsters are very much the product of milieus that have developed (to varying degrees) all across the Muslim world, in addition, apparently, in places such as Brussels and Paris.
There are of course historical factors that have led to this—sometimes they are more direct like the sense of humiliation Iraqi Sunnis felt after losing control of the Iraqi state and the dismantling of the Saddam-era army they dominated. Certainly some people are drawn to such ideas due to poverty and deprivation, although most, if not all, of the movement’s leadership is solidly middle class, including a vast network of supporters with deep pockets in the Gulf.
There is a far broader context that has to be considered to understand the appeal of militant jihadism in places as varied as West Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Central and South Asia. The movement’s message resonates because it offers a resolute and familiar answer to the multiple and complex crises that plague most modern Muslim societies. It offers certainty and stability in a fast-changing, increasingly turbulent world.
Historically, such ideas have gained broad support in different parts of the globe, particularly in societies going through a profound social and economic crisis, like fascist Germany of the 1930s. A closer parallel, in my view, is the experience of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, which like Daesh, emerged from the near-apocalyptic devastation inflicted by US bombing and occupation and, in turn, committed some of the worst horrors in modern history.
The vast majority of Muslims live in developing countries with all that life entails in such societies in terms of poverty and social injustice, not to mention the often corrupt and repressive regimes that dominate political life in many places. And since the wave of anti-colonial struggles and the rise of various nationalisms that more or less fizzled out in the 1970s, these societies—with a few exceptions—have failed to recapture that sense of unity and purpose that prevailed as they fought for their liberation.
In the Arab world, the malaise has only been exacerbated by a series of humiliating military defeats and occupations either at the hands of Israel or the United States. Even the tumultuous and, at first, hopeful events that unfolded during the “Arab Spring” did little to reverse the prevailing despair. Worse yet, it led to the strengthening of the most reactionary forces in the region, unleashing the long-repressed radical Islamists with the open support and sponsorship of the Gulf monarchies and emirates on the official level.
Such is the general context that has led to the proliferation of groups like Daesh, and it will take time for these underlying factors to change in any significant way. That, however, does not mean that nothing can be done to fight these organizations and their network of support. Quite the contrary, in many ways the emergence of Daesh can be turned into an opportunity to bring about a speedier end to the takfiri experiment altogether.
Smash the State
To begin with, Daesh’s growth over the past two years has been meteoric, to say the least, but its project is in no way sustainable over time. The group’s fundamental strategy is to be constantly on the offensive on all fronts, inviting anyone sitting on the sidelines to bomb the “caliphate” to smithereens. And even those living under their control, who may have well supported them at first, quickly begin to chafe at their rule.
Also, the fact that Daesh has distinguished itself by actually claiming a geographical area renders it far more vulnerable to physical destruction than the likes of al-Qaeda, which operates in diffuse cells, occasionally carrying out bold attacks like the recent one on the Radisson hotel in Mali. (The latter’s approach seems to have lost much of its appeal, given how quickly it was eclipsed by Daesh in many parts of the world.)
In the long run, Daesh has no way of surviving as a caliphate and its star will eventually wane, even among many of its supporters. Nevertheless, the group poses an immediate and pressing danger due to the scale of horror it is capable of committing each additional day it survives. (The Khmer Rouge, for example, only managed to rule Cambodia for four years, in which time their policies led to the death of over 1.5 million people, in a country whose population was only 8 million at the time.)
More importantly, smashing the “Islamic State” would represent a strategic blow to the further growth of these extreme forces of reaction as a whole. Only then can we begin to focus on the equally difficult task of dealing with the structural and underlying causes that led to its rise, which is certain to be a longer, far more complicated, process.