Many Iraqis fled from Mosul when Isis swept in, but why have some supported the group? Photo: Getty
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Why is there Sunni Arab support for Isis in Iraq?

Attempts to understand the success of Isis in Iraq would benefit from Marxist analysis, since social and economic factors are the key to explaining Sunni Arab support for, and complicity with, the group.

For Western military analysts and policy-makers trying to unravel the implosion of Iraq, a Marxist analysis of the situation is long overdue.

The appeal of Isis's extreme religious doctrine to Sunni Arab Iraqis has been well documented, but in fact it is the economic situation of many of those Sunni Arab civilians that lies at the root of their support for the insurgents.

As Isis has overrun great swathes of Iraq in the past two months, it has frequently received complicity, if not all-out support, from many Arab Sunnis (I focus here only on Arab Sunnis; Kurdish Sunnis have met Isis with profound hostility and resistance).

While US analysts believe that Isis comprises only around 10,000 fighters, it has swept with relative ease through the north and west of the country thanks to the Sunni-dominated communities that live there, which have extended a sympathetic reception to the insurgents.

On a superficial level, the attraction of Isis to Iraq's Sunni Arab underdogs is obvious: here is a group of the same sect of Islam that promises them preferential treatment in society and better opportunities than they could ever hope for under the current Shia-dominated leadership.

After all, the plight of the nation’s Sunnis, disenfranchised under Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, is well known.

The religious objectives laid out by Isis are also attractive to Iraqi Sunnis. The insurgents' extreme violence is framed as religious cleansing – wiping out the Shia imams and believers from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

As the New York Times has noted: "Mass execution has been meshed with the use of religious symbolism by the insurgents".

And while Isis's insistence on adherence to extreme conservative conventions may appear harsh to outsiders, the clarity and simplicity of Sharia law is always going to appeal most to downtrodden and insecure communities, like Iraq's poorer Arab Sunnis, who tend to prefer robust law and order to instability.

In addition to the ideological appeal of Isis, the group's social constitution has been a boon in winning over rural Sunnis. There is, relatively speaking, a flat structure to Isis's social and religious make-up that appeals to a poor, agragian society in a way the hierarchical, class-based Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia never would. 

Above all, however, it behoves to consider the specific economic circumstances in which many Iraqi Arab Sunnis have found themselves – roundly ignored by most analysts – in order to explain their inclination to embrace the militants.

Economic deprivation has plagued the Iraqi Sunnis, who are thought to comprise between 20 and 35 per cent of the population (accurate data is lacking), since the 2003 war.

Driven from power by Western forces after enjoying supremacy, and comprising the majority of Saddam's Ba'athist government (Saddam himself was a Sunni Arab from Tikrit), the Sunnis have been increasingly marginalised in the past ten years.

Shunned from the Shia-dominated security forces, Sunnis have little stake in the defense of the country. More than that, however, al-Maliki's refusal to incorporate the Awakening squads of Sunni fighters, who supported the deposition of Saddam and aided the West's invasion, into the mainstream security forces, has meant that most of these Sunni Arabs been faced with a limited choice: suffer unemployment, or join Isis.

While residual Sunni neighbourhoods remain in Baghdad, and the city of Mosul in the north is still a hub of metropolitan Sunnis, around half the country's Sunni Arabs are agragrian, rural-dwelling people.

Despite that, they have been hit hardest by the series of poor harvests and food shortages that Iraq has suffered in the past decade.

It is a bitter irony that Iraq, part of the fertile crescent in the Middle East that has been farmed for 8,000 years, and irrigated by not one, but two great Asian rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, has suffered severe agricultural decline.

Years of neglect and conflict advanced the contraction of the sector in the decades before the Iraq invasion, but agricultural productivity declined a devastating 90 per cent after the 2003 war.

According to reports, Iraqi agriculture is in crisis. The misery of rural Sunni communities that rely on agriculture for their income and subsistence, was compounded by six years of the driest winters on in Iraq from 2004 onwards.

Once a major exporter, Iraq is now reliant year-round on food imports. Many Sunnis have been working hard on the land, and yet struggling to eat, while perceiving metropolitan Shias in Baghdad and the east to be living in luxury.

The economic conditions of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population rendered them at prime risk of uprising.

Even the Iraqi Shia authorities implicitly acknowledge it. Earlier this week, officials were briefing the US press that Isis was successfully recruiting "mostly young men between the ages of 16 and 25 who are primarily poor, unemployed and lack an education".

What they meant were poor, young, underprivileged Sunnis – of whom there is an abundance in Iraq.

The economic deprivation suffered by many Sunni Iraqis is connected to, but distinct from, their marginalisation on the political stage.

Sunnis were already beginning to revolt against their Shia oppressors as far back as 2012. In December that year, tens of thousands of Sunnis took to the streets to protest their disenfranchisement.

Iraq has been riven by political and sectarian conflict for decades, but these considerations are liable to obscure related, but distinct, social and economic factors that are crucial in explaining why Isis has been able to overrun the Sunni-dominated parts of the country unresisted.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses