More local objectives than anti-Western ideology. Photo: Getty
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Theological explanations are a diversion when looking at the rise of Islamic State

Look beyond the smokescreen of Islamic "essence" when analysing the motives of Islamic State.

In a “post-ideological” West, the “East” is persistently filtered through the lens of ideology, and, specifically, through the lens of Islam, with the latest moral panic over Islamic State (IS) its most recent manifestation.

For all the talk of ideology, our knowledge of IS is actually extremely limited. As Professor Alireza Doostdar points out, “We know close to nothing about IS' social base. We know little about how it made its military gains, and even less about the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered with various groups — from other Islamist rebels in Syria to secular Ba‘athists in Iraq.” The fact is, much of what we take as “knowledge” about IS is gleaned either from their uncritically reproduced propaganda videos, which aim to present the group’s narrative as coherent and substantiated, or from Western devotees to the cause who in fact, make up only a small proportion of the group’s estimated 20,000-31,500 fighters and who’s motivations for joining might have far more to do with our representations of the group – as a counter-cultural challenge to the supremacy of Western ideals – than what the group is actually about. IS is certainly “anti-Western” in its outlook, but its objectives are local — controlling land and resources in order to establish a state in which a previously disenfranchised group will experience pre-eminence.

Given that a majority of recruits are in fact local, it is worth questioning the notion they’ve all undergone an ideological conversion before joining a group, which is just one of many arguing for the mantle of legitimate struggle and leadership in the region. Rather than ideas – because let’s face it, Al Baghdadi’s view that the world's Muslims should live under one Islamic state ruled by sharia law is hardly an intellectual innovation – perhaps it is the group’s strategic and tactical abilities which have won them repute among fighters seeking a united leadership. Or in some cases, the calculation may simply be financial, with salaries reportedly ranging from $300 to $2000 per month.

The ideological narrative also implies widespread Sunni Iraqi support for IS which, less than a newfound commitment to radical ideals, is more likely often a reflection of political calculations in an extremely precarious climate. The populations within IS controlled territory are in many cases victims many times over of a systematic use of extreme violence to force population compliance. Why else do IS display severed heads on town railings? As useful as essentialist arguments for bloodthirsty barbarians may be, the truth is violence is usually a strategic calculation to advance political objectives, in this case widespread docility of terrified locals.

The focus on theological explanations also obscures what the polls tell us about popular opinion in the Arab world. How else are we to reconcile the allegedly wide pool of IS supporters in Iraq with the fact the entire region, Iraq included, has seen a decline in support for political Islam (including the non-violent, participationist variants) and that despite a fall in support for democracy in Iraq – likely the result of domestic factors – 76 per cent of Iraqis agree or strongly agree with the statement: “A democratic system may have problems, yet it is better than other political systems.” 

In fact, defining conflicts in strictly ideological terms is simply a way of relieving ourselves from any substantive assessment of the environmental factors at play. Forgotten are the discussions of the real causes of a country’s malaise – which in the case of both Syria and Iraq are manifold, and instead is a singular discourse focused on a theological argument for an Islamic State. To quote Jeremy F. Walton, what is missing in the current discourse is “an account of the decades of communitarian inequality and war in Iraq and Syria, where two Ba‘thist regimes — Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and that of the Asad’s in Syria—yoked political representation and economic privilege to sectarian and ethnic identity, Sunni Arab in the case of Iraq and Alawite in the case of Syria.”

This isn’t to say that ideology or ideas more broadly have no explanatory power in assessing groups like IS, but surely the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, the absence of viable, let alone representative and accountable governments, and the use of violence as a political tool by both governments, like the Assad regime, or militant groups across the region, should be afforded greater prominence than the ‘ideological’ outlook of a group who’s most sophisticated theological output so far has been a Friday sermon!

Our obsession with textuality – even when in this case the texts themselves are conspicuously absent – is indicative of the persistence of philological readings of events in the Middle East. This has allowed for a variant of the same argument – Islam is the problem – to be used to both exculpate all other factors, be they foreign interventions or domestic dictatorships, from responsibility, while pinning blame on the populations themselves for their state of woe. What transforms Ancient Texts into radical handbooks for justifying mass murder? The political conditions under which they are being read.

And just as texts don’t speak for themselves, neither do IS propaganda videos, specifically designed and edited to convey the impression of a coherent narrative. And yet, we see very little effort to unpick the discourse, the constructed self-definition, little effort to look beyond the smokescreen because it reflects back precisely the sort of organisation we expect to see emerge from the ME, ideology incarnate. History, politics, economics, all deemed irrelevant in the face of this Islamic “essence” which represents the consistent explanatory variable in the behaviour of Eastern folk.

A recent report by the Washington Post pointed to Camp Bucca, one of the Iraq war’s most notorious prisons, as having funnelled 100,000 detainees through its barracks, and described the center as “an opening chapter in the history of the Islamic State” with many of its leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and nine members of his top command previously incarcerated there. These men had formerly been part of the insurgency fighting the US presence in Iraq and in prison, a convenient collaboration was to emerge between previously longstanding enemies, Baathist secularists and radical Islamists, united in a common purpose. There is no more telling evidence of the pragmatic accommodation of ideology to political necessity than the marriage of these two diametrically opposed and historically antagonistic outlooks, secular leftist and religious literalist.

The discussion of IS needs to move beyond both eschatological and philological diversions – the roots of its violence isn’t cultural, but rather, as long argued by the scholar Mahmood Mamdani, political violence demands a political explanation.

Myriam Francois is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT world, a global news network, and was the presenter of documentaries including BBC One's “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited”.

She is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues. She also undertakes the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination in relation to its work on British Muslim communities.
Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. 

She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.