More local objectives than anti-Western ideology. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

Show Hide image

US election 2016: Trump threatens to deny democracy

When asked if he would accept the result of the election, the reality TV star said that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

During this insane bad-acid-trip of an election campaign I have overused the phrase “let that sink in.”

There have been at least two dozen moments in the last 18 months which I have felt warranted a moment of horrified contemplation, a moment to sit and internalise the insanity of what is happening. That time a candidate for president brought up his penis size in a primary election debate, for one.

But there was a debate last night, and one of the protagonists threatened to undermine democracy in the United States of America, which throws the rest of this bizarre campaign into stark relief.

It was the third and final clash between an experienced if arguably politically problematic former senator and secretary of state – Hillary Clinton –  and a reality TV star accused of a growing number of sexual assaults – Donald Trump – but the tone and content of the debate mattered less than what the latter said at one key, illuminating moment.

That statement was this: asked if he would accept the result of the election, Donald Trump said that he was going to “look at it at the time,” and that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

If your jaw just hit the floor, you have responded correctly. The candidate for the party of Lincoln, the party of Reagan, the party of Teddy Roosevelt, declined to uphold the most fundamental keystone of American democracy, which is to say, the peaceful transition of power.

Let that sink in. Let it sit; let it brew like hot, stewed tea.

This election has been historic in a vast number of ways, most important of which is that it will be, if current polling is to be believed, the election which will bring America's first female president to the White House, almost a century after women's suffrage was enabled by the 19th amendment to the constitution in August 1920.

If the last near-century for women in America has been a journey inexorably towards this moment, slowly chipping away at glass ceiling after glass ceiling, like the progression of some hellish video game, then Donald Trump is as fitting a final boss as it could be possible to imagine.

For Trump, this third and final debate in Las Vegas was do-or-die. His challenge was near-insurmountable for even a person with a first-class intellect, which Trump does not appear to possess, to face. First, he needed to speak in such a way as to defend his indefensible outbursts about women, not to mention the increasing number of allegations of actual sexual assault, claims backstopped by his own on-tape boasting of theoretical sexual assault released last month.

This, he failed to do, alleging instead that the growing number of sexual assault allegations against him are being fabricated and orchestrated by Clinton's campaign, which he called “sleazy”, at one point to actual laughs from the debate audience.

But he also needed to reach out to moderates, voters outside his base, voters who are not electrified by dog-whistle racism and lumbering misogyny. He tried to do this, using the Wikileaks dump of emails between Democratic party operators as a weapon. But that weapon is fatally limited, because ultimately not much is in the Wikileaks email dumps, really, except some slightly bitchy snark of the kind anyone on earth's emails would have and one hell of a recipe for risotto.

In the debate, moderator Chris Wallace admirably held the candidates to a largely more substantive, policy-driven debate than the two previous offerings – a fact made all the more notable considering that he was the only moderator of the three debates to come from Fox News – and predictably Trump floundered in the area of policy, choosing instead to fall back on old favourites like his lean-into-the-mic trick, which he used at one point to mutter “nasty woman” at Clinton like she'd just cut him off in traffic.

Trump was more subdued than the bombastic lummox to which the American media-consuming public have become accustomed, as if his new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had dropped a couple of Xanax into his glass of water before he went on stage. He even successfully managed to grasp at some actual Republican talking-points – abortion, most notably – like a puppy who has been semi-successfully trained not to make a mess on the carpet.

He also hit his own favourite campaign notes, especially his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - but ultimately his intrinsic Donald Trumpiness couldn't stop itself from blazing through.

Remember the Republican primary debate when Trump refused to say that he would accept the party's nominee if it wasn't him? Well, he did it again: except this time, the pledge he refused to take wasn't an internal party matter; it was two centuries of American democratic tradition chucked out of the window like a spent cigarette. A pledge to potentially ignore the result of an election, given teeth by weeks of paranoiac ramblings about voter fraud and rigged election systems, setting America up for civil unrest and catastrophe, driving wedges into the cracks of a national discourse already strained with unprecedented polarisation and spite.

Let it, for what is hopefully just one final time, sink in.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.