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-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.

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Why orphanages are not the answer to Hurricane Matthew’s devastation

For this year’s New Statesman Christmas charity campaign, we are supporting the work of Lumos in Haiti.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, I found myself driving along the Haitian coast, 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. The storm had barely impacted this part of the country when it hit in early October. There were a few days of rain, some felled trees, and locals complained that water ate away at the beachfront. But nothing remotely comparable to the devastation in other parts of the country.

In an odd turn of events, I found myself traveling in this relatively untouched central zone with two young American women – missionaries. “And there’s an orphanage,” one pointed out as we zoomed by. “And here’s another one too,” the other said, just on the opposite side of the road. They counted them like a memory game: remembering where they’ve popped up, their names, how many children are housed within their walls.

The young women spoke of the neglect and abuse they witnessed in some of them. No matter how “good” an orphanage might be, it simply cannot replace the love, attention, and security provided by a safe family environment. “And it doesn’t matter if the kids look OK. It doesn’t mean anything. You know it’s not right,” the younger of the two quietly says. She was a volunteer in one that cared for 50 children at the time. “Most people who live and work in Haiti don’t like the orphanage system. We keep getting them because of Americans who want to help but don’t live in Haiti.”

In the quick mile of road that we covered, they identified nine orphanages. Two of the orphanages housed less than 10 children, six averaged around 40 children. One housed over 200 children. All but one was set up in the months following the 2010 earthquake. There was a significant increase in the number of orphanages across Haiti in the next four years.

The institutionalisation of children is still the go-to response of many Western donors. US funders have a quick and relatively cheap access to Haiti, not to mention an established history of support to orphanages with nearly seven years’ investment since the earthquake. Many local actors and organisations, international NGO staff, and others in the child protection sphere share the same fear: that many new orphanages will crop up post-hurricane.

But it’s not just orphanage donors who do not understand the true impact of their interventions. Humanitarian relief workers have a gap in institutional knowledge when it comes to best practice in emergency response for this particular vulnerable group of children.

Nearly two months on from the hurricane, rain and flooding continue to hamper humanitarian relief efforts in the south of Haiti. Over 806,000 people still need urgent food assistance and 750,000 safe water, and 220,000 boys and girls remain are at risk, requiring immediate protection. But what about the virtually invisible and uncounted children in orphanages? These children cannot line up to receive the food aid at relief agency distribution centers. They cannot take advantage of child-friendly spaces or other humanitarian services.

We must find a way of reaching children in orphanages in an emergency, and bring their situations up to an acceptable standard of care. They have the right to clean water, food, medical attention, education, and safe shelter – like all other children. But therein lies the catch: orphanages cannot just be rehabilitated into perceived best options for vulnerable families. A balance must be struck to care for institutionalised children in the interim, until family tracing and reunification can occur. Simultaneously, families must be strengthened so that they do not see orphanages as the only option for their children.

We know that nine orphanages per mile does not equal a good emergency response. Housing children along an isolated strip of road segregates them from their families and communities, and violates their best interests and their human rights.

Since I visited Haiti last, Lumos, in partnership with the Haitian government and local partners, has documented over 1,400 children in 20 orphanages in the hurricane-affected South. Vulnerable families have been strengthened in efforts to avoid separation, and we are working with the government to ensure that no new children are placed in orphanages.

We are all worried that, without concerted messaging, efforts to raise awareness among donors, relief agencies, and families, the orphanage boom will happen again in Haiti. And though Haiti is susceptible to natural disaster, its families and children shouldn’t have to be. In seven years we cannot find ourselves repeating the same sorry mantra: “and there’s another orphanage, and another, and another. . .”

Jamie Vernaelde is a researcher with Lumos, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @jmvernaelde

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at http://bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: http://wearelumos.org