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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A loyalist rebranded: will Ségolène Royal run again to be the French President?

The French press is speculating about Ségolène Royal replacing François Hollande as the Socialist candidate.

“I will lead you to other victories!” Ségolène Royal told the crowds gathered in front of the French Socialist party’s headquarters on 6 May 2007.

Many at the time mocked her for making such an odd statement, just after losing to Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election. But nearly ten years on, she might just be the candidate the French left needs to win the upcoming presidential election.

There is growing speculation that the current President François Hollande – who was Royal’s partner for 30 years and the father of her four children – will not be in a position to run again. His approval ratings are so low that a defeat in next May’s election is almost inevitable. His own party is starting to turn against him and he can now only count on a handful of faithful supporters.

Royal is among them. In the past, she probably would have jumped at the opportunity to stand for election again, but she has learned from her mistakes. The 63-year-old has very cleverly rebranded herself as a wise, hard-working leader, while retaining the popular touch and strong-willed character which led to her previous successes.

Royal has an impressive political CV. She became an MP in 1988 and was on several occasions appointed to ministerial positions in the 1990s. In 2004, she was elected President of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France. In 2006, Royal won the Socialist party’s primary by a landslide ahead of the presidential election.

She went on to fight a tough campaign against Sarkozy, with little support from high-ranking members of her party. She ended up losing but was the first woman to ever go through to the second round of a French presidential election.

After that, it all went downhill. She split up with Hollande and lost the election to be party leader in 2008. She was humiliated by only getting 6.95 per cent of the votes in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary. She hit an all-time low when in 2012 she stood as the Socialist party’s official candidate to become MP for La Rochelle on the French west coast and lost to Olivier Falorni, a local candidate and Socialist party “dissident”. Royal then took a step back, away from the Parisian hustle and bustle. She continued to serve as the Poitou-Charentes regional President but kept largely out of the media eye.

Royal was very much the people’s candidate back in 2007. She drew her legitimacy from the primary result, which confirmed her huge popularity in opinion polls. She innovated by holding meetings where she would spend hours listening to people to build a collaborative manifesto: it was what she called participatory democracy. She shocked historical party figures by having La Marseillaise sung at campaign rallies and Tricolores flying; a tradition up until then reserved for right-wing rallies. She thought she would win the presidency because the people wanted her to, and did not take enough notice of those within her own party plotting her defeat.

Since then, Royal has cleverly rebranded herself – unlike Sarkozy, who has so far failed to convince the French he has changed.

When two years ago she was appointed environment minister, one of the highest-ranking cabinet positions, she kept her head down and worked hard to get an important bill on “energy transition” through Parliament. She can also be credited with the recent success of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Above all, she has been impeccably loyal to the President.

Royal has reinforced her political aura, by appearing at Hollande’s side for state occasions, to the extent that French press have even labelled her “the Vice-President”. This has given her a licence to openly contradict the Prime Minister Manuel Valls on various environmental issues, always cleverly placing herself on virtue’s side. In doing so, not only has she gained excellent approval ratings but she has pleased the Green party, a traditional ally for the Socialists that has recently turned its back on Hollande.

The hard work seems to have paid off. Last Sunday, Le Journal du Dimanche’s front-page story was on Royal and the hypothesis that she might stand if Hollande does not. She has dismissed the speculations, saying she found them amusing.

Whatever she is really thinking or planning, she has learned from past errors and knows that the French do not want leaders who appear to be primarily concerned with their own political fate. She warned last Sunday that, “for now, François Hollande is the candidate”. For now.

Philip Kyle is a French and English freelance journalist.