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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.