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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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt