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.

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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How the refugee crisis became invisible

Since the failed coup in Turkey, there are on average 200 refugees a day arriving in Greece. But the world's media has gone home.

The image was familiar for the volunteers in Lesvos that still man the beaches where refugees arrive by boat from Turkey. It’s been many months since boats carried 256 people in a single day across the narrow passage of sea. The refugee crisis seems to be giving way to much larger geopolitical issues to the east of the Greek coastline. Those refugees stuck here might soon be joined by the thousands that remain in Turkey as the situation in Syria deteriorates. There is no solution is on the horizon for the bloodshed.

Almost 300 people arrived that Thursday last week, a number not seen since a deal between the EU and Turkey was reached this spring to curtail the flow of refugees heading for Europe. Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey last month, however, something has changed. 3,300 people have arrived on the islands of the eastern Aegean since, according to the official data released by the Greek state, averaging around 200 a day. Reports on the ground suggest that the traffickers operating in the area are expecting a new wave of refugees leaving Turkey soon, a card for Tayip Erdogan to play in his bid for visa-free entry to Europe for Turkish citizens.

Since the deal – and unlike last year, which saw more than a million people passing through Greece and heading up the Balkan corridor towards Germany and the prosperous north – the crisis has taken a new shape, and it’s now largely invisible. Lesvos, the island formerly seen as the frontline of the refugee crisis, is unseen, abandoned by the media and the tourists that used to be its main source of income.

The refugees unlucky enough to be stuck in Greece after the borders to Macedonia closed are distributed in camps across the country. The camps established at the points of arrival, known as “hotspots”, are overcrowded to breaking point, with violence often erupting between refugees, locals and the police. Instances of violence against unaccompanied minors by police were even recorded in the Moria camp in June.

Now, for the close to 60.000 people who in limbo while their asylum applications are processed, it’s a waiting game that looks more like prison than anything else. Meanwhile, deportations back to Τurkey have effectively stopped because of the political insecurity and terrorist attacks there, despite the fact it is still deemed a “safe third country”.

Forty-nine camps have been set up across Greece, but the government has announced that more are on their way. Local business owners in Crete have already protested the news of a camp for 2,000 refugees established on the island. After what happened in Lesvos the tourism industry – arguably the country’s most important, contributing close to 10 per cent of the GDP – is nervous.

Inside the camps, reports of overcrowding, poor hygiene, illness, violence, trafficking and drugs are on the rise. Even in Greece, Yazidis are not safe in the camps, and special arrangements have had to be made for them. The Greek and Albanian mafias have infiltrated camps on the mainland, especially around Thessaloniki, and are pushing hard drugs, which have become a solution for some of the refugees stuck there. Around the downtown area of Victoria in Athens, reports by the BBC and Refugees Deeply have found underage boys prostituting themselves in the nearby parks for 5 euros.

Here is the real problem: while the numbers arriving are nowhere near those of last year, the infrastructure available to take them in is now so strained that every new arrival counts. The margin for the most vulnerable between safety and harm, has narrowed to nothing. The Katsikas camp, near my hometown in north-western Greece, paints a grim picture. Set up hastily on the site of an old military airport, it is almost entirely unsuitable to host the simple military tents the refugees are expected to live in. The ground turns to mud every time it rains, and it rains often. There are scorpions and snakes wandering the camp.

Living conditions are so horrible that according to the camp’s director, Filippas Filios, 200 people recently walked out and abandoned it, preferring to try their luck crossing the Albanian or Macedonian borders on foot. From the 1,020 people that were transported here between March and April, just 520 remain. Another space is being prepared to take those remaining before September – an abandoned orphanage. Unlike most of Greece, the weather here is rainy and cold. If preparations stall and they are caught outside, these people are unlikely to remain in the camp under such conditions. Traffickers who have been active in the area for decades, are banking on just that.

The EU, via Angela Merkel saying that “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean sea refugee routes”, is hinting at a similar deal to that with Turkey to try and deal with the flow from Libya. With the current arrangement looking shaky, and those living with the consequences being ignored or even blamed for their predicament, we are on perilous ground. There is hardly anything more that Greece can do.

What’s worse is that in the last few months – under pressure from the EU – the Greek government has been dismantling the solidarity networks that alleviated much of the weight of the crisis last year. But they too, where they still hold, are creaking under the weight of the situation. The conditions in some of these informal camps resemble those in the official camps. The more these people are trapped in either situation, the more likely they are to become victims again, be it of trafficking, drugs or violence. For now, the pro-refugee sentiment still holds in Greece, but the illusionary structure of a “dealt with” crisis might come crashing down sooner than most realise.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.