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New Statesman: Theological explanations are a diversion when looking at the rise of Islamic State

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You can read the original piece on the New Statesman site here

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 bysharia 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 bloodthirty 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 Iraqisagree 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.


Written by Myriam Francois

November 13, 2014 at 15:33

Middle East Eye: The language of ‘evil’ doesn’t help us defeat IS

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You can read the full article here, on the MEE website

The horrifying beheading of British aid worker David Haines by the so-called Islamic State (IS) militants, and the spectre of future executions following the release of a video featuring journalist John Cantlie has once again shone the spotlight on IS’s violent tactics. Although the latest video seems to reflect a shift in strategy with Cantlie appearing alone, without the presence of an IS figure threatening him, his fate may ultimately prove no less brutal. Indeed the group has come to be associated with extreme acts of violence against both local populations and foreign nationals living in the region.

In a tweet, British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to Haynes’ murder “an act of pure evil” and described IS as “monsters”. But how helpful to our understanding of IS is it to label their actions using cosmic references to wickedness, and how effective can our response be if we fail to assess violence as a deliberate strategy?

IS’s staged approach to its executions – set, scripted, filmed and edited – suggests the group revel in their brutal image. They feed off the shock which their carefully choreographed actions engender and the horror they elicit only fuels their sense of power. After all, the way they like to depict their captives, dressed in the sort of orange jumpsuits we’re more used to seeing on Guantanamo detainees, reflects precisely the sort of power relations they are seeking to present – the tables are turned they are saying, we are the super-power now, it is your citizens whom we will do with as we please.

But it is precisely because of the group’s efforts to manage its image as a seemingly well organised, fully functioning state, with PR machine to boot, that we must be attentive not to readily accept their crafted appearance. In fact, according to French security specialist Alain Chouet, IS could well struggle to manage the territory it has conquered due to a lack of both manpower and funds, a much needed depiction of the group’s real, rather than overstated capabilities, which redresses some of the often unwitting hype created around the group. Just because IS controls territory the size of the UK, doesn’t mean the group can or should be regarded as a state or even entity of any equivalence. To quote the Arab academic Nazih Ayubi, referring to the region’s actual, existing states, “the real power, efficacy and significance of this state might have been overestimated.” The same is true but to a far greater extent concerning IS. A state suggests elements of legitimacy and consent wholly absent from this group’s engagement with local populations. To accept their self-declared status as a state is to implicitly accept their claim to representation, yet again favouring unrepresentative political pretenders over the drowned out voice of the people.

IS want to be perceived as a threat significant enough to be treated as an “equal” by Western states, and this is precisely why using the language of state actors, such as when both the White House and the Pentagon described the United States as “at war” with the group, only serves to reinforce the group’s mystique. In not adequately challenging IS’s narrative as an equal interlocutor, a rival “state”, we risk allowing the videos of these beheadings to become what the images of the fall of the Twin towers were for Al Qaeda, a victory totem and a rallying call to a group which seeks to build its support on an image of an ‘alternative utopia’ resisting Western might.

France recently announced it would no longer refer to the group by its chosen name, but by the derogatory term “Daesh”, partly to challenge precisely this narrative. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared: “This is a terrorist group and not a state. (…) The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.”

In so doing, the French have actively rejected the group’s rebranding as “the Islamic State” and the concomitant attempt to lay claim to grandeur of Muslim empires by a guerrilla group who as Professor Fawaz Gerges from the LSE points outs, “actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base.” In fact, violence is central to the group’s strategy. Fawaz describes the violence as a rational choice, arguing that it represents a “conscious decision to terrorise enemies and impress and co-opt new recruits.” That is to say there is a logic behind the use of extreme violence. A logic which belies notions of an ahistorical “evil”.

When we refuse to see the perpetrators of violence as anything more than moral renegades, we risk overlooking the ways in which violence has in fact been not only key to the construction of the modern state, but central in fact to the very narrative of progress. Clearly, not all violence is equal. We accept the necessity of violence when we attribute it to a higher moral cause, but deem it senseless if the violence doesn’t fit our own narrative of progress. In the case of IS, understanding what motivates their belief in “violence as progress” is central to defeating them.

The violence meted out by IS today is itself happening in a region which has experienced the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians over the last decade: over 200, 000 in Syria in the last three years alone, and hundreds of thousands more in Iraq before that. In both cases, extreme violence has been justified in order to either midwife or ‘protect’ the modern state, and to advance given ideals, of nationalism or democracy-promotion.

Understanding that IS’s violence has emerged from the overlap of two of the deadliest conflicts in the region is to realise that the group represents a continuation of local aspirations for self-governance in a context where violence has been the language of power and rule. While modern democracies evolve non-violent methods for ensuring public acquiescence, linking participatory initiatives to political success, in the region IS currently occupies, despite attempts a democratic process, brute violence has been the mark of the successful ruler. What’s more, their methods – crucifixions, beheadings and other forms of cruelty have become increasingly common among other, less high profile groups, whose exclusively Arab and Muslim targets make for less prominent headlines.

Despite the temptation to view IS as Al-Qaeda 4.0, a more accurate representation would be the apogee of the guerrilla groups which have come to over-run the failed states in the region. Unlike Al-Qaeda’s ‘transnational Jihad’, IS’s focus is state building in Syria and Iraq. While for Al-Qaeda, the main impediment to Muslim autonomy was Western meddling, rendering the West a target, IS’s main focus has been local targets they deem as “enemies”.

The focus on “evil Islamists” might be a useful bogeyman against which to rally public support, but it fails to understand IS’s violence either as a strategy to intimidate its opponents and inflate its weight, or as part of its internalised repertoire of state building.

Defeating them can’t possibly come through inflicting yet more violence on a battered region, nor in the form of Obama’s coalition of Western military interventionism teamed with notoriously repressive autocracies. The tried and hardly successful recipe, is unlikely to provide the necessary elements for a counter to the narrative of violence which has gained strength in the wake of the demise of the Arab uprisings, a narrative which claims political routes are ineffective and violence alone can build an independent Arab state. Ultimately, there is only one long term solution – a genuine process of inclusive state-building. Without it, the trumped up claims of impostor groups like IS seem far more convincing than they truly are.

Written by Myriam Francois

September 22, 2014 at 10:58

BBC Sunday Morning Live: How does Britain deal with home grown extremism

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you can watch the discussion here, featuring myself, Shiraz Maher, Lord Robert Winston, Douglas Murray and Dame Ann Leslie.

The 9/11 decade- lessons learned

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To dub the last ten years the ‘9/11 decade’ seems a rather apt description. Virtually every facet of our lives, from the villains in our Hollywood blockbusters, to Kanye West’s hit tracks, via Nobel Prize winning Literature, has reflected in some way or another, the post 9/11 climate.

Tragedies carry within them the potential to unify our global village as we connect with the humanity of others. In the roots of the violence and in the unfolding of conflict, are the sacrificial pearls for which we paid too high a price. But if we fail to derive any lessons from the calamities which befall us, we’ve paid the highest price of all. Speaking to a Holocaust survivor, academic Mahmood Mamdani asked the man what lesson had to be gleaned from this crime. His answer was ‘never again’.

The phrase, Mamdani noted, could lend itself to two markedly different conclusions. Never again to my people, or never again to any people. At stake between the two possible conclusions, he contends, is nothing less than our common survival.

The 9/11 decade was born out of the tragedy of that day, but it went on to be moulded by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, (in no European country was support for unilateral war higher than 11%) and of course by the so-called “war on terror”, (a term which everybody from Rumsfeld to David Miliband, is now bending over backwards to reject, recognising as they must be, that you don’t defeat ideas with tanks).
The buzz words which have marked the decade have undoubtedly been ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ , extolled ad nauseum, yet rarely discussed in substance. Whose freedom and what democracy?

“They hate our freedom”, a belligerent Bush Jr informed the nation after the attacks, as his Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” (the age of freedom perhaps?).

Over the next ten years, in the name of our freedom, so threated was it we were told, our governments undertook the decimation of other people’s dignity and sold us a disgracefully deceitful tale of urgent self-preservation at all costs. At any cost ($3.7 trillion in the US). As long as we’re safe.

And yet, according to John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor, the number of Americans worldwide “who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It’s basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year.” Relatively speaking, Americans have been safe this decade. As for us Brits, we’re still six times more likely to die from hot weather (!) than from a terrorist attack. Or heart disease (17,600 times more likely in fact.)

We’re certainly a lot safer than Iraqi babies in Falluja, struggling with chronic deformities.. Safer than Afghan civilians, whose numbers killed hit record levels, in February this year.
Although America has escaped Al Qaida inspired terrorism on its soil since that day, many other nations have been less fortunate. In Algeria, Egypt, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, Bali, Spain, Turkey, Somalia, Mali – to name but a few, people have been less fortunate. People have been less free.

In the name of protecting our freedom, (which may not be that threatened after all… ), many of us accepted complicity in the decimation of the Iraqi people, their infrastructure, Mesopotamian culture – we accepted the murder of thousands of Afghan civilians in US airstrikes as ‘collateral damage’ – no less innocent working in their market places than those who died in those towers. No less deserving of freedom from fear, from Karzai’s US backed kleptocracy, from drone attacks. Despite being an oil rich country, hikes in oil prices have left over 42% of Afghans living in acute poverty. A journalist friend recounted seeing children walking barefoot in the snow… The price tag of our strange kind of freedom…

Closer to home, we’ve accepted that protecting our ‘freedom’, means spying on our neighbours, students or colleagues. We’ve accepted control orders, restricting our fellow citizen’s liberty for the purpose of “protecting members of the public from a risk of terrorism” – a risk

We’ve accepted having our phones taped, our emails hacked – we’ve accepted criminalising women who don’t conform to our notion of burka-less freedom. We’ve arrested and detained innocent men and women for undefined periods. In the interest of freedom, we’ve placed limits on free speech, invented thought crimes of Orwellian proportions (ask the so-called ‘lyrical terrorist’ Samina Malik). We’ve accepted that Europe now has the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion have risen, (Pew poll).

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that “they who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.” The decisions made in this post 9/11 climate, allegedly to preserve our freedom and democratic “way of life”, have had a hugely corrosive effect on both of these. Have we become complacent about their real value?

The personal tragedy which befell the victims and their families on September 11th was instrumentalised as a casus belli, with all the attendant ethics of exceptionalism which war implies. Military tribunals for terrorism suspects included.

This decade has seen attempts by the British government to rehabilitate torture (in the context of deportation), justify it (the case of Baha Mousa- ‘a few bad apples, under immense strain’), the introduction of extraordinary rendition which Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti refers to bluntly as, “kidnapping and torture”, Section 7, detention without trial, surveillance, profiling, and the discovery of new territories (outer space presumably) in which the Geneva convention was said not to apply (Guantanamo)…

In his now infamous speech to congress in the days following the attacks, Bush Jr pontificated: “They hate (…) our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” If this statement were true – which it is not – the terrorists would have been handed a second macabre victory in the debasement of our democratic values.

“You cannot torture people in democracy’s name,” Chakrabarti recently stated in a sadly necessary truism. And yet, the 9/11 climate has allowed just that. It has given unscrupulous politicians carte blanche with which to wage wars disguised as moral crusades , to claim democracy could be imposed by force, that there were people on this earth who hate freedom (the same people who now go out to vote under mortar fire).

We’ll look back and say the 9/11 decade was that in which the price of our freedom, of the gilded cage variety, was democracy. What Arundhati Roy calls “the modern world’s holy cow”. Reduced to a hollow shell, an imperialist slogan to serve the economic interests of a few powerful fools, the faceless fat-cats at Unocal and Shell.

And all the while, the talking heads continue to insult our intelligence by citing a concern for women’s rights, or invisible WMDs, somewhere hidden in a sand dune (why they wouldn’t have been used when the US actually invaded remains to be seen).
Ali ibn Abi Talib is known to have said: “The only man who can beat me in an argument is the ignorant one.” What more is there to say of the Richard Perles of this world, who on BBC Question Time recently, claimed that ‘Iraqi democracy has been an inspiration for the Arab revolutions…’

We’ve yet to see the Iraqi revolution…

9/11 was not an attack on either our freedom or our democracy. The politically motivated crime, perpetrated by largely educated, frustrated young men has contrary to popular misbelief, been elucidated at length in Bin Laden’s addresses to the world. In his first address to a broad public in 1994, the question of Palestine was central (incidentally perhaps, September 11th 1922 was when the British mandate of Palestine began..), as was the US presence in so-called “muslim lands” – alongside issues of corruption and the subordination of principles to political objectives, (in the form of the subservience of the Saudi clerics to the Saudi government).

In subsequent broadcasts, the issue of imperialism dominates.

Ten years on, we are back where many would have hoped we might have started – with the former head of M15, Eliza Mannigham-Buller stating: “terrorism is resolved through politics and economics not through arms and intelligence, however important a role these play”.

The real threat to freedom and democracy comes from within, from our response to this tragedy and from the concessions we’ve made to fear. Ten years on, we’re like the boy in the bubble. Safe if we remain within our borders, fearful of those who might seek to challenge our sterile safety. But the ‘we’ is narrow and the safety largely illusory. Like Bubble boy, if we have the gusto to throw off our bubble for the sake of our principles, we might recapture those values our bubble of fear has been shielding us from for far too long…

Written by Myriam Francois

September 11, 2011 at 00:34