what i think about isis

today i was asked what i think about isis. i – as a western scholar, a person who has been physically close to the islamic state in iraq, and as a simple human being. figuring that this might be something of interest to a bigger audience, i am now summarizing my explanation of opinion and personal account in this post.

first of all, i believe that one can not kill ideas. and isis is as much an idea as it is a movement.
the idea that supports isis today -and al-qaeda the day before, and others before that…- is a believe of imperial suppression by the western world, by the western way of doing things, by the western mindset and ideology. individual freedom and liberty is in fact not a universal human value, contrary to predominant us-american believe. some societies value honor, community, or loyalty. in fact, there are many different values and moral codes, some religious and others not, that may be more important to the culture and character of a society and its people than those promoted and believed in by the west. forcing upon any of them any idea of liberal peace, market economy, and democracy -despite even best intentions- is prone to create systems susceptible to corruption, nepotism, and so many other fancy concepts western academia has developed to explain why other countries and nations have failed to implement their way of doing things. in the mind of the people, however, a connection between fraud and corruption is directly drawn to ‘the west’ and its ideas in total.
what i believe needs to be recognized from western scholarship and policy-makers is that there are other ideas and values other than their own in this world. another example here is the russian federation, china, or any other part of the world outside the western sphere. the islamic world, after all, is not the only one struggling with an experienced western patronization.
so, if one accepts that there are other believes and values and ways of organizing societies other than what is propagated as ‘the’ model for all human kind and all human times by the western world, one also has to recognize that any (softly or harshly) externally enforced push towards the western way of doing things is largely conceived as intrusion, if not even patronization.
and if one gets this far in trying to understand other peoples perceptions of the world and its current order, i wonder how one could fail to at least acknowledge that eventually this struggle with experienced suppression might also take violent forms. this does not mean that i support violence, or believe in violence as an end or means to finding a solution or relieving suppression. on the contrary, i very strongly feel my own western upbringing here in the preference of peaceful solutions. but this intrinsic value of peaceful solution also tells me that i need to listen and understand the struggle from all perspectives in order to even start to think towards any form of resolution. and just because i do not agree with the perceptions, the ends or the means of a group in this world, does not mean that i can not listen and acknowledge that their perspective has as much value and truth to them as my opinion and values have to me.
bringing this thought back to the islamic state, i personally strongly condemn the acts of brutality and atrocity conducted by isis and its members. i am horrified by the amount of cruelty and inhumanity that is part of their practice and propaganda. and i can not support any of their actions or their interpretation of islam.
at the same time, as a scientist and observer of international affairs, i have to be sober and clear minded enough to realize that isis is yet another form of an idea that is sparked, fed, and sustained by the experience of us-american imperialism and hegemony as well as western ideological patronization.

the reasons i see for why such a brutal form of this idea developed lies in a combination of factors in the area of iraq and syria.
the iraq invasion by the united states in 2003 was a mess. i am not the first person to say this, no surprise there. the western lens of identifying the struggle in iraq as a secular conflict turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. and the radicality of the de-baath-ification programme cemented these new cleavages as much as the maliki-government did upon u.s.-exit. and if a part of the population is expelled from government, put into prison randomly and without justice and trials, and peaceful protests get no attention or are even shot at – eventually the people will radicalize. this has nothing to do with islam. this has nothing to do with ‘arabic culture’. enter syria: given the bad treatment and low levels of opportunity in iraq, anyone with any military talent or the necessary youth to fight, went to syria to support one group or another, to fight for money, for spoils, for thrill. back comes a group that is more organized, more weaponized, and more willing to take a stance – starting by freeing prisoners. until, in one of such operations, in mosul, the iraqi army collapsed, retreated, and enter isis on the stage of international media attention.

putting this historical understanding of the development of isis (as roughly as it was sketched here -for a well done analysis see pbs frontline ‘the rise of isis’, august 2014) together with the understanding and acceptance of there being some in this world who feel suppressed by western ideas and values -simply because they have other values and ways of organizing societies- one can not help but at least acknowledge the presence of isis. and by presence i mean the realization that the people creating this (or other) movement(s) are rationally calculating that the violent form of action is most supportive to their struggle according to their perception of the world’s status quo; which in turn leads to a legitimacy of this movement and action in the supporting society.
and despite isis’ level of brutality seeming like a ‘new’ issue, the thought supporting this and other movements, organizations and groups in fact dates back to the 1950s – at least following adam curtis’ wonderful documentary analysis, in which he shows the irony of us-american neo-conservativisim and radical islamism -as two ideas that faced each other most violently in the bush administration and its wars with afghanistan and iraq- actually having the same root problem: the realization that individualism can lead to a decay of society as a community (the pinnacle of which is foreseen to be an ultimate decay of humanity). and while the neocons come up with one solution, sayyid qutb and others come up with an islamic solution -an idea, a conservative (meaning: facing-backwards-towards-the-past-as-having-been-a-better-time) ideology- which has supported the taliban, boko haram, al-qaeda and many others until today. and even if isis might be gone one day, or might change in its form, this idea, just as any other, can not be killed, no matter the amount or rpgs, f16s, or even size of icbm storage.

second, i believe that isis is here to stay. the only way i see there to be any physical end towards the current form of the movement is in a combination of resolution of the syrian conflict, military containment and engagement of them in iraq, and monetary drying-out of the movement.

now, a solution to the syrian conflict is unlikely at best. international balance of power is still more important than the suffering of the population. (if it was not for the for-european-standards-massive amount of refugees, let’s be honest, we might still not pay attention to the human suffering in syria. yes we would, you say? so what did the european states do 2011? 2012? 2013? 2014? did people not suffer then? if that argument is not enough, i have another single-word-argument for you: libya. libya is as much a mess as syria, the human suffering is to no extent lower, and yet hardly any country takes in libyans – but we care about the human suffering… i see…) let’s just leave it at that -this is an entirely different can of worms.

if there were a solution and stabilization in syria, hypothetically, i could see isis retreat to iraq, where they still have massive holds on territory and the not-to-be-underestimated strategic position of holding the city of mosul. from there, military containment would be realistically doable. yet, anything that goes into the direction of ‘destroying’ them, has to think further than military options. again, bullets do not kill ideas.
the most realistic option, i see is in the economic dyring-out of the movement -which is in itself unrealistic given the many supporters of isis and their access to oil and gas resources (yes, also the black market pays in money; meaning that even if an official economic ban could hurt isis, the black market is still providing a life line). more than resources however, the support from private sponsors as well as diverse governments (note the regional polarization of saudi arabia vs. iran) supporting the idea of a(ny) force engaging and disturbing the kurds or the shias in the region, is a source of revenue that can not be underestimated and that would be hard to effectively dry-out. so instead, when speaking of drying-out, one needs to think in terms of relativity rather than totality.

the level of relativity i see as realistic is one where the local population is forced to rethink their allegiance to the islamic state due to severe suffering from high food prices, impossible living standards etc. (the other question is how long any self-proclaimed-humanitarian-causes-supporting government could uphold such a strategy legitimately…) so far, at least this is my personal impression, these levels of distress are not high enough to the local population in order to rethink their allegiance. and even if it were, what’s the alternative? the iraqi government -which played a big part in creating isis in the first place? or the kurdish autonomous region?
and with that many variables of ‘unrealistic’, ‘potentially’, and ‘maybe’, i feel safe to conclude that isis is here to stay at least for a little while longer.

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