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I grew up in what you would consider to be a culturally Hindu household. My family wasn’t particularly religious or ritualistic, but we occasionally attended mandirs (temples) for special events and met with family during Diwali. My family, however, belonged to a reformist school of thought that looked to eradicate the dogmatic, illiberal elements of Hindu orthodoxy. This movement is known as the ‘Arya Samaj’ and its founder, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, vociferously chastised apologists of the caste system, an institution of oppression that plagues India to this day. I am in no way proselytizing, but it helps give you an understanding of my perspective.
My mother made one thing clear: our house was not a temple. My family derived their own morality and disagreement was encouraged. I was instilled with a strong sense of autonomy from an early age. My views, no matter how dissenting, never resulted in my family’s condemnation, but was instead met with intelligent rebuttal. Contrarianism was vital to the family spirit and continues to be to this day.
On May 27th, 2015, I had the pleasure of attending the ‘Current Politics of The Middle East’ conference at the Ballsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Several nuanced discussion panels took place revolving around pertinent issues in the Middle East. The third discussion panel talked specifically about the threat of Islamic State (IS). Dr. Paul Freston (Wilfred Laurier University), Dr. Lorne Dawson (University of Waterloo), and Mr. Simon Palamar (Centre for International Governance Innovation) participated in the discussion.
When analyzing IS, it is important to understand that much of it is still an enigma. Mr. Palamar points out that when you strip away a lot of the ostentation (i.e. snuff videos, social media campaigns etc.) you will notice that IS is, for all intents and purposes, fairly uninteresting. IS is not a large organization (about 50,000 people), but it is evident that IS has one of the most successful and sophisticated marketing campaigns in the history of jihadist organizations.
Talking strictly data, Islamic State has recruited the equivalent number of foreign fighters in four years that Afghanistan recruited in fifteen. In contemplating the unprecedented enigma that is IS, I often wonder what makes it so fundamentally distinct in Middle Eastern history. Is religion to blame for much of the strife? The panel opened my eyes to many possible nuanced explanations. Islamic State, and many other terrorist movements, have used religion in the Middle East as a galvanizing tool against political grievances rather than to largely fulfill a theological goal. In the case of IS, the theological goal is a caliphate.
Dr. Paul Freston has an interesting analogy for IS that involves Nazism and the Leninist concept of the Vanguard. He explains that we can analyze the circumstances responsible for Nazism, primarily the Great Depression, defeat in the First World War, the Treaty of Versaille, and multiple more reasons that could have gave rise to Hitler’s popularity and the proliferation of Nazism. But in our analysis of how Nazism came to be, we cannot ignore that the ideology existed irrespective of these events. Hitler referenced an existing manifesto. Such is the case with IS. Its existence is circumstantial, but the Salafi/Wahhabi ideology exists independent of the 2003 Iraq invasion and Assad’s attacks on Syria. Additionally, in the case of Lenin’s Vanguard, IS endorses the Bolshevik idea that you must give history a helping hand. Dr. Freston says they want to ‘bring the future now’. They take on the responsibility of fulfilling the Quranic eschatological prophesy.
Taking Abdul Gamal Nasser’s idea of Arab nationalism as the historical paragon of Middle Eastern identity struggles (referring to the failed ‘Arab Republic’ between Egypt and Syria), IS cannot be analyzed in the context of a nationalist push. Nasser’s Egypt overthrew its monarchy and sought to gain autonomy from all forms of suzerainty imposed by colonial powers. Such is the case with many nation states in the Middle East. Historically, nationalism is formed with a common identity that unifies a people. For example, Palestinian nationalism did not emerge distinct from Arab nationalism until after Al-Nakba. The plight gave Palestinians a unique identity. IS is not unique in this way. They are not a group of indignant Muslims who are disenfranchised from their respective states. They are not in search of a national identity. They are seeking to fulfill a specific goal and they are pushing an anti-West narrative. IS has a number of foreign fighters categorically unprecedented in world history. These are primarily people from various walks of life, lacking any kind of unifying identity except for a profound anger towards the status quo of the world. This is why we see have seen in some cases non-Muslims being recruited to Islamic State.
We have seen this precedent with the extreme right of Palestine (Hamas), the PKK Islamists in Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Shias in Hezbollah. These groups evoke the Frantz Fanon idea that violence is a fully legitimate, and often necessary, reaction to real or perceived oppression. It is easy to locate where the ‘oppressed’ narrative lies in IS. Much like Hitler painted himself as an underdog, the profound dissatisfaction IS has with the world can be potentially attractive, but outrageously duplicitous. Religion, in this case, is being used to galvanize support against a specific grievance. Dr. Dawson says that religion becomes increasingly important as we move closer into the fringe of activism, giving people a purpose and value. This is the problem of social action. The grievances are many, but a small minority actually does anything about it. Doctrine is an important motivator for people in a case like this. It provides a transcendent cause and purpose, regardless of whether or not it’s logical or remotely reasonable. That is why, in the Middle East, we see a lot more Islamist terrorism than secular terrorism. The manifesto of religion is a lot more convincing.
What is the answer to solving this? This was the last question posed to the panel. There were a few prominent answers, but one in particular stuck out to me. Dr. Freston provides yet another analogy, this time of firefighting. He says there are three methods to put out a fire. The first is to douse it with water. This would be an interventionist strategy, putting boots on the ground. The second method would be to fight fire with fire. He explains the idea of setting up counter narratives and propaganda to combat the ideological footing that ISIS enjoys. The last method is to simply let it burn out. IS is a quasi-state and is therefore vulnerable to the same perilous shifts in power that come along with it. Its premise is vastly unsustainable. A growing caliphate will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. A large sum of their revenue is gained from raiding, pillaging, kidnapping/hostage-taking, and extortion. This is hardly a sustainable business model. Sure, they make money off of black market oil, but with virtually no acknowledgement from the international community, they will be pariahs relegated to a deprived standard of living and its leaders will fail to provide for its people. As the panel agrees, a one-country caliphate is a near impossibility.
The second option, fighting fire with fire, is the optimal solution. The issue is not necessarily with the religion of Islam, but our treatment of doctrine and how much power an idea is given. To disempower an ideology or to assuage the radicalization process, there must exist a kind of counter propaganda. Fighting IS militarily may extirpate the threat altogether, but the reason ISIS exists in the first place is partly because of failed interventionist strategies in Iraq in 2007. This is an ideological war. The intensity of anti-West hate became more intense after the Iraq invasion. This kind of aggravation is at the core of radicalization. IS feeds off of cynics and misanthropists, not necessarily Muslims. It is more of a struggle of identity rather than faith, but to defeat an ideology, we must weaken its gravitas. This kind of counter propaganda can be in the form of heated debate, the promulgation of liberal/secular principles, or even satire and ridicule. No ideology is exempt from the scrutiny of the public, regardless of how offensive it is. I would go as far as arguing that exercising our free speech is essential to defeating ideological threats akin to Islamism. It is irresponsible to not seriously confront the doctrinal justification for violence and persecution carried out by Islamic State, or any group bearing the title of Islamic.
It is important for liberals to recognize and declare, as they have done so well, that not all Muslims are Jihadists or support IS. This is important, but hardly sufficient in attacking the pernicious ideology that IS espouses. Surely only a fringe of Muslims would wholeheartedly carry out violent attacks, and of course only a slightly larger minority would applaud such violence. But the tacit indifference towards the link between orthodox Islamic practice and the imposition of fundamentalist ideology, something of which most liberals and mainstream Muslims are guilty, is patently unacceptable. Radicalized Muslims do not exist in a vacuum. The politicization of Islam, which superimposes religious practice onto fascism, leads to not only a perversion of individual faith, but also poses a serious threat to the fabric of a pluralistic society. This is called Islamism and it is the fire we must extinguish as liberals.
Counter narratives are beginning to gain a lot of traction. Tunisia is the state where the Arab Spring actually worked. The Middle East has historically seen excessive discord on the topic of religion. Secularism continues to be gratuitously juxtaposed to the religion of Islam. A truly secular country does not follow the French model of secularism. Despite popular consensus, secularism does not mean ‘no religion’. It simply means beyond the realm of the church. It advocates that the church does not influence the public sphere, especially regarding decisions that affect us all. In fact, secularism protects individual faith because it proposes a world that entertains pluralism. Needless to say, religion is not relevant in the entire analysis of why groups like Islamic State exist, but it proves to be an important factor and must consequently be included in the discussion.
And let us not shy away from our disagreement. Let us welcome it. A heated discourse is essential to all progress. Besides, argument is exciting. Just ask my family.
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