It is not only Western agendas that benefit by groups like the Islamic State; Arab and regional agendas are equally served, writes Ramzy Baroud
What if the so-called Islamic State (IS) didn’t exist?
In order to answer this question, one has to liberate the argument from its geopolitical and ideological confines.
Many in the media (Western, Arab, etc) use the reference “Islamist” to brand any movement at all, whether it is political, militant or even charity-focused. If it is dominated by men with beards or women with headscarves that make references to the Holy Quran and Islam as the motivator behind their ideas, violent tactics, or even good deeds, then the word “Islamist” is the language of choice.
According to this overbearing logic, a Malaysia-based charity can be as “Islamist” as the militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria. When the term “Islamist” was first introduced to the debate on Islam and politics, it carried mostly intellectual connotations. Even some “Islamists” used it in reference to their political thought. Now, it can be moulded to mean many things.
This is not the only convenient term that is being tossed around so deliberately in the discourse pertaining to Islam and politics. Many are already familiar with how the term “terrorism” manifested itself in the myriad of ways that fit any country’s national or foreign policy agenda — from the US’s George W Bush to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In fact, some of these leaders accused one another of practising, encouraging or engendering terrorism while positioning themselves as crusaders against terror. The American version of the “war on terror” gained much attention and bad repute because it was highly destructive. But many other governments launched their own wars to various degrees of violent outcomes.
The flexibility of the usage of language very much stands at the heart of this story, including that of IS. We are told the group is mostly made of foreign jihadists. This could have much truth to it, but the notion cannot be accepted without much contention.
Why does the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad insist on the “foreign jihadists” claim and did so even when the civil war plaguing his country was still at the stage of infancy, teetering between a popular uprising and an armed insurgency? It is for the same reason that Israel insists on infusing the Iranian threat — its supposedly “genocidal” intent towards Israel — in every discussion about the Hamas-led resistance in Palestine, and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
There are ample examples of governments of the Middle East ingraining the “foreign menace” factor when dealing with solely internal phenomena — violence or otherwise. The logic behind it is simple: if the Syrian civil war is fuelled by foreign fanatics, then Al-Assad can exact his violence against rebelling Syrians in the name of fighting foreigners/jihadists/terrorists.
Netanyahu remains the master of political diversion. He vacillates between peace talks and Iran-backed Palestinian “terror” groups in whatever way he finds suitable. The desired outcome is placing Israel as the victim of — and crusader against — foreign-inspired terrorism. Just days after Israel carried out what was described by many as “genocide” in Gaza (killing over 2,200 and wounding over 11,000), Netanyahu once more tried to shift global attention by claiming that the so-called Islamic State was at the Israeli border.
For the US and its Western allies, the logic behind the war is hardly removed from the war discourse engendered by previous US administrations, most notably that of George W Bush and his father. It is another chapter of the unfinished wars that the US unleashed in Iraq over the last 25 years. In some way, IS, with its brutal tactics, is the worst possible manifestation of American interventionism.
In the first Iraq war (1990-91), the US-led coalition seemed determined to achieve the clear goal of driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and to use that as a starting point to achieve complete US dominance over the Middle East. Back then, George Bush Sr had feared that pushing beyond that goal could lead to the kind of consequences that would alter the entire region and empower Iran at the expense of America’s Arab allies. Instead of carrying out regime change in Iraq itself, the US opted to subject Iraq to a decade of economic torment — a suffocating blockade that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. That was the golden age of America’s “containment” policy in the region.
However, US policy in the Middle East, under Bush’s son, George W Bush, was reinvigorated by new elements that somewhat altered the political landscape leading to the second Iraq war in 2003. Firstly, the attacks of 11 September 2001 were dubiously used to mislead the public into another war by linking Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda; and secondly, there was the rise of the neoconservative political ideology that dominated Washington at the time. The neo-cons strongly believed in the regime change doctrine that has since proven to be a complete failure.
It was not just a failure, but also a calamity. Today’s rise of IS, in fact, is a mere bullet point in a tragic Iraq timeline which started the moment George W Bush began his “shock and awe” campaign. This was followed by the fall of Baghdad, the dismantling of the country’s institutions (the de-Baathification of Iraq), and the “missions accomplished” speech. Since then, it has been one adversity after another. US strategy in Iraq was predicated on destroying Iraqi nationalism and replacing it with a dangerous form of sectarianism that used the proverbial “divide and conquer” stratagem.
The US has indeed succeeded in dividing Iraq, may be not territorially but certainly in every other way. Moreover, the war brought Al-Qaeda to Iraq. The group used the atrocities inflicted by the US war and invasion to recruit fighters from Iraq and throughout the Middle East. And like a bull in a china shop, the US wrecked more havoc on Iraq, playing around with sectarian and tribal cards to lower the intensity of the resistance and to busy Iraqis with fighting each other.
When US combat troops allegedly departed Iraq, Al-Qaeda was supposedly weakened. In actuality, on the eve of the US withdrawal, Al-Qaeda had branched off into other militant manifestations. They were able to move with greater agility in the region, and when the Syrian uprising was intentionally-armed by regional and international powers, Al-Qaeda resurfaced with incredible power, fighting with prowess and unparalleled influence. Despite misinformation about the roots of IS, Al-Qaeda in Iraq and IS are the same. Their differences are an internal matter, but their objectives are ultimately identical.
US-Western and Arab motives in the war against IS might differ. But both sides have keen interest in partaking in the war and an even keener interest in refusing to accept that such violence is not created in a vacuum. The US and its Western allies refuse to see the obvious link between IS, Al-Qaeda and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Arab leaders insist that their countries are also victims of “Islamist” terror, produced not by their own anti-democratic and oppressive policies, but by Chechen and other foreign fighters who are bringing Dark Age violence to otherwise perfectly peaceable and stable political landscapes.
For the US-led coalition, IS must exist, although every member of the coalition has their own self-serving reasoning to explain their involvement. And since Islamic State is mostly made of “foreign jihadists” from faraway lands, speaking languages that few Arabs and Westerners understand, then, somehow, no one is guilty, and the current upheaval in the Middle East is someone else’s fault. Thus, there is no need to speak of Syrian massacres or of Iraq wars and its massacres, for the problem is obviously foreign.
If the so-called Islamic State didn’t exist, many in the region would be keen on creating it.
The writer is managing editor of Middle East Eye.