Islamic State of Mind

Written by Nicholas Barrett on . Posted in Current features, Features

Red purport to show IS controlled territory

Red purport to show IS controlled territory

On February 3rd the Washington Post inauspiciously reported that Al-Qaeda had “formally dissociated itself from its one time affiliate in Iraq and Syria.” At the time the article went largely unnoticed by the western public. Many readers were understandably fatigued by the three years of government atrocities in Syria, the unending stream of car-bombs and sectarian strife in Iraq and the tribal complexities that obscured both. How much of a difference could a small matter of extremist political affiliation make to the hopeless eternal deadlock of the Syrian civil war? And yet only a few months later the world would be considering a new and unprecedented threat and this seemingly trivial development would send western fighter jets soaring over all too familiar territory.

To many the rise of Islamic State (IS) in 2014 has been a shock. Quickly and with little or no warning, a group of extremist rebels fighting in Syria had crossed the border into Iraq and captured the country’s second city, Mosul. What followed was a horrifying stream of videos showing the torture and executions of aid workers, journalists, ethnic minorities and prisoners of war. Researchers working for the UN recently estimated that IS have murdered as many 10,000 civilians in their short history. It soon became increasingly clear that these war crimes were being perpetrated by an international fighting force made up of Arab, European and even American Muslims, many of whom had flocked to Syria to join the struggle against Assad.  This war within a war has left world leaders in an awkward position, because one cannot fight IS without assisting Assad. Much of this will be obvious to those who have followed the news, but what can the social sciences tell us about IS that a journalist can’t?

“The social sciences” says Simon Jackson, a former Max Weber fellow specialising in Modern Middle Eastern History, “provide the best explanation we have for social phenomena in general and therefore for aspects of contemporary politics such as the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria.” Jackson has written various articles about the subject since the emergence of IS and is keen to credit those studying the Middle East and Salafist and Takfiri thought. While speaking to EUI Times, it is clear that he appreciates the work of his colleagues. “Olivier Roy has been a pioneer here of course, but younger scholars including the EUI’s own Mohammed-Ali Adraoui have also developed social scientific analysis in new directions, for example by studying Salafist internationalism and Islamist foreign policy.”

But Olivier Roy has reservations about the ability of social scientists to stand out amidst the noise of the public debate. He tells EUI Times “the problem is that the rational disciplines have an impact on the polarisation of the field.” Roy has spent years traveling throughout the Middle East to gain first-hand experience of the region’s political culture, as well as writing many pivotal books on the subject. Currently Roy is Head of the Mediterranean Programme at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and has expressed doubts about the ability of academics to stand out amongst the crowd of politicians and commentators. “It’s probably the field where the experts and researchers are the most involved in writing in the New York Times and Washington Post. If you look at the blogs written by academic experts, they’re very politicised. They’re always offering political solutions, what to do in Syria, what to do in Israel, should we intervene in Iraq, should we intervene in Afghanistan. So the issue is whether the social sciences really provide a better approach? Can we build policy on academic expertise? My conclusion is no.”

The situation in the Middle East is moving fast and the maps showing who controls which area of land are being redrawn almost every day. And it may be asking a lot to expect the steady and analytic disciplines of social science to keep themselves relevant alongside the 24-hour rolling news coverage. But it would also be slightly strange if experts, in any given subject, didn’t try to influence or inform a national debate when it wonders into their field. “A good example is Princeton orientalist Bernard Lewis’s infamous influence on the neo-conservative/Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003,” argues Simon Jackson “And one can think of many organic intellectuals housed in think tanks and policy shops whose research agenda is constantly recalibrated to meet demand (and funding) from policy makers for ideas and insights.”

Bernard Lewis is a historian, who in 2002, wrote a hard-hitting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Time for Topping,” and who was later described as “perhaps the most significant intellectual influence behind the invasion of Iraq.” The actual power of such thinkers is almost always impossible to measure. Many suspect that world leaders are influenced by ideology, corruption or realpolitik when making actual decisions and then search for academic research to justify what they would have done anyway. What we do know is that social science has the power to guide public opinion and mainstream commentary, which, can often help to paint a clearer picture of what is really happening. So what is really happening?

Jackson characterises IS as “an ambitious, well-funded and heavily-armed organization.”  Not only has the group taken advantage of a climate of corruption and political disillusion in the Middle East. They are also surfing on a wave of anti-interventionism in the west. “It operates” Jackson says “in two states whose civil and military capacity is highly degraded, and its international antagonists are unwilling to put ground forces at risk attacking it… While these conditions mostly hold, the IS looks strong.”

Oiivier Roy

Olivier Roy

According the Roy, the ascendance of IS represents “a rejection of the globalisation of Al-Qaeda,” who never attempted to claim territory. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS had been put in charge of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010. Three years later his group would formally expand into Syria with the Assad regime firmly in their crosshairs, they attracted young fighters outraged by the government’s war crimes. Once they were established in Syria, al-Baghdadi’s group quickly managed to fill a large rural power vacuum left by the civil war in the North East of the country by overpowering both the government soldiers and the rebel Free Syrian Army. This led to al-Qaeda breaking ties with Baghdadi’s group in February. IS then preceded to claim political control over vast swaths of Syrian territory and it was this tactic that helped them recruit so many extremist foreign fighters who had struggled to find enthusiasm for a weakened and depleted al-Qaeda. The group behind 9/11 had been fading for years, Bin Laden was long dead and a growing list of drone casualties had made life hard for his uninspiring successors. “Clearly” Roy says, with regards to al-Qaeda, “there was a growing constituency but with fewer possibilities of fighting. It explains why suddenly, when this Islamic State was created by Baghdadi, young militants flocked there. Because suddenly there is a physical space in which to stay, act and fight.”

Roy also contends that much of this “physical space” may be an illusion. IS may have captured Mosul, Iraq’s second city, but a lot of the land ‘conquered’ consists of the largely uninhabited hinterlands between Aleppo and Iraqi Kurdistan. As Roy puts it, “the impression that it is a huge territory is a mistake because it’s a desert with towns along the rivers. They hold the towns but if you look at a map you might have the impression that they hold a huge territory, but most of it is empty.”

Despite this, the impression of an extremist ‘Islamic State’ has been strong enough to attract disgruntled young Muslims from across the western world, but can it ever be enough to make them stay? Roy thinks this is highly unlikely because IS “is made up of young bachelors, coming in from different countries and many don’t even speak Arabic.”  He is expecting IS to inherit the headache of Romulus, who, according to legend, started wars with Rome’s neighbouring cities in an effort to kidnap would-be wives for his disparate army of young men. “If IS wants them to stay, they have to marry these guys… Right now they have the Christian and Yazidi women captured but we know that they’re also asking the local population to let their daughters marry the foreigners and this will lead to clashes. Boko Haram have the same problem with their army of bachelors.”

The west, Roy says “have overreacted, because IS would never have been able to take Baghdad.”  IS may in fact, have been doomed from the start. Roy suspected that even before the US-led bombing campaign, they had simply made too many enemies to sustain their operation “they’re fighting the Shias, they’re fighting the Kurds, they’re fighting the Turks and they’re fighting Assad. They’re fighting everybody.”  But with a hefty war chest gathered from black-market oil money, ‘taxes’ extorted from the local population and having plundered a substantial portion of the Iraqi army arsenal, (much of which was donated by the US) it is unlikely that IS will go down easily. In 2012, when Assad looked certain to fall, neighbouring nations rushed to stock the arsenals of the opposition rebels and many of those arms ended up with IS. With the US and UK reluctant to deploy infantry, the fall of IS could become a long and painful saga, but it is one Roy is certain won’t end well for IS.

In Europe and America, opinion is split on the case for intervention. Many believe that things would be much better in the Middle East if the west had never become involved. Others claim that those with the power to act have a humanitarian duty to do everything possible to guard against genocide. It is a split between those haunted by the casualties of the Iraq intervention in 2003 and those others haunted by the unaided Rwandans of 1994. George Packer, a journalist, has argued in the pages of the New Yorker, that in a strange and paradoxical way, both sides of this divide may be right. But that the totality of each argument strips the local people of their agency and their collective responsibility, as well as ignoring many of the factors playing a role in the region’s dysfunction. Too rarely do we talk of a future for Iraq and Syria dictated outside of Downing Street and the White House, instead of one decided in the corridors of the countries themselves.

For Roy too, IS are “a challenge to the local population” but one they are also certain to overcome themselves, “they cannot take Baghdad, the people will fight them. They have no choice.”