I have never been a great believer in the importance of ideology in the Middle East. So you have to take what I write with that in mind. I was around in the Middle East when communism was considered a threat and my professor at the American University of Beirut,( Dr Hannah Batatu) surely the most honest and scrupulous historian of communism in the Arab world, repeatedly pointed out the contradictions among the leaders and policies of the communist parties in the Arab world. He detailed how communism, like almost everything in the Arab world was embedded with religion and sectarianism. In most Arab countries communism became important only among only minorities (or communities without access to power). The Communists in the Arab world were always those without power.The Christians saw it a way to level the playing field against Islam, and the Shi’a as a way to counterbalance Sunni Islam, and the Kurds as a way to equalize Arab power.
But communism did and does have some ideological affinity with Islamism ( political Islam or Jihadis (1) as some choose to call it). Both are based on creation of a heaven on earth and a totalitarian social system led by an elite. But leave that for now.
In a number of ways I juxtapose the Da’esh ( slightly pejorative term for the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria , ISIS)” movement in Iraq and Syria to the growth of the Palestinian militant movement, as spearheaded by the Palestine Liberation Organization ( PLO). I observed it grow among the intellectuals and students while attending the American University in Beirut in 1967-1970. There was an ideological concept at the beginning…the idea of a more or less secular nationalist pan-Arabist state…with some Islamic hues and Marxist vocabulary. But as the movement grew it lost whatever ideological underpinning it had. It soon became (or should have) evident that the Che Guevara. /Regis Debray /Franz Fanon/Maoist political manifestos and strategies had little or no relevance to their environment. Many young Palestinians were sent to certain death by their leaders living comfortably in Beirut. Their reward was a poster picture on the wall in some alley way of Beirut, soon to be replaced by other newer ones. ( they were not even promised 70+ virgins in those days)
In time the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) became a business…an industry…an employment source, and totally corrupt at the top. Money from Arab countries flowed in…some from the state governments, some from private individuals. The donors expected something (or protection) for their money. Quite simply the PLO organization continued attacks simply to justify the expectations of their clients. The same evolution follows the path of the ISIS…seemingly a purely supremacist idealistic Islamic quest for the illusive caliphate in the beginning, and a way to redress some real but largely mythical grievances inflicted by the West. It attracted the idealists, and the dreamers. But as time passed it increasingly became a refuge for psychopaths and life’s losers, looking for loot, adventure, and some meaning to their empty lives.
When the ” Islamic State ” is destroyed and the full story of the ISIS is uncovered, one will see the monstrous hypocrisy and corruption of those in the ISIS leadership. Nevertheless the money, dwindling now, but still flowing in, keeps the dying patient alive. Not surprisingly many of the same people who were funding the PLO are today funding the ISIS and before them the Al Qaeda organization.
Thinking back I see many similarities between Da’esh ( ISIS) today and the PLO of the sixties and seventies. Like the PLO,(2) the ISIS ( as was the AQI) is a strictly Sunni organization. The PLO(2) quietly played on the imbedded Islamic view of Jews as an inferior “race” as described by Ibn Khaldun (3) and daily exhortations from Mosques across the Islamic world to oust the Jews from Palestine. (This was, of course, not the face presented to many adoring Western intellectuals who turned the tiger fatigue clad Palestinian fighter into a rock star.)
The ISIS has presented a more open and non apologetic version of its Sunni Islamist superiority. It is the triumphalist concept of fundamentalist Islam turned into a diabolical movement of tyranny, that has borrowed much from the Western totalitarian movements of the 20th century. With these ruling concepts the essence of the Da’esh military tenets has been a rehabilitation of early islamic warfare doctrine and its medieval mindset glorying in blood and conquest.
Back in the early sixties some insightful writers wrote about the symbiosis of Arab nationalism and communism. The allure of the state run by elite is always an enticing concept to the intellectuals, East and West. The totalitarian doctrine of the Jihadist movement also has much in common with the Communist system. Like Islamism, Communism attempted to be more than an ideology, inculcating a way of life.The Sunni Islamist supremacy doctrine espouse by the Jihadists and their sympathizers ( many more than our American leaders would like to acknowledge) is akin to Nazi racial ideology. (Some scholar must invent a word that describes the mindset of religious supremacy as “racism” does to race supremacy.) But of course the discussion of this is out of bounds in todays oppressive politically correct market place of ideas.
The mindless babble of some scholars and journalists (and some politicians) to constantly recite the refrain that the Jihadists are not Muslims is nonsense. They represent a version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia with a frosting of added theatrical brutality.
The mantra of the Western intelligence agencies is to always put “secular” movements and “religious” movements at the opposite ends of a spectrum. In the Arab world that is a naive assumption, The facile idea that the Ba’athist regime of Saddam could not cooperate with Islamist terrorists is patently wrong. They could and did. There is no doubt that remnants of the Ba’athi security and intelligence organizations are deeply involved with the ISIS. It is, at the core, a typical Sunni supremacy movement with Arab leadership.
As the ISIS grew it absorbed many recruits from non Arab Islamic communities, including many from the West. This has become an undermining feature of the ISIS. To paraphrase an old Churchillian saying about Americans and the English, the Arabs are a multiplicity of conflicting identities, traditions, cultures, united by a (more or less) common language. Moreover the increasing number of recruits from non Arab regions became a major irritant. An ISIS fighter from Uzbekistan is not just a foreigner but an alien life species. To Arab villager a foreigner is an Arab from a village 50 miles away. The “otherness” of the ISIS, their cultural ignorance, and insensitivity to local traditions created hatred just as the Palestinians did in southern Lebanon within the Shi’a communities. Despite all the sectarian killing in Iraq, there is still a great deal of nationalist feeling, particularly now among the Shi’a.( Digression.Which hopefully will ultimately materialize in a rejection of Iranian efforts to dominate Iraqi politics.)
The Palestinian movement, lionized by Arab leaders and the Arab population in public, was always a matter of “not in my neighborhood”. Bloody wars were fought in Jordan and Lebanon over this issue as the Palestinians made their unwelcome presence more visible. In Iraq the Palestinian presence was seen as an adjunct of the Saddam regime by the Shi’a community and they were driven out. As so often has happened in the Palestinian saga, the primary anathema of the Palestinians, the Americans, ended up taking care of the refugees in camps set up by American army civil affairs units.
The Jihadist movement in Iraq was all but dead when the politically driven decision to “bring the boys home” was made by the Obama administration and the embers of Jihadism were fanned and brought back to life by the ISIS, another branch of the inchoate but potent world wide Jihadist movement.
So the anti Shi’a slaughter carried on by the Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI) and continued by the ISIS became uncomfortable to most Iraqi Sunnis, mostly I have to say, because of the retribution carried out by Shi’a terrorist groups. They had done little as a community to stop the endless suicide and car bombings that have gone on for 13 years, almost entirely in Shi’a neighborhoods. When the appalling aspects of terrorism was brought to their neighborhoods, the Sunnis began to rethink their attitudes. Accustomed to their centuries of rule, Sunnis in Iraq saw their leadership as some sort of divine right. They look down on the Shi’a (despite many observers saying all was just peachy during the Saddam regime) and have had great difficulty coming to terms with their reduced status in Iraqi political life.
As the light at the end of the tunnel appeared. The ejection of the AQI from Iraq and the tenuous hold of the ISIS on what remains of their “caliphate,”many Sunni are reluctantly and belatedly emerging from their cocoon of self denial (which was assisted by a sunni-centric Western academic scholars and Western officials constantly “reaching out to the Sunnis”) and accepting that the era of Sunni dominance in Iraq is over. With this, any coincidence of objectives of the ISIS and the Anbar tribes disappeared, particularly when the Sunni leadership began to visualize a new environment wherein the U.S. army was no longer their obstacle to resuming power but their protection against a revitalized and empowered Shi’a community. The Shi’a adamantly, to this day, reject any hint of a resurgence of Sunni power in whatever shape it may appear.
Under Saddam, the Iraqi people were controlled by fear and so it is with the people under ISIS domination. Just as there were elements of the population that were quite comfortable under the Ba’ath regime there are many probably comfortable under ISIS control. Today in Russia the glories of the Stalin era have taken on a new life just as among many Iraqis one hears how much better life was under Saddam. People forget very quickly.
The ISIS caliphate is crumbling, not as fast as some predict, and they still have many arrows in their quiver. They have unified, resourceful and capable leadership against divided great powers, a fractious Iraqi and Syrian state, wracked by sectarian and political strife. The volatile mixture of Kurds, Turks, and Shi’a and Sunni Arabs has yet to be sorted out and new conflicts will result. The turf wars are waiting in the wings.
Unfortunately the impeding destruction of the ISIS will by means end the threat by the Islamists. Their demise will be a propaganda gift like the death of Ben Ladin or Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo, but will in no way change spiritual sickness that pervades the Arab world and the Middle Eastern world of Islam.
The focus of the Obama administration on destroying the ISIS may be a politically simple and digestible objective but it does not even begin to address the core of the Jihadist threat. While the PLO was a part of the Western – influenced doctrines of the overall Arab nationalist movement and died without implanting any seedlings, the Jihadist movement has deep roots in the middle eastern and Islamic culture and cannot be destroyed by cutting off one limb. The war will go on, in perhaps more dangerous forms. Think dirty bombs, biological agents etc. Hopefully the West will produce leaders who are not “morally exhausted” as Solzhenitsyn put it in his 1978 address to Harvard students.(4)
1.I use Jihadism in the sense it is used by those who conduct it. While it may be fashionable and comforting to talk about the “major Jihad” striving for individual purity…that is not the definition the radical Islamists of the various branches of the movement use. The “Green Beret” terrorist Ali Mohamed ( see my blog March 13, 2013) wrote while working with me at the JFK Special Warfare Center, “What is Jihad? In time all mankind will accept Islam or submit to Muslim rule. Meanwhile it is the duty of every Muslim to struggle until this is accomplished.
2.According to Ibn Khaldun, “One may look at the Jews and the bad character they have acquired, such that in every region and period as having the quality of Khurj….” ( insincerity and trickery)
3.The PlO was an umbrella organization with about 12 separate resistance/ terrorist groups under the nominal control of Yasir Arafat who was the head of the largest organization FATAH. Two of the organizations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine ( PFLP) and the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. (PDFLF), were headed by Christians. This surfaces an observation of mine that Christians of the Arab world often have the same prejudices toward Jews as Muslims. Whether this is the result of ancient enmities or a rather hapless attempt to find common ground with the Muslim communities, or both, I am not sure.
4.No weapons , no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself one must be ready to die but there is little readiness in a society raised in a cult of materiel well- being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal.