BEIRUT, Lebanon — Fear, I am afraid, is a contagion, and if there is an easy descriptor for the current disposition here in Beirut, it’s panic mode. Kind of like the feeling so many of us Lebanese have during power outages when, midway to the bathroom at 2:00 a.m., lights out.
Man of the year Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has kindly offered us the latest proof that innovation can come as naturally to jihadis as it does to the feistiest business entrepreneur: from the ashes of Iraq in 2007 to the killing fields of Syria post 2011; from financial dependence on donors to a wheeling and dealing outfit racking up cash from oil, ransoms, smuggling, extortion rackets; from a few thousand fighters to anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000; from an Iraqi magnet for mostly Arab recruits to a global outreach agency. From the fringes, as International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling aptly puts it, to the heart of the action.
It’s hard for the International Community to snigger surreptitiously as it once did, stamping Middle East Only on these developments. Not so long ago, the West looked on as if behind tight-shut gates. In this age of globalization, technology for all, and multiculturalism partly born out of decades of postcolonial westbound migrations, the world has become a little too cozy for comfort, although if you count the dead, it does seem like our side is feeling the brunt of it.
But no matter, I am not one to quibble over numbers. This is a certifiable situation in our collective nervous lap, and the time is now for. … I don’t know, something or other.
First on the to-do list, the profiling exercises to help the Western masses understand the nature of the wretched beast. Even the New Scientist has given its two cents on what could possibly motivate Western jihadis. In this earnest effort it joins every other news outlet and think-tank.
You might want to consider peer pressure, the magazine suggests, as “in young people hooking up with their friends and going on a glorious mission.” And don’t be surprised if the fellows are nursing some kind of a grudge against whomever or whatever. For The Economist’s Sarah Birke, you also should never underestimate the knock-on effect of ennui and a muddled identity. To The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey, if you want to put your finger on at least a good chunk of it, you would need to fully internalize the influence of idiocy in a thug with an inflated ego. Which flirts with Gautam Malkani’s admonition in The Financial Times—the closest to the mark, in my opinion—that, “We really need to talk about lunacy.”
All necessary speculation, no doubt, but by the fourth or fifth take you begin to get the sneaking feeling that the profilers are not having an easy time defining this dramatic cast of jihadi tourists marauding across a backdrop of collapsing states and dissolving borders, of black flags fluttering over conquered cities and oil wells, severed heads held up for photo ops, caliphs brandishing $25,000 Rolex watches while preaching the plague from mosques. Of all the aspirational narratives competing to fill in the blanks in the Middle East’s many voids, this one, precisely because it is so fantastical and yet so close to home, dominates the news, not to mention the policy rooms.
Fair enough. We get that. The very intrepid journalist Hazem Ameen, who’s been on the trail of jihadism for many years, captures, in two recent pieces in Al Hayat newspaper, the Hollywood that jihadi terrains have become for unhinged foreign fantasists. These “Book of Eli” deserts are where the imagined, however bizarre or hideous, can turn undeniably real. What more riveting reads by Western reporters than these? And if by such obsessiveness they inadvertently dress up weirdness as mainstream, it won’t be the first time that perspective and nuance have been sacrificed thus in the Middle East.
Not to be outdone, some of our own commentators have also taken to painting with the broadest brushstrokes, none more sweeping than that of Al Arabiya’s Hesham Melhem, who laments, “Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?”
Just like that, hundreds of millions of Arabs, whose cities and daily routines and interests and culture and dreams and hopes and ambitions and values do not fit at all in this macabre theater, are deemed beside the point that is ISIS and its sisters and cousins. Not that I would ever want to put down a man brooding about the sorry state of Arabhood, but if you want to write off an entire people, a good majority of them barely past 18, surely the least you could do is tell them which way leads to oblivion and which to salvation.
To insist that the only reality that counts is the so-called Islamic State without acknowledging (and then convincingly dismissing) the shifting realities and trends that suffuse the huge expanse around and within it is not a serious diagnosis but a sort of howling.
It tells you something, though, doesn’t it, that most gurus sobbing their way today through the page barely two years ago were applauding the Arabs for finally “rising up and joining history.”
Speaking of the underrated beauty of perspective and the accidental benefits of slow thinking, Harling, unmistakably the most astute Middle East analyst, rightly argues that ISIS is but one of the progenies of a colossal century-long failure of practically every ism in the house, including Islamism, matched only by the bankruptcy of practically every single regime this side of the Mediterranean, including those which are still standing.
In other words, the omnipresent postcolonial Arab State has just about dropped dead, the times are fluid and the vacuums are many. To Sunnis, bereft of all the old ideologies, the sense of loss, in a jarringly sectarian climate, is profound: “More and more Sunnis…experience and express the feeling that they have been deprived of their fundamental rights and are suffering persecution,” Harling writes. The community is “a majority with a minority complex—a powerful though confused feeling of marginalization, dispossession and humiliation.”
Iraq is gone; Syria, whole, cannot be won; even the tiny Yazidi minority, when besieged, wins American attention, while Sunnis in Syria continue to sustain huge losses on the hands of—it has to be said—Alawite Bashar Assad and his Shiite Iranian allies.
It’s reached a point where the staunch secularist Sadeq Jalal Al Azm, Syria’s preeminent intellectual, resolutely declares, “What is trampled underfoot in Syria right now is the majority and its rights, about which no one seems to speak outside of Syria.” A longstanding vociferous critic of Western interference, Azm goes on to demand that the West own up and step forward: “The West does have a role to play. Instead of letting Syria bleed, the West needs to help end Assad’s grip on the country and its future and negotiate political accommodation for Alawis within a democratic framework that will necessarily favor the Sunni majority” (my emphasis).
Provocative thoughts from Azm, which brings me to the second chore on the to-do list: How to reconcile this genuinely felt Sunni injury with the selfies with cutoff heads and burying human beings alive as a rite of passage? More specifically, where do we exactly place this testimony by a repentant Turkish jihadi in the current discourse on the region’s geopolitics? “When you fight over there, it’s like being in a trance…Everyone shouts, ‘God is the greatest,’ which gives you divine strength to kill the enemy without being fazed by blood or splattered guts.”
It isn’t only foreigners who are stumped by the very short distance between injury and gruesome murder for the slightest sin or offense. Even those who are sympathetic to ISIS’s calling can’t quite figure out what to make of those heads rolling. It does seem a bit over the top. So, what kind of redress might work best for this specific expression of Sunni marginalization and dispossession?
For more perspective, let me ask the question in blunter and simpler terms: Why are we all so unnerved by ISIS and its particular brand of ire? Every corner of this earth claims victims—and victors, for that matter—whose method of choice is violence. The world over humanity boasts cruelties and injustices, many committed with unfathomable nonchalance, most with a self-justified purpose. What’s so special, really, about Baghdadi et al? How are they different from those manning Assad’s torture houses or dropping his chlorine bombs? Or Lebanon’s Christian warlord Samir Geagea and his countless killing sprees? Or the Hutus who slaughtered their way through 800,000 Tutsis over the course of three months? Or Israeli soldiers who, with purposeful malice, force pregnant Palestinian women to wait endlessly at the West Bank’s profuse checkpoints? Or the four men who, in 2012, gang raped to death a young woman on a New Delhi bus…?
I am picking them at random here, because evil is so damn facile. Obviously, we can rewind a little to everybody’s favorites: Saddam, Bokassa, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin… And don’t tell me you that your eyes will roll if some contrarians in our midst might mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What is it, then, about Baghdadi and his men that makes them just too mad for our sensibilities? What makes this type of evil versus all others too freaky? And when Bill Maher utters verdicts like, “The Muslim world… has too much in common with ISIS,” what is it about this deviancy that renders it, for this poster boy of liberalism, so emblematic of his batty world of Muslims? To no avail, I’ve been wracking my brains for days trying to remember the last time I heard a liberal Arab harrumphing about the “Christian world.” What makes Islam so tricky that it trips up even the usually more discerning among us?
More fundamentally, if you will pardon the pun, what should we make of ordinary Sunnis—educated and not, well off and not, intelligent and not, perfectly respectable and not, religious and not—finding in a blatantly rapacious ISIS and other such-like movements an acceptable channel for grievance? Because, yes, some do.
But then, how many times have we found ourselves asking the same question about other moments, other reigns, other terrors, that lit up places not even remotely related to Islam?
So for the last task on this week’s to-do list, on a whim, I propose that you skip all conversations profiling Western jihadis, because, very quickly, they turn very silly. Once you’ve skipped this exercise, go ahead and humor Ramzi Mardini of The Atlantic Council and declare him right when he argues that the “Islamic State Threat Is Overstated”; that every strength ISIS boasts feeds on the wrong politics surrounding it. And while you’re at it, be bold and give Ameen and Harling the thumbs up when they point out that the military solution, even if well executed, is at best partial because the problem is, alas, only partially military. Upsetting as these two glaringly obvious facts are, you should embrace them because they will help ease the pain of policy failures about to unravel right before your very eyes.
Since at this stage you would be on a roll, resist whichever way you can the temptation to lump together 1.6 billion Muslims or wave away 375 million Arabs as a way of offering an answer when, really, you do not have one.
This essay is adapted from one that first appeared on the blog Thinking Fits.