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ISIS insanity

November 18, 2014

Soooo… about that whole ISIS group thing. Yeah, I’m gonna need to know a little more. I’m pretty good about paying attention to things that are thousands of miles away (even if it’s only 2,000 miles). And I get it that there’s been unspeakable horror going on.  On one side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, Nuri al-Maliki sat idly by while Shi’ites openly set up militias to eradicate Sunnis.  More recently on the other side of the border – and on the flip side of the government failure scale – Syrians watched as their government moved from torturing kids to using gunships to fire on peaceful demonstrators to crossing red lines using chemical weapons on its own people.  There’s a mass desire for vengeance and justice out there that I hope to never have to feel.

However, I get lost when the savior du jour that outsiders flock to is a group that appears to behead its prisoners as casually as I fold my socks, or publishes sales prices for abducted women and children. What’s the draw of a group like that for more than a few international fringe idiots?

Foreign Affairs has an enlightening take.  Puzzled that nearly 1,000 ISIS members were from Turkey, supposedly the Muslim world’s beacon of openness and democracy, the authors began looking at open-source information on as many Turkish ISIS members as possible to determine who they are and what motivates them.  The answer:

Over the course of its rule, the AKP has achieved impressive economic growth rates… Yet AKP rule came with some unintended consequences. For one, it led to much more civic activism overall, because AKP sponsored Islamic organizations both to please its core supporters and to promote a more pious society. And that burst of activism facilitated radicalization, because organizations had free rein to pursue their own intolerant and exclusive agendas as long as they did not challenge the AKP.

In our fieldwork in Turkey, we found that jihadists exploited the freer civil space provided by the AKP to form conversation groups, turn bookstores into social centers, and recruit in mosques. For example, over 180 religious publishing houses and bookstores participated in a record-setting book fair during Ramadan in Istanbul. Iftars (Ramadan dinners) and the special tarawih prayers organized by religious groups, including those with ISIS sympathies, provided an environment for radicals to network. The increasing numbers of Syrian refugees brutalized by a vicious civil war provided an additional impetus to join up.

Overall, a flourishing civil society and decaying political institutions have created a radical-friendly environment in Turkey.

Fine, so there are fewer hurdles for a radical group to clear now in Turkey.  There’s still an awfully long gap to bridge between the marketing effort and the product being marketed.  In other words, fewer restrictions on proselytizing doesn’t equate to more people being happy to listen.  Just think about how happy everyone is when elections are over and commercials go back to simply being annoying spots for beer or ED treatment.

So let’s turn to the Atlantic and Shadi Hamid.  This is the first piece I’ve read from Mr. Hamid, although if the rest of his stuff is this detailed, I’ll be looking him up a lot more.  (And yes, Mr. Hamid, I’m now your 64,675th Twitter follower.)  There are a lot of great things in here, but here are a few of them:

ISIS draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations. They may not agree with ISIS’s interpretation of the caliphate, but the notion of acaliphate—the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition—is a powerful one, even among more secular-minded Muslims. The caliphate, something that hasn’t existed since 1924, is a reminder of how one of the world’s great civilizations endured one of the more precipitous declines in human history. The gap between what Muslims once were and where they now find themselves is at the center of the anger and humiliation that drive political violence in the Middle East.

The Arab world clearly suffers from weak, failed, and failing states. But it also suffers from strong or “over-developed” states, to use Yezid Sayigh’s apt description (the line between weak and failing and over-developed but brittle is a blurry one). But, more than that, the Arab regional order suffers from the “exaltation” of the state—something most obvious, and frightening, in the case of Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has enthusiastically promoted the sacralization of state power. This is the democrat’s dilemma: Security and stability would seem to depend on strong states, particularly in the short-term, but the demands of pluralism and at least a semblance of democracy require ultimately constraining, and even weakening, those same states.

The July 3, 2013 military coup in Egypt and the government’s subsequent, brutal crackdown on its Islamist opponents has led to the thorough, unceasing politicization of state institutions, which have become partisans in a civil conflict in which hundreds of Egyptians have been killed. It is unclear if the state, in the eyes of Egypt’s young, angry Islamist activists, can be salvaged. They see the state, at least in its current iteration, as an enemy to be undermined, if not destroyed. (Emphasis mine)

That last sentence is a big one.  When the state itself is the enemy, there’s very little it can do to placate its angry masses.

Fortunately, it appears the appeal isn’t quite as broad as I first thought.  The Arab Center of Washington conducted a poll of seven Arab countries plus, miraculously, a representative sample of Syrian refugees, to gauge their thoughts on ISIS and the US-led mission to stop it.  According to the results, more than 8 in 10 have a negative view of ISIS.  Only 6 in 10 supported US efforts to send ISIS to hell.  Personally, I can live without winning a popularity contest so long as ISIS finishes further behind.

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