The essence of the successes enjoyed by the Islamic State to date centres not on any wide-spread embrace of their radical vision, but rather the fact that their movement gives voice to a dream that has long been dampened by the forces of the West and their autocratic regional allies. The Obama administration has stated that the recent strikes against Syria are but the beginning of a more comprehensive campaign to defeat the Islamic State. But bombs and missiles, while adept at blowing up concrete and creating martyrs, have never been successful when it comes to eradicating ideas…
Void of any competing ideology, it is hard to see how this new war on the Islamic State will ever succeed in supplanting the visionary dream of a Sunni Arab Caliphate that resides in the hearts and minds of so many Sunni Arabs living in Syria and Iraq today. On the contrary, it is likely that this campaign will succeed only in fanning the flames of the radical Sunni fringe, empowering them in a way nothing else could.”
That’s Scott Ritter, quoted by Alisdair Crooke in this sobering piece.
Crooke believes the west’s perceptions of the Middle East have been skewed for generations.
No, it [this latess crisis] is not an “intelligence failure.” It is far worse. It is a cognitive and intellectual failure of the system itself. In fact, the signs of this impending “madness” have been out there — “hiding” in the open, as it were — for the last 25 years. You did not need “secret intelligence” to tell us where we were heading; you just needed cognitive openness: the ability to “read” the direction that events were taking.
The current dystopian nightmare is, as he sees it, the logical endpoint of a catastrophic series of events and decisions over the last century. Every Arab attempt to work out a modus vivendi with modernity has failed, from various secular, socialist, sometimes pan-Arab alternatives to the brief reign of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. At every failed waypoint, radicalism (born of anger, frustration and a longing for a clearer, purer way) put down deeper roots.
The only Sunni Islamist current “left standing” in the wake of the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood was one which (in contrast to the now broken Brotherhood model) had instead immersed itself more with how to issue the “call to faith” to societies who in their slumbers (and consumer and material preoccupation) had completely forgotten Islam and inadvertently had become apostates.
Al Qaeda was an early banner bearer of this current. The Islamic State is the latest, and far more formidable, version.
Throughout, Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser degree other Gulf states) contributed to the radicalisation of the Arab world, backing various jihadists (both officially, semi-officially and privately) and funding a “massive output of Wahhabist literature and the founding of educational religious institutions and satellite channels exclusively devoted to this orientation”.
Because the US long ago tied itself so closely to Saudi Arabia, it lost the capacity to see clearly, to understand the currents swirling under the surface. The biases of their “deputy” in the Middle East often became its own as well.
Even in the wake of 9/11, little changed. In fact, some of the deepest prejudices of Saudi Arabia — some rooted in 18th century antipathies, such as Abd al-Wahhab’s abhorrence for the Shia — were absorbed by Western states and taken for their own. Their anti-Shiiite narrative became our “Axis of Evil.” Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi, Hezbollah, President Assad, Iran — effectively the “Axis of Evil” — none were a true threat to the West but they all were objects of Gulf antipathy absorbed by us.
Now, facing the wholesale collapse of their strategy (such as it was), the only forces that might be capable of reining in the IS, namely Syria and Iran, are still generally perceived by the US (and others) as the “enemy”. Perhaps the current signs of a tentative rapprochement with Iran mark the beginning of a turn towards reality.
Crooke closes with some questions.
It would take a veritable American “Bismark” to steer American policy through this mess. How can America hope to mediate in any way in this hopeless nexus of complicated Sunni theology and Caliphate idealism? The truth is that Sunni Islam has fallen off its wall, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, will not easily put it together again. And, is this in any way an appropriate task for Americans and Europeans: to try putting together the parts of a deeply dispersed and fractured Sunni Islam?
(h/t FB Ali)