BEIRUT — So the United States is bombings targets in Iraq from the air, active on the ground with hundreds of its special forces, and exploring targets to bomb in Syria. Who is the enemy the United States is now attacking? Well, judging from the public political discussions in the United States, the simple answer is, “we’re not really sure.” This highlights the most amazing dimension of the rise and power of the Islamic State (IS), from its former configurations as the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia: very few people outside its own leadership really know very much about it, including its actual strategy and aims.
What everybody does know is that we are faced with a violent, vicious group of tens of thousands of men who have carved out for themselves a territorial base in the area of northeast Syria and northwest Iraq, and they continue to engage in limited military forays in areas along the edges of their control in both countries. The debates now taking place about the IS phenomenon and threat focus on who is to blame for allowing it to develop, how widely will IS spread territorially, and how much support does IS enjoy around the region in lands where it does not control territory?
All this is important, but the most terrifying aspect of the IS phenomenon is not about the extremist young men who gravitate to its call, but rather about the factors across the Arab region and beyond that allowed it to come into being in the first place — factors that continue to shape our troubled region today. The IS is a living, expanding phenomenon, and the factors that cause people to join it remain active in many countries. So our collective challenge is to correctly identify those elements that gave birth to the mindset that has caused young men to join such movements and indulge in the kind of barbarism that IS now disseminates in its videos and social media broadcasts.
In that respect, I have no doubt that the single most important, widespread, continuous and still active reason for the birth and spread of the IS mindset is the curse of modern Arab security states that since the 1970s have treated their citizens like children or sheep that need to be taught obedience and passivity above all else. Other factors played a role in this modern tragedy of amateurish statehood across the Arab world, including the threat of Zionism and Israeli violent colonialism (see Gaza today for that continuing tale) and the continuous meddling and military attacks by foreign powers, including the United States, some Europeans, Russia and Iran.
In view of my 45 years in the Arab world observing and writing about the conditions on the ground, the only thing that surprises me now is why such extremist phenomena that have caused the catastrophic collapse of existing states did not happen earlier. For the past 40 years, at least since around 1970, the average Arab citizen has lived in political, economic and social systems that have offered zero accountability, political rights and participation; steadily expanding state dysfunction and corruption; ravaging economic disparities that have driven majorities into chronic poverty; humiliating state inaction or failure at confronting the threats of Zionism and foreign hegemonic ambitions; and, an almost absolute ban on developing one’s full potential in the fields of intellect, creativity, public participation, culture and identity.
The IS phenomenon is the latest and perhaps not the final stop on a journey of mass Arab humiliation and dehumanization that has been primarily managed by Arab autocratic regimes that revolve around single families or clans, with immense, continuing support from foreign patrons. Foreign military attacks in Arab countries (Iraq, Libya) have exacerbated this trend, as has Israeli aggression against Palestinians and other Arabs. But the continuous single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in the IS phenomenon is the predicament of several hundred million individual Arab men and women who find — generation after generation — that in their own societies they are unable to achieve their full humanity or potential, or exercise their full powers of thought and creativity, or, in many cases, obtain their basic life needs for their families.
The expressions of bewilderment we hear today from many Arab and Western politicians or media analysts about why IS rose and what to do about it have zero credibility or sympathy in my book. Some of the same people who pontificate about the IS threat were often directly involved in actions that helped to bring it about (corrupt Arab security states, invasion of Iraq, total support for Israel).
There is only one antidote in the long run to eliminating the Islamic State and all it represents, which is to stop pursuing the abusive and criminal policies that have demeaned millions of decent Arab men and women and shaped Arab countries for the past half a century. Bombing Iraq and Syria will gain some time and probably must happen in combination with serious military action by local Arab and Kurdish forces; but if the fundamental systems of the corrupt and amateurish modern Arab security state are not radically reversed, the mass desperation and hysteria that IS represents will only emerge again in other, more extreme forms.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
Released: 27 August 2014
Word Count: 884
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