(The National Post, 23 April 2016)
In June 2014, Barack Obama dismissed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as the terrorist equivalent of a junior varsity basketball team. He remarked that "If a j.v. team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant." In other words, nothing there for Americans to worry about.
A few weeks later, the junior varsity overran four Iraqi divisions and captured Mosul (pop. 2.5 million), Iraq's second-biggest city. It has since become clear that ISIL's tentacles reach into Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Today the largest of its affiliated branch offices has settled in Sirte, a port in eastern Libya.
The leader and self-anointed caliph of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has sent several lieutenants there to prepare for the possibility of a major change: if ISIL is forced to retreat from Syria, Sirte will be its new headquarters.
That last fact appears in ISIS: A History (Princeton University Press), by Fawaz A. Gerges. He's an Indonesian-American professor at the London School of Economics, specializing in the Middle East. Writing with energy and clarity, and out of uncommonly extensive knowledge, he wants us to know how ISIL was born in the sectarian, corrupt, tyranny-ridden swamp of Middle East governance. It will not disappear, he believes, till that noxious swamp is drained.
Baghdadi and the other ISIL leaders are opportunists who capitalized on the power vacuum created by the weakening of governments. The Arab Spring, beginning in 2011, was a secular attempt to displace the dictators who traditionally controlled Arab countries. The Arab Spring shook the roots of the powerful and dissolved national institutions, from the military to the garbage collectors. With those elements hollowed out in the chaos that followed, ISIL moved in.
In certain places, such as areas of Syria ravaged by civil war, ISIL established vital government services. Those in need, and able to avoid trouble with ISIL, were grateful, for at least a brief time. But, as Gerges says, "Beyond sound and fury and a cult of death," this band of murderers has nothing positive to offer Arabs and Muslims. As a Sunni faction, ISIL drew strength from the centuries-old Sunni-Shia conflict. It often seems that Sunnis and Shias hate each other more than they hate the Americans, or even the Israelis. Sunnis claim Shias are heretics, a dagger aimed at the heart of the Islam, the villains responsible for the decline of Islamic civilization. Many Sunnis believe Shias can be blamed even for the loss in 1683 of the Battle of Vienna, when the Ottoman Empire came close to conquering Europe. Baghdadi holds a genocidal view of Shias: they should be seen as infidels who must either convert or be exterminated.
Gerges believes the homicidal qualities of ISIL reflect the recent history of the region. He says that ISIL atrocities stem from the bitter inheritance of Baathist rule that tore apart Iraq's social fabric, leaving wounds that still fester. Baghdadi surrounds himself with junior and senior officers of Saddam Hussein's army and police, many of them former enforcers of Baathism's brutal regime.
In ideology, ISIL is a Salafijihad movement, part of a puritan fundamentalist tendency grounded in what its adherents consider authentic Islam. In conduct it follows sharia law and regards modernity with absolute hostility. For someone who spends his days studying the recurrent horrors of the Middle East, Gerges remains astonishingly optimistic. Although foreign recruits to ISIL continue to arrive, there are credible reports of fighters defecting from the organization. The Syria-bound flow of jihadists has partially dried up since the U.S. and Turkey have closed the Turkey-Syria border, which until recently provided a lifeline to ISIL.
If it is defeated, ISIL could mutate into its original shape, an underground, paramilitary Salafi-jihadist organization.
The optimism of Gerges reaches its height when he imagines what will come next. If ISIL or something like it is not to appear again, the Arab world will need an intellectual reformation. Mosque and state will have to be severed, so that religion can no longer swamp politics. Citizenship and the rule of law, rather than religious or ethnic affiliation, will be the basis of membership in the nation-state. Tolerance will be a foundation of religious and educational curricula.
Various Arab intellectuals have made similar proposals, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Gerges doesn't suggest how such radical change will be introduced by populations with no experience in developing modern ideas. Instead he leaves us with his belief that this complex generational change must be fought for, and eventually won, regardless of how long it takes. Recent history suggests it will be very long indeed.