Arts &
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Vol. 14, No. 3, 2015
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Robert J. Lewis
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Riaz Hassan is Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, and Global Professor of Social Research and Public Policy at New York University Abu Dhabi. His latest book is Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings (Routledge).

Opinions abound on the sudden rise of the Islamic State of Iraq Al-Sham or ISIS, the violent and barbarous extremist Sunni militia which has swept aside the hapless Iraqi and Syrian armies and succeeded in controlling a vast swath of territory in northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria.

It has announced the establishment of an Islamic caliphate based on Salafism, a puritanical form of Sunni Islam with close theological links to Saudi Arabian Wahhabism. Salafism seeks to idealize and emulate the virtues, piety and practices that characterized the formative years of the foundation of Islam. It is seeking to expand the caliphate boundaries covering the neighbouring Arab States and eventually the rest of the Muslim lands.

This has the Western powers worried. If unchecked, it poses a serious security threat not only to Iraq and the neighbouring Middle Eastern countries but also to the West because of its ability to recruit hundreds of foreign jihadists who may pose a security threat on their return. The media narratives would make it seem that it is all about religion, militancy and territorial conquest. But it is mainly about politics with religion co-opted to advance political goals.

The genesis of ISIS, now popularly known as the Islamic State, has its roots in the Al-Qaeda inspired Sunni insurgency called the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) that rose to fight the American occupation of Iraq and the disempowerment of Iraqi Sunnis that followed it under the leadership of Jordanian Jihadi abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was killed in an American targeted attack in 2006.

The ISI was an umbrella network of several Jihadi groups waging a terrorist-guerrilla campaign against the United States, its coalition allies and the Iraqi Shias. In 2006 ISI had around fifteen to twenty thousand mostly Iraqi insurgents of whom around one to two thousand were non-Iraqi. The foreign jihadis were the main arsenal of suicide bombers in Iraq.

Towards the end of the American occupation ISI was weakened following the ‘surge’ in the U.S. forces and with the co-option of the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province popularly known as the Sunni Awakening Movement. They were mobilized and entirely funded by the United States army to fight insurgents of ISI, Mujahidin Shura Council, Ansar al-Sunnah and other groups. In 2011 they numbered between eighty to hundred thousand. The weakened ISI then found the Syrian civil war a fertile ground and moved its main operations to eastern Syria.

The creation of the Sunni Awakening movement was instrumental in reducing insecurity and violence in Iraq paving the way for the American administration to embark on political reconciliation amongst the Sunnis, Kurds and Shias in Iraq and to withdraw the U.S. forces from the country.

The reconciliation agreement included equitable distribution of oil revenues, absorption of fighters from the Sunni Awakening Movement into the Iraq army and reversing the purge of Baathists from government. Iraqi prime minster Nuri Al-Maliki’s authoritarian and Shia dominated government reneged on these and other provisions of the reconciliation agreement and systematically began to exclude and abuse Iraq’s Sunnis.

They were denied government resources, subjected to arbitrary arrest and torture on the grounds that the government was fighting terrorists and at the same time failing to control the Shia militias from terrorizing the Sunnis. The result was a massive alienation of Iraqi Sunnis paving the way for the rise of ISIS. The rise of ISIS, therefore, is not all about religion, militancy and territorial conquests but largely due to the failure of ethnic reconciliation and politics in Iraq.

ISIS is now one of the several Sunni insurgents groups fighting the Iraqi state. It is succeeding in the areas such as Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah not because of its religious extremism and its disgustingly violent behaviour but in spite of it, because the Sunni majority is more afraid of what their government may do to them than what ISIS might do.

Iraqi Sunnis have been subjected to years of political and economic marginalization, state sanctioned repression, lawlessness and rampant corruption in the hands of Iraq’s Shia-led government. They have rebelled by joining ISIS. Many of the ISIS fighters are from the Sunni Awakening Movement which helped the United States to counter the Al-Qaeda linked Islamic State in the Iraq insurgency of 2008-11.

The Iraqi government promised to absorb them into the security forces but later reneged on its promise claiming that they were terrorists and supporters of Al-Qaeda. As President Obama observed in his opening address at the recent White House sponsored conference on violent extremism: “When government oppresses their people, deny human rights, stifle dissent or marginalizes ethnic and religious groups, or favour certain religious groups over other, it sows the seeds of extremism and violence.”
This explains the support of ISIS by the angry disillusioned and marginalized Iraqi Sunnis. What may explain the appeal of ISIS among the western jihadis who are flocking in the hundreds to fight for ISIS and causing great concerns among the Western governments and publics? The answer lies largely in the alienation and marginalization of large segments of Muslim minorities from the national cultures due to discrimination and joblessness creating impoverished suburbs of high unemployment.

These suburbs give rise to underground illegal economies resulting in incarceration of their many residents. This is reflected in prison statistics. Three percent of Britain’s population is Muslim but 11 percent of prisoners are Muslim. In the Netherlands with 6 percent of Muslims 20 percent of adults and 26 percent of juvenile prisoners are Muslim. Similar trends prevail in Belgium.

The situation in France is particularly dire. Many Muslims feel marginalized due to exclusion and bigotry from the White main stream French society and their own counter racism. France has the highest incarcerations rates of Muslims in Europe. Around 9 percent of the French population is Muslim but half of 68000 French prisoners are Muslims.

Although most French prisons are majority Muslims but they continue to feel victimized by hyper secular prison officials who confuse normal religious observance to extremism. Radical preaching in prison catches up because it offers young Muslims prisoners a way to escape their predicaments and develop a fantasy of omnipotence by declaring death to their oppressors. The radicalization of Charlie Hebdo killers Cherif and Said Kouachi began in prisons. The largest contingent of foreigners fighting for ISIS is from France.

According to French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar the typical trajectory of most Islamist terrorists including those joining ISIS is: alienation from the dominant culture due to discrimination and joblessness turning them to petty criminals leading to prison and then more crime and more prison; religious awakening and radicalization followed by a journey to Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan to train for jihad.

The other pathways for radicalization and recruitment for jihadi missions are the social media and radical Muslim internet websites. There is a small minority who seek a life of thrill and excitement. They are usually more educated and feel alienated from their parent’s culture and are attracted to global Islamic movements fighting against oppression in Muslim countries.

The most pressing task for the Western countries is to devise public policies for successful integration of their marginalized Muslim minorities into the mainstream society. The unemployment rates of Muslim minorities in most western countries tend to be three to four times higher compared to the majority population. The danger is that if the appropriate steps are not taken a large segment of Muslim minorities will become a permanent underclass seriously fracturing national social cohesion.

Some politicians in western countries tend to exaggerate extremist tendencies among their Muslim minorities to feed the fear and prejudices of the majority in order to bolster their political fortunes in the electorate. In Australia, for example, there are about 150 mostly unemployed Muslims who have either gone to Syria to join ISIS or are accused of supporting it. They constitute a small fraction of its half million Muslims. Australia already has more counter terrorism laws than any other western country and yet the government is introducing more counter terrorism laws.

The Western countries also need to recognize that unlike Al-Qaeda, whose animosity was directed against the ‘distant enemy’, the ISIS war is against the ‘near enemy’- a war within Islam. A war by Sunni extremist against Shias, moderate Muslims and non-Muslim minorities. It is a war between those who accept the hybridity and pluralism in the Muslim world and those who envision a Muslim world dominated only by a single strand of Wahabbism and its extremist offshoots. The United States and its Western allies need to pursue a different strategy than it is pursuing now by forging stronger military and political alliance between all neighbouring countries to counter and defeat the scourge of ISIS.

also by Riaz Hassan
Muslim Women Down
Life As a Weapon


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