COUNTERING THE SCOURGE OF ISIS
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.