ISIL: Are we all responsible?

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By Dr Harry Hagopian, Middle East North Africa (MENA) Consultant

Published on 6 October, this is the latest opinion piece from our consultant on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, Dr Harry Hagopian. Keeping the focus on militant group ISIL as its stranglehold on the Syrian border town of Kobane tightens, Harry looks at how the West has approached jihadism over the years. Originally published on Dr Hagopian’s website


I do not know Alan Henning any more than all those viewers who saw his picture on our television screens.

But I know where he comes from since Eccles, Salford and Manchester were pretty much my stomping grounds for many years when I was studying for my law degree and then spent some time between lectures and post-graduate courses.

So I was deeply saddened to learn that Alan was murdered by a vile group discarding the fact that this man was generously helping many of those Syrians who have been trying for over three years to liberate themselves from the yoke of one-party suppression. I pray for Alan, I pray for those murdered before him, and I grieve with their kith and kin too.

But this latest death also makes me realise that we in the West still do not always get it when it comes to this motley bunch of modern-day Neanderthals and I fear that our tactical responses lack any strategic depth and remain inadequate.

Let me get away from the customary sound bites of our politicians and take ‘jihadism’ a few steps back to an earlier era.

The execrable and gratuitous violence that we witness today (or else that we try banning from social media with hashtags such as #ISISmediaBlackout) traces its roots in two less brutal but equally radical earlier waves. The first one was led by disciples of Sayyed Qutb – a radical Egyptian Islamist viewed as the master theoretician of modern jihadism – and it targeted the “near enemy” in the form of pro-Western secular Arab regimes. However, following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1980, this Islamist insurgency gradually dissipated by the 1990’s but it had cost some 2,000 lives and saw large numbers of militants heading to Afghanistan to do battle with the USSR as their new arch-foe

The Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, however, midwifed a second wave that had as its target the “far enemy”. Those were the USA and – perhaps less so – Europe. It was spearheaded by Osama Bin Laden who went to great lengths to rationalise al-Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9/11. He mislabelled it ‘defensive jihad’ and misconceived it feloniously as retaliation against a perceived US domination of Muslim societies.

However, those challenges to society are almost obviated today by the radicalised savagery that ISIS deploys as part of its arsenal – relying on the fear or shock factors and on its irreligious bigotry. So we now focus on this new global threat.

I have often suggested that ISIL is not a state despite its lofty claims. Rather, it is an idea – a sadistic idea – that needs to be fought differently. Whilst our aerial attacks against targets in Iraq and Syria might slow down the physical spread of ISIL ideology, it could nonetheless also ironically fuel its propagation in some Muslim minds. After all, is it not basing much of its campaign on recreating a 7th century Wahhabi Salafism that is unsullied by the West? Besides, does it not claim that it is defending all those marginalised Sunni men and women of the Arab World? It is therefore at times hard for some of those same Sunni Muslims to condemn their ‘warriors’ who are fighting against what they perceive as the injustices heaped upon them by a dictator in Syria, a Shi’i sectarian prime minister in Iraq or civic rulers and religious hierarchs in the MENA who are at times more interested in the ostentation of power than in the welfare of their citizens.

Hence, the key challenge facing us all today is to resist our testosterone-driven instincts of bombing empty buildings and in so doing feel vindicated that we are physically acting against an evil ogre. Rather, it requires winning the ideological battle of minds (before hearts) against such thugs. This could happen if we discredit their methods and – here comes the crunch – challenge their backers. After all, a lot of ink has been spilt on whether the Gulf States are subsidising ISIL or other jihadist radical movements such as Jabhat Al-Nusra. Whilst that might well be untrue, do we not have the means to ensure that some of those countries proscribe their own wealthy citizens from bankrolling such terror movements too?

Omar Saif Ghobash, UAE Ambassador to Russia, was recently interviewed by the University of Pennsylvania. He suggested that we should combat ISIL in the realm of ideas by countering their propaganda and addressing the ills of modernity. He was right, as is also Professor Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who argued on BBC Radio 4 last Sunday that such radical movements are inflated by desperation. Indeed, roughly 40% of the 300 million residents of the Arab World are in abject poverty today. Besides, the region suffers from high unemployment levels and a breakdown of trust in rulers or governmental institutions. So I would suggest that these are some of the causal factors we should take into consideration when we embark upon our generational struggle against such forms of insidious and creeping jihadism. By helping alleviate those factors, we also avoid grafting the virtual wombs that procreate desperation and gestate radicalism.

Let me go back to my initial question: are we all responsible for ISIL? I would argue that we in the West have a lot to answer for in terms of our colonial past, influence over the region and even propping up of dictators. But this also means that we have learnt much over the years. So can we exercise some humility and apply those lessons intelligently?

This article was originally published on Dr Hagopian’s website.