The banality of the Islamic State

Interesting post by Reyko Huang about "the Islamic State as an ordinary insurgency", over at Monkey Cage:

The point here is not to downplay the threat posed by the Islamic State or to “normalize” its behavior by highlighting the group’s ordinariness among violent political groups. It is simply to stress that comparatively speaking, the group is not as exceptional as observers and the media have often characterized it. Putting the Islamic State into a broader theoretical and historical perspective – that is, beyond the frame of “Islamist terrorism” and beyond the post-9/11 period – is important because there are clear dangers in hyperbolizing the group’s own claims to exceptionalism. To unduly emphasize the Islamic State’s distinctiveness is to distort its threat, inadvertently boost its legitimacy, and worst of all, to directly play into its leaders’ hands. Whatever the Islamic State has achieved so far, history has seen much of it before in other contexts. Knowledge of these other contexts can therefore inform both scholarship and policy on this pressing issue.

Well worth reading the whole thing, particularly as the Islamic State is being used by so many in the region as a boogeyman to advance their own agenda, from Sisi in Egypt to the Iranian regime to Bashar al-Assad in Syria to the very IS-like (ideologically) Saudi regime. 

The weapons of the Islamic State

From the New York Times:

This picture carries a sobering reminder for anyone who believes that arming even the most accommodating militaries and rebel groups comes without grave risks. The data set shows that the Islamic State, like many irregular forces before it, has opened spigots from varied and far-ranging sources of supply, in this case on a grand scale. The group’s diversions include ammunition that Iran most likely provided to Iraqi or Syrian security forces; weapons formerly used in wars in Libya, East Africa and the Balkans; and equipment intended for the Syrian opposition fighting President Bashar al-Assad (or even for fighting the militants themselves) but that had been sold, traded or captured from unreliable rebels.
The list of the Islamic State’s inventory reads like a roll call of arms-exporting nations: cartridges from Russia and the United States; rifles from Belgium and a host of formerly Eastern bloc states; guided anti-tank missiles from MBDA, a multinational firm with offices in Western Europe and the United States. Moreover, some of the manufacturing dates on ammunition from Kobani were remarkably recent. Investigators found Sudanese, Russian, Chinese and Iranian small-arms ammunition made from 2012 to 2014 — showing that the militant organization is a long way from being logistically isolated, no matter the forces arrayed against it. (This is not to say that the Islamic State has all the weapons that it might want, or enough of certain types; its extensive use of locally produced rockets and improvised explosive devices shows that its commanders round out arsenals with workshop-grade weapons.)
As Conflict Armament Research’s catalog grows, the implications become familiar and uncomfortable. States that arm guerrillas, brittle government security forces and other proxies tend to assume they are making discrete policy decisions. But if arms migrate as freely from one conflict or fighting force to another as the data indicates they are in the Middle East, then conflicts cannot easily be viewed, in Bevan’s words, as “ostensibly distinct.” The weapons the Islamic State came to possess were in many cases originally exported with the intention of making the region more secure, and have instead been used by militants to remove parts of two countries from the map of the civilized world, setting the group on a path to becoming the largest and most gleefully violent jihadist organization of our time.


/Source

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

ISIS: Conspiracy theories in the Arab media

Not everyone in the Arab media thinks ISIS is part of a larger Western-backed conspiracy, but the view is depressingly widespread (even by those who in the same breadth demand retaliation against these apparently fabricated terrorists and their atrocities). In many of those theories, two reasonable points -- ISIS is in some sense a creation of regional and international powers, its rise a consequence of their terrible policies; and what they do is "un-Islamic," or horrifying to most Muslims -- are quickly pushed into the territory of non-thinking absurdity. Nour Youssef shares another of her expert round-ups. 

While Egyptian singer Sha’ban Abdelrahim was advising ISIS to plant cabbage and taro instead of bombs, Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhy analyzed the terrorist group’s filmed beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. 

Like Abdelrahim and essentially everyone who is not an MB-affiliated TV host, Sobhy asserted that the video is "an American film" with a joint “Turkish/Qatari/US/Israeli production.” The most obvious proof of this, Sobhy says, is that “Jihadi John”  who leads the beheadings, holds prayer beads, symbolizing Islam, in the same hand as a knife, symbolizing violence. “They” are trying to send a subliminal negative message about Islam. This is why the man spoke English: to reach the West and tarnish the image of Islam, he argued. 

Since the majority of Egyptian journalists subscribes to the belief that the US, Israel, Turkey and Qatar are out to destroy Islam, the Middle East and most importantly Egypt, little attention was given to ISIS itself. 

Also thinking it is all about them was Dubai’s former police chief, Dahi Khalfan, who believes the US “unleashed” ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on the Gulf, just like it once used Saddam Hussein. 

Videos and more after the jump. 

Read More

Social media and the Arab uprisings

Depressing at the state of things may be, I found researching and writing this article about the questions scholars are asking today about the role of social and digital media in political mobilization in the Middle East, for The Chronicle of Higher Education, very interesting. 

"It’s difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without talking about social media," says Philip N. Howard, a professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. But "after years of excitement and effervescence," he notes, "we’re in a much more jaded or critical stage of inquiry."
Working on his book (with Muzammil M. Hussain) Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab SpringMr. Howard developed a causal model that weighed access to new communication technology in Arab countries alongside other socioeconomic factors. He concluded that that access was part of the basic infrastructure needed for collective action to take place.
But by the time the book was published, in 2013, those mass mobilizations for change had seemingly collapsed. Today, out of half a dozen Arab countries that witnessed uprisings, only Tunisia has managed to see its democratic transition through. Across the region, the bloggers and activists who helped plan and publicize protests were sidelined by Islamist parties and military regimes. They have been silenced, imprisoned, or driven into exile.
Scholars are now asking a different set of questions: How did these huge and hopeful social movements fizzle? Why were they unable to achieve political gains? How is social media being used today by resurgent autocratic governments and by terrorist groups? 
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, argued in a recent paper that the ability to "scale up" quickly that social media offers to protest movements means they don’t have to do the hard and necessary work of building traditional organizations that know how to make decisions collectively, change strategies, and persevere. In a TED talk she gave in October, Ms. Tufekci compared today’s social movements, in the Arab world and elsewhere, to "start-ups that got very big without knowing what to do next."

You should also read this article on the topic by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, "Social media in the Era of ISIS."  

2 Comments

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Why ISIS' destruction hurts so much

Thanassis Cambanis on why the destruction of antiquities bothers us so much. 

In just one week of massive historical vandalism, the Islamic State has produced a stark coda to a century that has transformed the Middle East from one of the world’s most diverse and cosmopolitan regions into a sterile, ethnically cleansed patchwork.
“It’s never about artifacts. It’s about people’s right to exist, their right to live in their homeland,” says Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University archaeologist who has worked as an antiquities adviser for the Iraqi government. “You destroy people’s history by destroying their monuments and artifacts. It’s similar to having the Athenian acropolis destroyed, or thugs going to Versailles and blowing up the whole palace.”
Bahrani was one of the first to sound the alarm about the importance of cultural objects in 2003, when the Baghdad Museum was looted during the US invasion. At the time Istrabadi, the constitutional scholar and her cousin, recalls telling Bahrani that the overthrow of the tyrant Saddam Hussein was worth the loss of some prized objects.
Bahrani got angry: “This is our entire historical identity,” she told him.
Now, more than a decade later, both cousins have left Iraq. Their extended family exemplified a mid-20th century ideal of cosmopolitan, secular Sunnis who felt at home throughout the Arab world and beyond, choosing their friends without regard to religion or nationality.
Istrabadi has come around to his cousin’s way of seeing things.
Iraq, the place that gave the world written language and the first code of law, today plays host to its most savage nihilists — and as much as he would like to think otherwise, Istrabadi believes that there is some constituency for the Islamic State’s program of destruction and cultural erasure.
“For those of us who hold a belief in the ascent of man, it refutes the idea that we’re heading to a better level of humanity,” he said. “It’s just incredible to watch. I feel helpless. ”
The statues, for Istrabadi, were the final straw. For everything else, he said, you can fool yourself “we can have a better tomorrow, we can turn back the sectarian tide,” he said. “Someone destroys a 3,000-year-old statue with a sledgehammer, there’s no bringing that back. There’s no fooling yourself. It’s proof that these people are not a transient phenomenon. They will be defeated, but they will leave a residue behind.”

Lure of the Caliphate by Malise Ruthven | NYRblog

Malise Ruthven on ISIS' millennialism:

Though these ideas are not given prominence in most contemporary practice, the leaders of the Syrian jihad are not the first Islamic movement to give them special weight. In 1881, for example, the Sudanese Muslim cleric Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi, conquered Khartoum, and created a state that lasted until 1898. And in 1979, an apocalyptic movement led by several Islamist extremists brought Saudi Arabia briefly into crisis with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and calls for the overthrow of the House of Saud; the group claimed one of its own leaders as the Mahdi.

In fact, there is a strong pedigree for this ideology in classical Islamic thought. Like Christianity, Islam seems to have begun as a messianic movement warning that the Day of Judgment was imminent. The early suras (chapters) of the Koran are filled with doomsday menace, and the yearning for a final reckoning is deeply encoded in some of the texts. A central figure in this tradition is Dajjal—the one-eyed false messiah who corresponds to the Antichrist of the New Testament. The details vary but most versions agree that the final battle will take place east of Damascus, when Jesus will return as messiah, kill the pigs, destroy Dajjal, and break the cross in his symbolic embrace of Islam.

. . .

For jihadists, such signs are rife in the Middle East today. One of the arguments ISIS and al-Nusra put forward in their apocalyptic rhetoric is that the Bashar al-Assad regime—dominated by the minority and Shia-affiliated Alawite sect, with its killings of children and repression of Islamists—is a “sign” of this departure from fundamental Islamic values that is supposed to precede the final battle.

How Islamic is the Islamic State?

Two very different takes, from two prominent middle east scholars, on the question of how Islamic the Islamic state is -- a debate that I am sure will be with us for a while.

This long piece in The Atlantic quotes Bernard Haykel (who was teaching at NYU when I studied there):

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”
Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.
According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”
All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Meanwhile Juan Cole makes the opposite argument in a post entitled "Today's Top 7 Myths about Daesh/ISIL" on his blog:

1. It isn’t possible to determine whether Daesh a mainstream Muslim organization, since Muslim practice varies by time and place. I disagree. There is a center of gravity to any religion such that observers can tell when something is deviant. Aum Shinrikyo isn’t your run of the mill Buddhism, though it probably is on the fringes of the Buddhist tradition (it released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995). Like Aum Shinrikyo, Daesh is a fringe cult. There is nothing in formal Islam that would authorize summarily executing 21 Christians. The Qur’an says that Christians are closest in love to the Muslims, and that if they have faith and do good works, Christians need have no fear in the afterlife. Christians are people of the book and allowed religious freedom by Islamic law from the earliest times. Muslims haven’t always lived up to this ideal, but Christians were a big part of most Muslim states in the Middle East (in the early Abbasid Empire the Egyptian and Iraqi Christians were the majority). They obviously weren’t being taken out and beheaded on a regular basis. They did gradually largely convert to Islam, but we historians don’t find good evidence that they were coerced into it. Because they paid an extra poll tax, Christians had economic reasons to declare themselves Muslims.
We all know that Kentucky snake handlers are a Christian cult and that snake handling isn’t typical of the Christian tradition. Why pretend that we can’t judge when modern Muslim movements depart so far from the modern mainstream as to be a cult?
2. Daesh fighters are pious. Some may be. But very large numbers are just criminals who mouth pious slogans. The volunteers from other countries often have a gang past. They engage in drug and other smuggling and in human trafficking and delight in mass murder. They are criminals and sociopaths. Lots of religious cults authorize criminality.


2 Comments

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Life in Mosul

Really interesting essay in The American Interest by a former Mosul resident (who says  Da'esh first appeared in the city in 2006). 

Eight months of ISIS so far, as I sit to write, have taken their toll on every aspect of the city. Electricity and running water are available for two to four hours a week, but no one knows which hours in any given week. Umm Saja, an employee at a city office, said that she is not surprised by the lack of services: “Providing clean water and energy to people is not child’s play. It takes regular, trained employees and experts. How are a bunch of brainwashed young people who have not finished grade school going to maintain such functions?” People approach the militants to complain only to be answered, “You Moslawis are too spoiled. Think about the early days of Islam. Did the Prophet own an air-conditioner?”
In these complaints one hears not only the voiced Islamist cant, but also the rural accents beneath it that identify most ISIS cadres as poorer, less well-educated Iraqis who have resented Mosul urbanites all their lives. This is a central sociological dimension to what has been going on that the Western press has missed almost entirely, as far as I can tell. More on this theme anon.
...
Scores of Mosul residents have abandoned going to mosques altogether and choose to pray at home to avoid ISIS. Hasan added: “There is a young man who lives around this area; an absolutely immoral perverted person so that I do not have enough bad words to describe with. He has joined ISIS and grown a long beard. Now he roams the market place fully armed. I see him and think, ‘if this lowlife represents Islam, then I no longer need this religion’—and then I quickly ask Allah for forgiveness.”
Ruaa, 35, told me she misses her “Christian neighbors as Christmas approaches. We used to visit them during their holidays. They were family and we were not able to offer them any help. I am ashamed of myself and my religion. I do not blame them if they hate Islam.” The most extreme statement came from Saad, a 29-year-old physician: “Our problem is with Allah. Every murderer, rapist, and thief speaks in His name and He does nothing. Do not tell me Allah exists. If He does, then He is content with what is happening. Either way I want nothing to do with Him.”
While atheism exists everywhere, what is rising in Mosul, and probably in Raqqa too, is a trend worth noting. When young people, once devoted Muslims, decide to stray from the Creator in anger, the future will bear the consequences. A young doctor told me he has become a heavy smoker and laughs about the extreme lengths he goes to just to get his hands on smoke after ISIS added cigarettes to its extended “taboo list.” He wrapped his amusing story with blasphemy: “If not only ISIS, but if Allah Himself comes down here to Mosul and tells me stop, I will still find a way to smoke.” This is a far cry from the man I used to know, who backed the Islamic Party in all national and local elections. ISIS is driving him crazy.
/Source

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On the so-called Islamic State

Ramy Khoury argues in the Daily Star that the extremist movement is the nearly inevitable result of the region's (often foreign-backed) authoritarianism. 

But the single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in this 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 basic life needs for their families.
The expressions of bewilderment we hear today from many Arab and Western politicians or media analysts about why the Islamic State rose and what to do about it have zero credibility or sympathy in my book. Some of the same people who pontificate about the Islamic State threat were often directly involved in actions that helped to bring it about (corrupt Arab security states, the invasion of Iraq, and total support for Israel).

Peter Harling, in Le Monde Diplomatique, looks to Sunni resentment and the "void" of good governance and international diplomacy. 

At root, IS simply fills a void. It occupies northeast Syria because the Syrian regime has by and large abandoned it, and the opposition that might have replaced it has failed to secure a genuine sponsor, in particular the US. And, in Iraq, IS has surged into cities such as Fallujah and Mosul because the central power in Baghdad has largely neglected them: the Iraqi state maintained a presence there that was simultaneously corrupt, repressive and flimsy. IS’s rapid expansion into zones in northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces, but inhabited by Christian and Yezidi minorities, is unsurprising, given the lack of real interest shown in the victims by their ostensible protectors, the Kurds, who were quick to withdraw to their own territory.
IS also fills a void on a more abstract level. Simply put, the Sunni world has trouble coming to terms with its past and imagining its future. A fragmented 20th-century history, following a long period of Ottoman occupation which was seen as a period of decline, ended with a succession of failures: anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism, capitalism — all led only to bitter or ambiguous experiences. Thus far, with the exception of Tunisia, the hopes born of the 2011 uprisings have turned to ashes. So where can Sunnis turn to find inspiration, self-confidence and pride? The reactionaries in the Gulf and Egypt? The Muslim Brothers, who are on the ropes? Palestinian Hamas, locked in a perpetual impasse in its resistance to Israel?

Maliki's most solemn hour

Maliki's most solemn hour

As the Baghdad government reels from the humiliating loss of Mosul to insurgents this week, ISIS resolves to succeed where al Qaeda failed in Iraq.

Some analysts said during the Second Gulf War that al Qaeda would be trading up from Afghanistan if it secured a base in Iraq. It was a prescient thought, but perhaps premature: between 2007 and 2010, Iraqis by and large rejected that fate for their country and dealt a body blow to the foreign Sunni jihadists who entered the country. But then the Syrian Civil War began. Non-Syrian jihadists entered Syria in numbers - though so too did foreign brigades sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah - and many of the Sunnis among these fighters came from nearby Iraq to fight in solidarity. Ironically, some had once been agents of Syrian state-sponsored terrorism. The most significant of these "new" groups has been the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which over the past year has spent as much time fighting other Syrian rebels groups as the Syrian Arab Republic's forces. ISIS was once aligned with al Qaeda's central command, but has since gone its own way. Though increasingly a multinational conglomeration after absorbing many of the Nusra Front's foreign fighters, it has only one strategic goal today: that of gathering all Sunnis living in "Greater Syria" under its rule. 

"Many [ISIS fighters] have come from Afghanistan and Iraq," says Syrian activist Abu Ibrahim Ar-Raqqawi, describing their rule in his country's northern reaches as an effort to build a state, "cleanse" it (especially of rival anti-Assad actors), and only then begin the fighting against Assad in earnest. "Our Syrian fighters are farmers and masons, they don't have that experience." Indeed, and ISIS has delivered on what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could not. It has set down foundations for an emirate in the Sunni heartland abutting Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Caucasus Mountains. ISIS is not al Qaeda. And because of this difference in priorities, it has done what al Qaeda failed to do: secure, as Aymenn Al-Tamimi tweeted, "contiguous territory, [a] series of linked strongholds, [and] provision of services." For much more than mere shakedowns of rich merchants and handing out candy to children is planned for northern Iraq in the coming weeks.

Read More