Plea for a wide-angled view of the Arab world

In spite of all the hysteria surrounding IS, the terrorist militia is just one symptom of a changing region where repressive despots and militant Islamists are rising up once again and goading each other on. An essay by Karim El-Gawhary

By Karim El-Gawhary

The West is caught up in a real hysteria about IS. Anyone not blindly agreeing to all possible military counter-measures is almost accused of standing by and watching genocide being perpetrated against Kurds, Christians or Yazidis. Kobani has been talked up by the media as a decisive battle. On chat shows, people are urging Turkey into a war against Syria, which so far all the international military forces have managed to avoid, and the Kurds are being held up as new heroes.

We have entered into a contest to see who can condemn (quite rightly) IS fastest and loudest. We pat ourselves on the back for being the better part of humanity. But this is wholly inadequate for the development of a strategy to combat IS. I have to understand my enemy. Where does he come from, how did he come into being, how does he recruit, why is he successful? Only when I have some answers to these questions can I consider how to combat him effectively.

In order to understand IS, you need to leaf through a history book, not the Koran, and to review the news about Syria and Iraq from the past few years. In order to guard against any misunderstandings: understanding IS should not be confused with showing understanding for IS. Understanding something is the prerequisite for developing a targeted strategy to counter it.

The genesis of IS

So far, there can be no talk of such a strategy. Militarily, it may well be possible to stop IS here and there using air strikes. But each time, it will adapt to the military pressure and always has the option of resorting to a guerrilla strategy and attacks. Once again, the West is indulging in the fantasy of being able to change the geopolitical map using military might, "precise" air strikes and drones. That approach clearly did not work in the last Iraq War. Strictly speaking, IS is even one of the results of this attempt by a foreign country to bend the balance of military power to its needs from the outside.

In short, a purely military strategy has clear limitations. What remains is to attempt to pull the political rug out from under the feet of IS. It is a product of two developments: firstly, the bloody war in Syria, which people stood by and watched for four years, and which drove some Syrians to see IS as their saviour, and secondly, the situation in Iraq, where the country's old Sunni elite has been completely shut out from the political system and feels short-changed by the Shia-dominated politics in Baghdad.

IS militias in Iraq (photo: AFP)
Flexible and hard to hit: "Militarily, it may well be possible to stop IS here and there using air strikes. But each time, it will adapt to the military pressure and always has the option of resorting to a guerrilla strategy and attacks," writes Karim El-Gawhary

In Syria, a serious political alternative to Assad must be built up in order to finally end the war there. In Iraq, the Sunnis have to be brought back on board, having lost all faith in the post-war political system since the US invasion. Both of these are difficult aims, and require one thing above all: a lot of time. But there simply is no quick way of robbing IS of the air it needs to breathe.

To this end, it is also necessary to unscrew the telephoto lens currently pointing at Kobani, and look at the whole region through a wide-angle lens. Three things allowed IS to grow.

The role of the despots

Firstly, the terrorist organisation came into being either on the soil or in the neighbourhood of despotic Arab regimes that offer their young people in particular no prospect of actively shaping their societies and politics.

In addition to Syria and Iraq, this applies in particular to the outdated oil monarchy model. With their repressive politics, many Arab governments have fostered the very extremism they now claim to be combating. The Gulf despots are now deploying their own aerial weapons against IS positions, to great media effect, with the Arab Emirates even using a female pilot as a PR stunt. And while silencing all dissent in his country, Egypt's President Sisi is trying to sell the image of Egypt as a bulwark against IS.

None of this hides the fact that repression at the hands of regimes and Islamist militancy each justify their existence with reference to the other, goading each other on. More than anyone else, the Arab despots paved the way for IS.

The failure of Western policy in the region

Secondly, the Jihadists' successes are also a result of Western politics, and the decades-long colonial and post-colonial humiliation of the region, in which people's self-confidence has been reduced to zero. This is the basis on which the ideological and religious rabble-rousers have been able to successfully market a utopia of better times under the Prophet, a utopia that takes its markers from an era that lies 1,400 years back in time.

For years, the West curried favour with the Arab despots in the name of stability; now it once again views them as an important partner in the fight against terrorism. Meanwhile, these same regimes are not a part of the solution, but part of the "terror problem".

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (photo: AFP)
Between a rock and a hard place: Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (pictured above) justifies his authoritarian policy and his crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and democracy activists as the only way to deal with terrorism: according to El-Gawhary, Sisi is "trying to sell the image of Egypt as a bulwark against IS"

This brings us to the third factor that is relevant for a successful strategy in combating IS, namely that IS builds on a dominant backward-looking religious discourse, which actually came into being in order to provide outdated oil despots on the Gulf, and in particular Saudi Arabia, with the ideologically conservative superstructure necessary to retain their power.

All three factors exert an influence on each other. The West was so influential because for decades, it was able to rely on despots to represent its interests locally and act as guarantors of stability. Saudi Arabia, one of the region's most autocratic countries, and probably the most misogynistic country in the world, remains one of the region's most important allies for the USA and Europe. Moreover, the despots were so successful because they filled people's heads with religious discourses that did not challenge their power.

The West's desire for stability, the Arab despots' apparatus of repression and people's preoccupation with ultra-conservative religious formulations and rules of behaviour all had a common aim: to avoid, if possible, calling the status quo into question.

The context of the Arab transition

These three factors must also be seen in the context of the Arab transition. Even if many people now view the Arab Spring with a degree of cynicism, it showed the overwhelmingly young section of the Arab population in particular that the old ways can be challenged. Once this thought has taken root in people's minds, it cannot be permanently repressed. This is often underestimated in the context of the current situation in the region. Even in times of Arab censorship, thoughts remain free.

In many respects, what we are currently experiencing in the Arab world is the old ways rising up in many different guises. We see IS, with its backward-looking discourse, which promises the Arabs salvation, telling them that everything will be alright once a caliphate built on an era that lies 1,400 years in the past is set up.

At the same time, we are seeing the new version of autocratic regimes, as in Egypt. There, in these uncertain times, they seek salvation in the old, failed recipe of the all-powerful military, as in the era of Gamal Abel Nasser, fifty years ago. And then there are the Gulf monarchies, who are trying to rescue their hopelessly outdated autocratic structures and bring them in to a new age, and who have the petro-dollars to finance this retrograde project. The international approach, incidentally, is also old – there is still a belief that things can be solved in the usual manner, with military might.

Young people in Cairo demonstrating against the military leadership of their country (photo: dpa)
No more fears: young people in Cairo demonstrating against the military leadership of their country. Karim El-Gawhary is convinced that the Arab Spring has taught young people in the Arab world in particular that it is possible to challenge the old guard: " Once this thought has taken root in people's minds, it cannot be permanently repressed"

Everything is in flux

In the end, all these old faces will only lead to a dead end. None of them – neither the repressive states nor the militant Islamists – can offer people any real prospects. While the old is rising up everywhere, a classic situation has come about from which something new really must emerge.

However, no one at present can say what this new something looks like, how bloody and repressive it will be, and how long it will take for it to emerge. They are trying to tell us that there are only two alternatives: repression or Islamic militancy. It's an old Arab tradition. But at the end of the Arab transition, there will be no Field Marshall Sisi and no Caliph Baghdadi.

Even now, there are signs that the influence of Europe and the USA on the region will decrease, and that of the regional powers will increase; that the military in the Arab world no longer functions as a force of political order; that even the oil riches of the Gulf despots cannot save them from the new age; that new alliances are forming in the fight against IS, be it the Kurdish PKK, who are now being celebrated as a bulwark against IS, but who are still on the European terror lists, or Iran, which will swiftly transform itself from international pariah to alliance partner against the jihadists. Everything is in flux.

Last but not least, religious discourse is not immune to transition either. In a WIN/Gallup poll, almost one in five people surveyed in Saudi Arabia described themselves as "not religious". Five percent even described themselves as atheist. At the start of the year, new, far-reaching anti-terror laws were passed in Saudi Arabia. Now, it is not only people who join the jihad in Syria or Iraq who are liable for prosecution; in future, those who "call into question the foundations of the Islamic religion on which the country is based" can be punished as terrorists.

Some are joining the jihad to bring back the age of the Prophet; others are questioning the authority of religion. Those are the two sides of the Arab coin, which it is worth occasionally turning over.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2014

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin