ISIL’s explosive rise has upended the political status quo in the Middle East. Despite international efforts to contain and defeat the group, ISIL appears to be in solid control of its territory, demonstrating a daring and unprecedented financial self-efficiency not seen in other terrorist groups – even trading in oil with Mosul as its capital. More so, ISIL has demonstrated a capability to maintain its growing ranks and move as an army rather than a mere guerrilla force.
Although a military effort is under way (no matter how limited it is as a result of conflicting political agendas), ISIL’s rapid rise is primarily rooted in an ideology that has resonated with many across the disenfranchised Muslim population. This has been exacerbated by a number of failures on the part of the international community; namely a retreating US foreign policy; Sisi’s coup in Egypt; Assad’s retention of power backed by regional allies; and Iraq’s descent into fierce sectarianism as Iran cements its control. A failure to fully grasp this reality by the international community has hindered any real opportunity to pull ISIL’s power from its very roots.
Over the years, there have been two dominant themes in political discourse amongst the Arab World relating to change in governance; democracy versus forcefully seizing rule from the established powers. The former, led by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, successfully succeeded in cementing their popular support amongst the community that eventually swept them to power in Tunisia and Egypt. This provided a check on more radical elements as the Brotherhood successfully demonstrated that democracy did not disadvantage Islamist parties and that working within the system was a viable means through which to implement Islamic rule.
Once in power however, the Brotherhood suffered greatly as it came across as possessing a sense of entitlement that alienated large segments of the population. As governors in various provinces were replaced with ‘loyalists’, the party lent themselves to accusations of power-mongering and seeking to become cemented in government for years to come which rattled the security forces. Their identity as an Islamist party – the fundamental reason for their electoral victory – became tarnished by Morsi negotiating the IMF loan he had previously condemned Mubarak for seeking; and as preachers split the Muslim community by claiming that it was a religious obligation to stand by Morsi and failure to do so was sinful. The latter factor added a dangerous religious element to political differences, inviting the volatile political environment into the only socially unifying institution; the mosque. They then alienated the Gulf countries by publicly opening Egypt’s doors to Iran; a major faux pas.
All this created a sense of disillusion amongst those who had sympathised with the Brotherhood and saw them as a genuine Islamic alternative. The group lost ground in the political discourse to more radical elements that began to argue that the Brotherhood had been allowed to win by virtue of being a ‘diluted’ Islamic party willing to compromise on principles to appease others.
Nevertheless, the defining moment in the political discourse was Sisi’s coup which gave momentum to the sentiment that the ‘West will only ever accept democracy in the Middle East provided we vote for liberal and secular parties’. This argument found a growing resonance within the community as Sisi cemented his rule by crushing opposition demonstrators. Disenfranchised youth began to accept the ‘reality’ that democracy will never lead to Islamic governance so long as the West continued to exercise its powerful influence in the region.
Alongside events in Egypt, Maliki’s 10-year marginalisation of the Sunni population in Iraq fuelled the sectarian divide across the country. After using the Sahawaat forces to fight Al-Qaeda, Maliki crushed them as he feared they would turn against him and created an environment that allowed Iran to establish the Shia militias that are rampant today. Maliki’s systematic oppression alienated tribes in the North who, upon the advent of ISIL, welcomed a credible challenge to the central government in the form of a ‘revolution’. In fact, were it not for the support of these tribes, ISIL would never have been able to seize Mosul, nor would they have been able to cement themselves so firmly within the city. The damage to the relations between the central government and these tribes is so bad that Abadi has found himself in a catch-22 scenario; if he refuses to arm the Sunni tribes to fight ISIL, then they will continue to passively support ISIL. If he arms them and they succeed in overthrowing ISIL, there is no guarantee that these tribes will not set up their own Sunni emirate independent from central authority.
In Syria, Obama’s reluctance to commit to a genuine effort to remove Assad and arm the Free Syria Army has fuelled ISIL’s image as the only genuine threat to the dictatorial regime. The FSA has been wrought with internal divisions as has the Syrian Opposition council which has struggled even to agree on a spokesperson (some attribute this to divisions amongst the Gulf States who have backed different factions). As a result of this weakness, the FSA has been unable to enforce its legitimacy as the representative army of the revolution, leading to groups such as Nusra and ISIL to gain momentum. The irony is that this failure on the part of the US has in turn has caused Obama to re-evaluate his stance against Assad as he wrangles with the question: who will replace him if he falls?
The Arab states themselves have failed to form a united front with Syria, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar supporting differing factions and other smaller Gulf nations opening their doors to stronger relations with Iran, in preparation for a new status quo that sees Assad remain at Syria’s helm and Iran the new superpower in the region. The Arab states have also failed to grasp their own populations’ sympathies, preferring to stem the ‘jihadist’ tide forcefully rather than adopting a united ideological Islamic front to counter that of ISIL. An example of this failure to grasp the general sentiment is the Arab States’ participation in the Anti-ISIL coalition which has drawn criticism amongst Muslims across the Middle East, who are openly asking why the bombing is centred on Sunni areas and questioning ‘why we are bombing our brothers for the sake of the Americans?’.
A military victory will not deliver the decisive blow against ISIL. Rather, a unified ideological front that encourages efforts to reconcile the Brotherhood with Sisi in order to restore some balance in the political discourse; encourages a firm stance against Assad whilst providing effective support to the Syrian people; and presents a credible incentive to the Sunni tribes in Northern Iraq to turn against ISIL is needed. ISIL is the product of years of oppression in the Middle East exacerbated by an aggressive US foreign policy and growing sectarianism fuelled by Iran over the past 10 years.
When a governor wrote to the Caliph Umar Bin AbdulAziz setting out the threat to his city and his need for extra protection, Umar wrote to him ‘protect it with justice and block the path of oppression’. The competing nations in the Middle East must realise that forcefully stemming pro-ISIL tendencies is not the solution; providing a just alternative to sectarianism and oppression is.
Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. He has extensive experience reporting across the Middle East by virtue of having been a television presenter for Almustakillah Television for the past seven years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Follow Sami on Twitter @SALHACHIMI and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SALHACHIMI.