31 March 2015

Dubious Strategies to Stop ISIS

Possibly due my morbid fascination with ISIS, my friends ask me with some regularity why no one is doing anything to stop this ugly band of beheaders.

I tell them that that is because, despite all the horrifying acts committed by ISIS and the bleak lives of people in the regions they occupied, we are not serious about stopping them.

As I sense them to doubt my seemingly cavalier statement, I present to them the currently entertained solutions.

In this post I will enumerate these dubious strategies.

In a subsequent post, I will explain why ISIS is still useful for regional Sunni powers and why no one is arming and supporting the one group that is capable of defeating ISIS.

The following is in no particular order of effectiveness.

Cyber-trolling ISIS

The State Department has decided to fight ISIS through a newly established Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC). They have been attacking sites that are frequented by ISIS sympathizers and by blocking social media messaging and re-tweeting activities of ISIS fanboys called "the knights of the uploading."

Yes, that is the name they gave themselves.

If, as I suggested, people join ISIS because the newly-minted Caliphate provides a solid identity and a path to redemption to people whose artificial national identities were too weak to withstand the radicalizing onslaught of Wahhabi imams and the alienating sense of rejection that came after 9/11, then, online trolling will have no dissuading effect on them.

The lure is much stronger and its roots are elsewhere. This is why hundreds or perhaps thousands of new recruits flock to Syria every month. (And apparently helped by intelligence agencies to complete the journey)

This is also why all sorts of former al Qaeda affiliates are pledging allegiance to al Baghdadi.

In that context, providing disapproving or sarcasting links to ISIS carnage videos would not be a deterrent because blood and gore is not repulsive to these people. In fact, their new cult identity is such that, they enjoy both the graphic violence and the expression of horror it creates in other people. In a recent piece on women joining ISIS, the Economist noted that "one [woman] describe[d] repeatedly watching a video of a beheading, and demand[ed] more such films."

And this is one of the reasons why ISIS always comes up with more outrageous acts of violence.

Besides being ineffective, cyber warfare is also risky business. Just a couple of months ago, ISIS trolls hacked Centcom's official Twitter account and left messages like this.

That's US Central Command.

And on 22 March, Pentagon announced that ISIS stole the personal details of 100 US military personnel and released them online.

Cyber-trolling a technologically sophisticated adversary makes no sense.

Out-Salafisting ISIS

Another strategy is to provide support to rival Salafi groups to undermine ISIS and its alleged hold over true-Islam.

Accordingly, a recent article in the Atlantic magazine extensively quotes a Princeton lecturer of Lebanese descent to establish the notion that ISIS has the most literal and therefore the best interpretation of Islam.

It turns out that ISIS was sincere about going back to the 7th century and to recreate the conditions of the Rashidun Caliphs.

Then the article intones that, once a Caliphate is declared, it becomes the duty of all Muslims to emigrate there and to give their allegiances to the new Caliph. Anything less is apostasy.

This is, of course, inane rubbish.

First of all, there is no such thing as a literal interpretation of Islam. Or of any other religion for that matter.

From a general sociological perspective, even if you stipulate that the messages were conveyed by God - and I have no problem stipulating that - it is clear that their meaning would be limited by the understanding of the recipient. In that sense, there is no way anyone can claim to know what God really intended by reading a text that was necessarily understood and reproduced within the confines of the historical, social, linguistic and cultural context in which it was received.

To put it in everyday terms, if I were able to go back in time and met my paternal grandfather before his death in 1928, there would be no way for me to explain to him what Twitter is. Even though he was an intelligent man by all accounts, he simply would not have had the vocabulary and knowledge structures to grasp the concept as it currently exist. Since he had never experienced computers, Internet, smartphones and related technologies, he might have gotten a vague idea about communicating in short sentences. But not much beyond that.

If this is too modernist for you and you are a believer, you can make the same argument from an Islamic perspective.
Determining what texts “plainly” say is not as easy as spotting some words on a page. Islam’s interpretative tradition exists because the differences between plain and hidden, elliptical and direct, absolute and qualified, are not always obvious. The Quran speaks of itself as a book containing passages that are muḥkam, or clear in meaning, and mutashābih, or symbolic, allegorical, or ambiguous (even the significance of this word is debated among Muslims).
Secondly, the Sunnah, that is the teachings of the Prophet and his sayings (Hadith) were recorded several generations after his death. Sunnis believe in one set of Hadith and Shia in another. There is also third group of Muslims who dismiss the Hadith completely as they argue that only the Koran should be guiding Muslims: God's word should have primacy over what his earthly messenger said and did in his lifetime.

By the time the Abbasid Caliphs proceeded to write the Hadith down they had hundreds of thousands of statements many of which were contradictory or mutually exclusive. So, they picked and choose what to include. This is what we have and this is the basis of Sunnah and more importantly, the foundation of Sharia.

Given this background, how can one claim ISIS or any other entity has the most literal interpretation of Islam?

Finally, even if ISIS was the most scholarly pure source of Koranic interpretation (and they most certainly are not), they can never claim to be Salafi. You see, the Salafi movement was based on a Hadith where the Prophet said "The people of my own generation are the best, then those who come after them, and then those of the next generation."

Remember Karen Armstrong's notion of orthopraxy? The emphasis placed on purity of practice? Accordingly, Salafis try to emulate exactly what the Muslims of these first three generations did. They eat with three fingers, have their beard trimmed in a certain way, their clothing are of a certain length and all their daily actions are carefully regimented.

To live your life exactly the way the first three generations of Muslims lived was the argument used by the House of Wahhab to ban movies in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban to ban music in Afghanistan.

Do you think as-Salaf as Saleh (Pious Predecessors) used their smartphones to tweet in between daily prayers?

ISIS has movie studios that rival Sony's. Its members use Twitter better than Jack Dorsey. Its leadership pushes the boundaries of social media technologies and has an extraordinary grasp of modern marketing techniques.

They are so far more removed from the 7th century that, your average secular Muslim can out-Salafist them with a glass of wine in his hand.

Besides, if you could somehow out-Salafist them, that is, if you could find another Salafi group and support their claim that their interpretation of Islam is superior, what would that achieve?

According to the article, other Salafis are more inward looking:
Quietist Salafis believe that Muslims should direct their energies toward perfecting their personal life, including prayer, ritual, and hygiene. Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as “rending cloth”?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others.
But what is the point of these efforts ultimately?
Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq. 
In other words, they will turn into ISIS at a later date.

Great plan, if you ask me.

Count me in.

Bolstering Syrian and Iraqi Governments

This is another rubbish pseudo solution that pops up sporadically.

Let's face it, both Syria and Iraq are failed states at this point. It's just that no one has given them the news yet.

Right now, they are functioning and fighting with the help of Iran. In Syria's case, there is also help from Russia to ensure that the creation of Pipelineistan is delayed.

The news items about Iraqi army taking over Tikrit do not mean much as they refer to Iranian generals providing logistical and tactical support and the Shia militia doing the fighting.

The Iraqi military has been a joke since Paul Bremer's incredibly stupid idea to disband Saddam's army. The Naqshibandi Armyacting on behalf of ISIS, invaded a city of 2 million in no time. There was no resistance and no fighting back from Iraqi troops. Even with all this foreign assistance to take Tikrit back from ISIS, the Iraqi army eventually required US air strikes.

Even if you could miraculously turn the military into a fighting force, there is no way you can govern the country. Iraq has de facto been divided into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions. After countless atrocities from both sides, the Sunnis and Shia will never accept to live in the same country.

As for Kurds, they have already achieved independence and they are not about to give it up.

You have the same exact picture in Syria. The Nusra Front was first at the scene and just like ISIS, they were fighting other anti-Assad forces and fellow Islamists and using horrifying video clips to achieve ethnic cleansing. ISIS took over from where they left off and made the whole think more effective, more graphic and more technologically advanced.

Once again, we have a country where Alewites -a branch of Shia Islam- and Sunnis could never, ever cohabitate. And, once again we have the Kurds who, especially after Kobani, are unlikely to mingle with anyone else.

In that sense, we have two Sykes-Picot countries that are already dissolved into smaller and more numerous entities: Sunni, Shia and Kurdish.

If you were a decision maker looking at this picture armed with the knowledge that that there was no way to keep these three groups in a unitary nation state and if, while you were pondering, a very effective fighting machine was slaughtering civilian populations, what would you do?

If you supported moderate Sunni groups (as the US and Turkey did) you would know by now that the majority of Sunnis sympathize with ISIS and similar groups and any arms given to moderate Islamist factions end up in the hands of more radical Jihadis.

If you supported the Shia, you would know that, while they are slightly less crazy than the Sunnis, bolstering them could tilt the regional balance of power in Iran's favor.

That leaves one group.

And one question: Why is no one supporting and arming the Kurds?

The answer is the subject of my next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment