The latest crime committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—and I do not expect it to be the last—barely adds anything new to the criminal record of this kind of terrorism, which brings together the worst manifestations of the crimes committed by the Crusaders under the pretext of Christianity and the zest felt by sadists for killing and torture. After their acts of mass and individual slaughter, and their broadcast around the world, we now see ISIS executing people by burning them alive. Who knows, perhaps these killers will think up even more inventive and disgusting crimes in the future.
The perpetrators seem to be keen to associate this “carnival” of savagery exclusively with Islam, although most religions have experience at one point or another in their history with bloody violence and internal strife, before accepting and valuing differences of opinion. There is no need to revisit all the religious wars and atrocities that have been committed throughout human history—not to mention the sectarian conflicts that have broken out between followers of the same religion. However, the eyes of the world, thanks to the finest media and social networking outlets, are now firmly focused on Islam, while Muslims stand idly by, incapable of coming up with a new logic to confront those who are putting forward a false image of their religion in the name of their own exclusionary faith.
But this shortfall is not limited to Muslims. World leaders are also acting as if they prefer to treat superficial symptoms, rather than deal with root causes.
Execution by burning alive, as it was carried out by ISIS, was a commonplace punishment in the West for centuries, and for a number of offenses, including religious dogma and heresy. Those burned at the stake in the West include the great Christian reformer Jan Hus (1415), French nationalist hero and Catholic Saint Joan of Arc (1431), Italian monk Savonarola (1498), and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (1556), among others.
This method of execution took place in the West before the establishment of modern states based on open, rational and accountable institutions and authorities. It also took place before, of course, the so-called “communications revolution” that ISIS and its ilk are exploiting today in the worst manner imaginable. Our problem, as Muslims, is that generally speaking we did not succeed in building such “modern states” whose institutions are more advanced than the technical knowhow currently available to those perpetrating the most heinous crimes against Islam, in the name of Islam.
There can be no doubt today that the Arab world is being targeted and weakened. There is no doubt either that Israeli occupation and the Iranian expansion in the Arab Mashreq have played a major role in increasing religious and sectarian extremism across the region. However, it would be incorrect to portray this phenomenon solely as a “conspiracy” exploiting the difficult regional situation—the emergence of groups outside the region like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in Mali proves this is not the case. Groups such as this are utilizing precisely the same extremist and terrorist approach—but outside the region.
Despite this, the Arab Mashreq is clearly moving towards the unknown, and will continue to do so as long as international counter-terrorism strategy favors a limited military approach over a comprehensive political one. The priorities of the current US administration in the Arab Mashreq over the past two years have become increasingly clear: the one constant of Barack Obama’s policy in the region has been normalization—and subsequently alliance—with Iran.
Even the so-called “Israel lobby,” which for a long time viewed Washington as its “home ground,” is now finding itself in a situation unprecedented since 1948. For the first time in decades, the Israel lobby has found itself competing for influence in the US capital, which has led some of its members to embark on petty actions that do not enjoy the unanimous backing of pro-Israeli Americans, such as inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.
Here we find ourselves facing a paradox: while ISIS’s crimes are encouraging the world to answer Washington’s call to combat this form of terrorism, we also see that the deliberate absence of political rapprochement is serving the interests of the terrorists, weakening the arguments of the moderates, increasing the suffering of innocents, and hastening the fragmentation of the region. In the meantime, Iran is benefiting from Washington’s tacit support through creating a new fait accompli everywhere it has succeeded in imposing its control, namely—and according to its own leadership—in four Arab states: Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
It is no secret that when the Syrian regime began responding to the popular uprising with violent, armed oppression, Washington had plenty of time, as well as the capability, to impose no-fly zones in northern and southern Syria. However, the Obama administration failed, time and again, to take a firm position. This served to encourage the regime to escalate its oppressive tactics and discourage would-be defectors from the Syrian army and state apparatus. It has also prolonged the crisis long enough to allow foreign extremists and terrorists to flock to Syria and take over the uprising. Lebanese and Iraqi militias also got involved in the fighting after receiving their orders from Iran, leaving Tehran in actual control of the Syrian regime’s territory.
Today, as part of the struggle taking place between Iran and Israel over who occupies the role of “regional policeman,” the Lebanese theater of operations has been extended to include the Golan Heights. The latest Israeli operation inside Syria’s Quneitra governorate resulted in the death of an Iranian general, while Tehran responded with a lethal operation in Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms area. This reveals not just the extent to which Iran is directly embroiled in the war to gain hegemony over the Arab Mashreq, but also the level of US backing for the so-called “balance of influence” in the region between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
In addition to imposing a “ceiling” on the Iranian–Israeli skirmishes on the Golan Front, Washington, according to well-informed sources, is also backing the superficial dialogue that is currently taking place in Lebanon between the Future bloc and Hezbollah, as well as the mission that has been undertaken by UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar. However, both countries are under de facto Iranian military occupation by Hezbollah and the Houthis respectively. This means that Washington’s real goal is negotiations that secure a sham compromise that in reality means nothing and changes nothing. Rather, what it is doing is granting this occupation the cover of political legitimacy.
The retreat of moderation in the Sunni street serves no one in the Arab Mashreq, particularly the non-Sunni and non-Muslim minorities. However, this is precisely where we are heading.
The first step in destroying ISIS must be to deter Israeli settlement-building and stop Iranian expansionism—any other option will most likely fail.