Has the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) become the only phenomenon that sums up all the problems and complications of the Middle East?
I am not one who is keen to look for excuses for ISIS and its ilk, nor do I spend sleepless nights searching for mitigating circumstances and helpful explanations for its heinous crimes. No, there are no excuses and no mitigating circumstances for those whose only means of control, government, and communication is murder. I do not believe that in the 21st century, amid an information technology revolution, we can allow an extremist group that belongs in the Dark Ages to hijack Islam and claim monopoly over it. Its brand of Islam has nothing in common with the enlightenment and scientific achievements given to the world by the alumni and scholars of Gundeshapur, Baghdad, Fez and Cordoba.
There can be no excuses, either for ISIS or similar gangs, that—without consulting the rest of the world’s Muslims—are hell-bent on distorting their religion, destroying their lives and the future of their children, and pushing them into an unequal fight with the international community. The latter could easily eliminate them were it not for the oppositions of two distinct blocs: the first, made up of progressives and liberals who in principle refuse to meet violence with violence, and a second, comprised of racists and extreme conservatives who believe that the societies that produced Islamist extremists deserve to live with their atrocities as “punishment” for incubating them.
With all of the above in mind, I believe we must not allow unacceptable and dangerous extremists—or so-called “Takfirists”—to be the one and only face of our region and its complications. We must also draw attention to the fact that the poisonous regional climate has allowed dubious agents, thugs and despots to recruit brainwashed youth and use them in a battle whose aim is to derail Syria’s popular uprising and undermine its credibility.
Unfortunately, one has to admit that the leaders of the Syrian uprising were too slow to distance themselves from those who infiltrated it, extremists who crept in under the pretext of aiding it before turning their weapons on it. It must also be admitted that some states and media organizations in Arab and Muslim countries are indeed looking for excuses and explanations. They have been publishing and broadcasting foolish and irresponsible comments claiming that atrocities “are natural reactions against the injustice” suffered by Muslims and “Islamists” in our countries. I think this is poorly conceived demagoguery, as well as attempts to pander to those frustrated by the Palestinians’ suffering under heavy-handed Israeli occupation, the unease others feel about Iranian expansionism—with American and Israeli blessing—throughout Iraq, the Levant, the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, in addition to the failure of some Islamist political parties to hold on to power after their short-lived success in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring.”
The developments that have unfolded over the last few weeks have proven beyond doubt that there are some practices that cannot and should not be tolerated, especially when they reopen old religious, sectarian and ethnic wounds that the world has never really forgotten. Here we need to recall how the criminal Syrian regime claimed to be a protector of minorities in order to hide its crimes and corruption. Indeed, it has succeeded in portraying the uprising as an “extremist Takfirist movement,” and has promoted this lie to a Western audience willing to believe it and a ruling Israeli establishment that has been interested in playing this card for decades.
As if all this was not enough, even Mullah-ruled Iran has joined the fight against the Takfirists—the same Iran that specialized in seizing Western hostages in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East during the 1980s and early 1990s; the same Iran that gives arms and money to the same Islamic groups in Palestine that it is currently fighting in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, where it regards them as “incubators of Takfirism.”
Where do we stand now? Well, after Barack Obama’s pronouncement that the Iranian thinking was “strategic” and not “suicidal,” which paved the way to serious regional cooperation between Washington and Tehran, he recently revisited his derogatory description of Syria’s moderate opposition as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” who could not defeat a regime supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Furthermore, after Washington and other Western capitals ignored Bashar Al-Assad’s destruction of Syria’s cities, his use of chemical weapons and barrel-bombs, covering their betrayal with empty threats, they are now moving against ISIS . . . in Iraq.
Washington has moved swiftly and decisively—and rightly so—to put an end to ISIS’s brutal genocide against Christians and other minorities in northern Iraq. It also acted swiftly and decisively to stop Nuri Al-Maliki’s political blackmail, which made the assault by ISIS and its allies on Mosul, Sinjar, and even Jalawla near the Iranian border, possible.
It is absolutely right for Washington and Paris to attack ISIS, and to work to save Iraq from the abuses of the ex-premier Maliki and his associates. What is not right, however, is to pursue two different approaches and adopt double standards vis-à-vis Iraq and Syria, as the political and security atmosphere is the same in both countries.
Enabling Assad, whose regime is dependent on a blatantly sectarian regional project, has helped the creation and development of an extremist counter-reaction. Had the international community early on shown more willpower and decisiveness, and forced Assad to abdicate like it did with Maliki, it would have spared Syria political collapse, sectarian fragmentation, and massive devastation, not to mention the emergence of ISIS, whose fighters entered its territory from all over the world.
What the international community is currently doing in Iraq is necessary but by no means sufficient. Attacking ISIS, and saving what can be saved of Iraq’s identity through a broadly based government, excluding those with blood on their hands, must be the prescription for Syria too.
In Syria there is lethal civil strife as well as a land that has become a destination for foreign extremists. This means it will be impossible to achieve a humane and viable political solution if a regime that has committed genocide and ethnic and sectarian cleansing remains in place.