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Opinion: ISIS and Arab Unity | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A general view of the 142nd Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting at the League’s headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, on September 7, 2014. (EPA/Khaled Elfiqi)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claims to have achieved in a few months what other projects seeking Arab unity have failed to do since Mustafa Kamal Atatürk abolished the Ottoman Islamic caliphate in 1924. In a blink of an eye, ISIS has called on 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide to move to the new “land of Islam” after they have “purged” it from Shi’ites, Christians and Yazidis, and beheaded journalists and slaughtered “crusaders.”

ISIS has called for divine governance and has taken it upon itself to ensure it is applied. It has imposed the burdens of allegiance, obedience and absolute loyalty on people in territory under its control. Without dialogue, institutions, or political parties, silence has descended on the “Islamic State.” The “caliphate” denies the need for politics, culture, or freedom.

It has modified school curricula and banned the teaching of the humanities, physical education and music. It has shut down girls’ schools and banned women from working or traveling, lest it distracts them from their domestic chores. It urges believers to receive the afterlife with satisfaction and joy, following the gloom of their temporary abode in this world.

ISIS has abolished the colonial borders between Arab countries, and declared “jihad.” It has killed more Muslim civilians than Westerners and slaughtered captured soldiers. It has arrested people from all religions and creeds. Its actions have provoked the world against it, with religious and sectarian wars breaking out on our lands.

This view of ISIS which I have just given is not mine. It is a summary of the propaganda the group itself broadcasts extensively via electronic media to reach broad segments of Arab society, given that the Arab media is reeling under ever-stricter censorship.

Freedom of the press is an extensive topic and I do not wish to discuss it in this article. I will only say that ISIS does not pose a serious threat to Arab states’ political systems, but it is winning the propaganda war by broadcasting misleading news to parts of society that lack political awareness and tools to process and analyze information.

What is more, allowing the press to offer a negative image of ISIS by shedding light on its ignorance in religion and its brutality in dealing with people and minorities is no longer enough.

Discussing the “achievements” of ISIS must be tolerated within the media in order to refute, criticize and review this group’s gains in light of logic and Islamic jurisprudence. This will help determine whether or not the caliphate it has declared complies with the teaching of Sunni Islam’s main schools of thought. ISIS’s achievements should be compared and contrasted against those of the Arab system since Arab countries achieved independence during the 1940s and 1950s.

Politically speaking, I said and continue to say that the Arab system was born through independence. Its ambitions were limited to establishing an Arab League for its states rather than creating a union of Arab societies. With time, the ambitions expressed in the rhetoric of the Arab League and the majority of Arab regimes declined, and they started talking about “Arab peoples” rather than the “Arab nation.” This rhetoric paved the way to social disruption, sectarian infighting, and the emergence of sectarian groups similar to ISIS.

ISIS’s caliphate does not live up to Arab nationalist ambitions. It is repeating the mistake of the historical Islamic caliphate (that is, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates) whose inertia and undemocratic character led to the outbreak of a bitter power struggle between Arabs and non-Arabs. The struggle ended with the establishment of the Turkic Mamluk states on Arab lands, weakening the Arabs’ sense of belonging to one nation. It almost destroyed their language, culture and literary heritage under the religious slogans these non-Arab rulers raised in a bid to protect their “legitimacy.”

The Arab system, along with Arab intellectuals, helped restore the Arabic language and rescue Arabs’ cultural and literary heritage, preventing the dissolution of Arab national identity. Arab states in the Gulf and Maghreb must sense the danger posed to their national identity by the flow of African and Asian migrants. Those migrants, who came either to live, work or prepare to go to Europe or the US, will in the future demand equal rights with Arabs, who have become a minority in their own countries.

ISIS’s pursuit of the unity of the Muslim world puts the Arab world’s future at risk. No Islamic unity is possible without an Arab one. Otherwise, Arab Muslims will be lost in a sea of non-Arab Muslims. Without the Egyptian revolution that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government, former Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi would have reached a naive settlement with Turkey and Iran to achieve a “caliphate project” that simulates that of ISIS.

ISIS’s caliphate does not enjoy the legitimacy of the actual, historical institution. It has adopted an approach to state-building based on coercion and terror. It has not drafted a constitution or a charter explaining the purpose behind its establishment. Instead, it has called on Muslims to pledge allegiance to a man whose identity and name are unknown, and whose mental soundness cannot be verified. His policies tempt the superpowers to destroy the Arab world by bombarding its civilians from the air and invading it by land and sea.

The organization’s attempts to “purge” the land of Islam of its religious and ethnic minorities contradict the principles of the modern state and Islam itself, which bans Muslims from committing atrocities during wartime. ISIS has cast a gloom over Arab society. It is seeking to undermine coexistence between Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs, who over the course of 1,500 years have not posed any threat to Islam.

ISIS, which claims to be seeking revenge for Sunnis, is in fact—like Iran and Israel—seeking to establish sectarian and racist states in the Arab world to replace the Arab system.

Therefore, ISIS’s caliphate project cannot replace pan-Arabism or Arab states, even after it announced the abolition of colonial-era borders. Its project goes beyond the realistic goal of Arab unity, and into the nightmarish territory of a sectarian caliphate in a post-imperial world. But history has shown us that religion on its own is not enough for coexistence and reconciliation.

I am not worried about the threat ISIS poses to the Arab state system. Rather, I am afraid that the current political class in Egypt will try to restore their country’s influence and role in the Arab world by seeking a catastrophic settlement with the sectarian regime in Syria that has slaughtered a quarter of a million Arabs, or the Shi’ite regime in Iraq. Iran will not allow the Baghdad regime its independence.

I worked for Egyptian media outlets for 13 years. My heart ached when I left, by the time Anwar Sadat’s regime emerged. But I still love Egypt. The newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm almost tempted me to return to Egyptian media before the 2011 uprising erupted. I have enough courage to ask Egypt to forgive its former president, Hosni Mubarak, who restored Egypt to the Arab world and whose honorable military past cannot be erased by the mistakes of his bloated regime.