Who is the enemy the U.S. is now attacking? Well, judging from domestic public political discussions, the simple answer is, “We’re not really sure.”
This reality highlights the most amazing dimension of the rise and power of the Islamic State, from its former incarnations as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Very few people outside its own leadership really know very much about it, including its actual strategy and aims.
What everybody does know is that we are faced with a violent, vicious group of tens of thousands of men who have carved out for themselves a territorial base in an area of northeast Syria and northwest Iraq, which continues to engage in limited military forays in areas along the edges of their areas of control in both countries. The debates now taking place about the Islamic State phenomenon and threat focus on who is to blame for allowing it to develop, how widely will the Islamic State spread territorially and how much support does the Islamic State enjoy around the region in lands where it does not control territory?
All this is important, but the most terrifying aspect of the Islamic State phenomenon is not the extremist young men gravitating to its call, but rather the factors across the Arab region and beyond that allowed it to come into being in the first place – factors that continue to shape our troubled region today. The Islamic State is a living, expanding phenomenon, and the factors that cause people to join it remain active in many countries. So our collective challenge is to correctly identify those elements that gave birth to the mindset that has caused young men to join such movements and indulge in the kind of barbarism that the Islamic State now disseminates in its videos and in social media.
In that respect, I have no doubt that the single most important, widespread, continuous and still active reason for the birth and spread of the Islamic State mindset is the curse of modern Arab security states that since the 1970s have treated citizens like children that need to be taught obedience and passivity above all else. Other factors played a role in this modern tragedy of statehood across the Arab world, including the threat of Zionism and violent Israeli colonialism (see Gaza today for that continuing tale) and the continuous meddling and military attacks by foreign powers, including the U.S., some European states, Russia and Iran.
In my 45 years in the Arab world observing and writing about the conditions on the ground, the only thing that surprises me now is why such extremist phenomena that have caused the catastrophic collapse of existing states did not happen earlier. At least since around 1970, the average Arab citizen has lived in political, economic and social systems that have offered zero accountability, political rights and participation. States have been characterized by steadily expanding dysfunction and corruption, economic disparities that have driven majorities into chronic poverty, and humiliating inaction or failure in confronting the threats of Zionism and foreign hegemonic ambitions. They have also virtually banned developing one’s full potential in terms of intellect, creativity, public participation, culture and identity.
The Islamic State phenomenon is the latest and perhaps not the final stop on a journey of mass Arab humiliation and dehumanization that has been primarily managed by Arab autocratic regimes that revolve around single families or clans, with immense, continuing support from foreign patrons. Foreign military attacks in Arab countries (Iraq, Libya) have exacerbated this trend, as has Israeli aggression against Palestinians and other Arabs. But the single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in this phenomenon is the predicament of several hundred million individual Arab men and women who find – generation after generation – that in their own societies they are unable to achieve their full humanity or potential, or exercise their full powers of thought and creativity; or, in many cases, obtain basic life needs for their families.
The expressions of bewilderment we hear today from many Arab and Western politicians or media analysts about why the Islamic State rose and what to do about it have zero credibility or sympathy in my book. Some of the same people who pontificate about the Islamic State threat were often directly involved in actions that helped to bring it about (corrupt Arab security states, the invasion of Iraq, and total support for Israel).
There is only one antidote in the long run to eliminating the Islamic State and all it represents. That is to stop pursuing the abusive and criminal policies that have demeaned millions of decent Arab men and women and shaped Arab countries for the past half a century. Bombing Iraq and Syria will gain some time and probably must happen in combination with serious military action by local Arab and Kurdish forces. However, if the ways of the corrupt modern Arab security state is not radically reversed, the mass desperation and hysteria that the Islamic State represents will only emerge again in more extreme forms.
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