The beheading of American journalist James Foley is part of the tragic and bloody trail ISIS is leaving behind. But its effect on Western opinion about ISIS and the need to eradicate it is significant. Not because an American journalist was murdered; but because it was done by someone who seems British; by someone from the West who may one day – if he survives – return to the West.
When ISIS first made its appearance early this year it was considered another militant movement and largely a local matter; a problem for the region’s countries. Then it suddenly expanded its reach, but even then it was still perceived as a local problem, albeit raising more concern. The United States pledged support against ISIS on the condition that a united Iraq fights it. The Iraqis didn’t unite and ISIS continued to grow, and its brutality only increased. Only when it threatened Yazidis with ethnic cleansing did the United States intervene, without waiting for the Iraqis to unite.
We in the region could not understand why the West was not actively intervening against ISIS. We kept hearing about European concerns about the rising number of their citizens participating in the fighting in Syria and Iraq; yet without any visible or effective intervention. Ultimately, ISIS is our problem. And though military intervention is vital for eradicating its military capacity, it is up to the governments and peoples of the region to minimize the factors that enable such movements to expand and gain popular legitimacy.
One of the ways some of the Gulf countries – especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – has been combating Islamic militancy is through the enactment of laws that make it illegal to belong to transnational Islamic organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They hope that this will limit forms of international recruitment and financing for all forms of militant groups, not just the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia’s new anti- terrorism law made it impossible for anyone to belong to a terrorist organization or to support their ideology or promote their cause. The law has been criticized for its potential use against local Saudi dissidents who are peaceful. I think such fears are reasonable, but considering the deep-rooted threat of Islamic militancy, there may be no other way to legally fight it without expecting collateral damage to innocent people. But laws enacted in the region cannot work alone. Many of those being attracted to ISIS do not belong to the region. Should the West begin to rethink its terrorism laws in the wake of ISIS?
ISIS and the discourse of Victimization
Many argue that laws are not enough. They want to see a fundamental change in the religious culture that glorifies death and martyrdom for the sake of God. For more than 80 years millions of Muslims have been indoctrinated into the belief that the greatest personal wish is to die in battle, to be a martyr. The solution suggested here is to change the educational system and introduce a new version of Islam, one which does not have at its center on the idea of an ongoing “jihad” against everyone and everything.
Such an approach is important and would be very helpful. But it misses the mark in my view. I don’t believe that religion motivates universal jihadism, it is rather a means to justify it for people who in their hearts believe that they are the target of an onslaught from the West. This is such a deep-rooted belief, common to so many in the region, religious or not.
The idea that the West is an eternal enemy has become part of the popular culture.
We are stuck in the moments when Napoleon entered Egypt, when the imperial powers of the West worked against the Ottoman Empire until it fell, and when most of the Muslim countries were colonized. A speech written in the late 19th century by Islamic political leader and philosopher Jamal al-Deen al-Afghani warning of Western powers resonates perfectly well with people living in the early 21st century. A complete discourse of victimization was built around that and lives on. Mainstream political analysis is merely a way of explaining how current Western political behavior is really a continuation of moments in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. It is such a discourse that attracts people from different parts of the world to movements such as ISIS or Al--Qaeda or other militant organizations.
As long as you have hundreds of millions of people believing in the discourse of victimization you would always have a few thousand of them willing to go to extremes to gain their liberty. If we want to eradicate ISIS and its likes, we need to focus all our attention on that discourse otherwise we would be wasting our resources on what people use to justify themselves rather than focusing on what actually motivates them to go and fight whenever they get the chance.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1