United against ISIS… or is it ISIL or the Islamic State?

In actions against ISIS, no two states seem to have the same approach

Chris Doyle

Published: Updated:

Of all the fraudulent fictions and fantasies of the ‘war on terror’, the “we are united against a common enemy” mantra seemed the most hollow, the most disingenuous. It remains just that despite the 60 strong anti-ISIS coalition. The partners cannot even agree what to call the enemy let alone how to fight it - Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh. Others argue whether it is Islamic or nor. President Obama stated “ISIL is not ‘Islamic’” last year. British Prime Minister David Cameron has urged the BBC not to call it the Islamic State. Tony Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister, insists he will call it Daesh as does Francois Hollande of France. John Kerry often does too. These are just the differences over the name to call it and just among some of the ‘Western’ leaders, not a vital issue but symbolic of a wider malaise.

ISIS storm troopers are not invincible superhumans from the latest comic strip blockbuster. They are very vulnerable

Chris Doyle

What more evidence of the need for unity than last week’s Ramadan massacres, the extremist attacks on three continents. The barbarous beach massacre in Tunisia, the sectarian atrocity in Kuwait, the attack by al-Shabaab on African Union soldiers in Somalia and gruesome beheading in France serve let alone the much ignored killings in Kobane (235 killed by ISIS) only to remind all just how little respect for life, liberty and even their faith adherents of such groups have. How should states, civil society and other actors react to this?

Political clichés

The standard manual of political clichés are dusted down though perhaps they have not gathered much dust. Politicians have been compelled to learn this lexicon only too well. They copy paste from previous statements.

The language is particularly ratcheted up when governments are unsure what to do. Talking tough frequently serves to mask, for the time being, a lack of real action. This is understandable. Step up, British Prime Minister David Cameron. He spoke out forcefully, understandably given the killing of 18 British tourists. The attacks in Tunisia were the most deadly in terms of British fatalities since the London bombings almost exactly ten years ago.

But did Cameron exaggerate? ISIS is an “existential threat,” he said. Existential? Is Britain that threatened by such a group? Existential threat heralds images of massive natural disaster, an asteroid hit or nuclear attack. Sounding out Middle East and security experts in the UK, none of them saw the need to hype the issue like this. ISIS themselves will delight in their upgraded status. It reminded me of the Iraqi foreign minister’s reference to “World War III.”

Yet if ISIS does pose that existential threat to Britain and the West in general (let alone Muslim majority states) critics can argue that not nearly enough is being done.

A balanced assessment

A balanced assessment surely acknowledges a threat but by no means existential. ISIS storm troopers are not invincible superhumans from the latest comic strip blockbuster. They are very vulnerable. Their ideology and values are in fact largely unappealing to a large percentage of the Islamic World. Yet they thrive, largely on the weakness and disunity of others.

It is a standard rhetorical staple to highlight unity, that we stand united as a people with other peoples.

To start with, is there genuine solidarity? Did Europe and the Arab World rally round to ensure that Tunisia’s political transition was a success? Barely. Following the Bardo attack in March, plenty of fine words were uttered, but were there genuine efforts to assist Tunisia? And all too often is not the reaction of too many in the West so self-obsessed? Do Syrian and Iraqi victims of ISIS get a tenth of the coverage as the Western hostages or the dead tourists on the Sousse beach? World leaders marched in the streets of Paris after the Hebdo massacre? Do we see them in the Islamic World after attacks on Muslims?

In actions against ISIS, no two states seem to have the same approach. This may be understandable given that there are no easy policies or answers to this. Most states have not joined the U.S. in military options in Syria. President Hollande wanted action to salve Palmyra, a call that went unheeded. Some politicians want ground troops; others want to cease all operations of any form. Turkey refuses to take any action until there is a No Fly Zone is Syria.

But there are huge differences in priorities too. Israel of course has been marketing Iran as the Islamic State that poses the real threat. Many agree. The Egyptian authorities have targeted the Muslim Brotherhood as the primary threat. Turkey may be more nervous of the Kurds.

Real unity

Real unity needs to be cultivated to confront ISIS – this means addressing our differences. Internationally, the U.S. and Russia cannot continue to work against each other, not least in trying to stitch up a solution for Syria. Can Saudi Arabia and Iran find the exit from their cold war? What about the other regional squabbles such as Turkish-Egyptian tensions?

ISIS thrives off divisions of others and attempts to expose and exacerbate these. The ISIS bombing of the Shiite mosque in Kuwait was designed to pit Shiite against Sunni, much as it has done elsewhere. The Emir of Kuwait rightly visited the mosque and let us hope other senior Sunni figures will do likewise. Sadly sectarianism does exist even where in the past it may not have done. Sunnis and Shiites have to find ways to stand together or be condemned to stand apart. A dim view must be taken of those who foment sectarian discord not least those in the media.

Ethnic and tribal divisions are likewise the playthings of ISIS. They delight in pitting Arab against Kurd for example, even Kurd against Kurd. It was Kurdish members of ISIS who led the attack on Kobane. ISIS has a tribal affairs department and it is not to build harmony and peaceful relations.

ISIS and like-minded groups are a threat, a very real one but it certainly does not require a World War III to end the threat. In fact, it is wars and conflict that gave birth to them, wars that none of the anti-ISIS coalition leaders seem willing or capable of ending.

None of the conflicts in the Middle East were caused by ISIS or al-Qaeda - not in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen or even Afghanistan. Yet ISIS and al-Qaeda now flourish in all of them. Unity against ISIS, or ISIL, or Daesh means little if we cannot end the conflicts that spawn it and the divisions that hold us back.


Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending