The genesis of Islamic State
A new chapter in the decline of the Arab world

IS is a child of the late cold war and at the same time the beginning of a total war against the countries of the Arab East. It is the consequence of a collapse of political, moral and social values in the region, writes the Lebanese author Elias Khoury

If it weren't so embarrassing, you would call it a conspiracy. But it really is a conspiracy, and neither embarassment nor the current fashion for rejecting conspiracy theories is going to prevent me from telling it like it is.

But it is not simply an American conspiracy, as some naive people believe, nor an Israeli one, as we would like to claim, but an Arab conspiracy. We Arabs have conspired against ourselves and we should begin by admitting it, so that we can then justifiably speak about others' share of the responsibility.

The Arab monarchies of decreed silence – which include, or used to include, the hereditary republics of Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, all the way to Tunisia and Yemen – are the products of parties, armies and national elites that rose up on the rubble of freedom during the cold war, that knew how to use the defeat at the hands of Israel for their own ends, and under whose rule, corruption and sectarianism reached epidemic levels.

Instead of creating the social justice they had promised, they destroyed the middle classes, made the poor poorer, destroyed moral values and left behind a society that was defenceless against any attack.

IS fighters in the Syrian province of Raqqa (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
IS fighters in the Syrian province of Raqqa, an IS stronghold and the hub of its terror campaign. Elias Khoury believes that airstrikes against IS will lead nowhere. Waging war against IS will only further fragment the region and destroy its minorities, he says

Petrodollar prostitution

For their part, the nominal monarchies in the Gulf used their oil revenues to create a system of prostitution that encompassed all areas of life – from physical prostitution to the political kind, from the press to culture and sport. Oxygen was replaced by gas, which poisoned the mind, and everyone prostrated themselves gratefully before the cutthroats and people who chopped off hands. 

When the two unequal forms of Arab monarchy found themselves in a Saudi–Egyptian–Syrian axis, a backward-looking way of thinking spread like fire on a lake of petrol. From Egypt to Algeria, entering an alliance with the religious fighters in Afghanistan and wearing "Islamic" dress and Salafist beards became fashionable, until this fashion blew up in our faces when the Arab state system collapsed following the end of the cold war.

Under Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Baath Party added an "Allahu Akbar" to the national flag, while its sister party in Syria made its country into an assembly point for al-Qaida fighters, who moved from there into Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Qatar hid behind the slogan of "protection for the Sunnis". But instead of the repressive oil monarchies of silence, which offered themselves as alternatives, came representatives of an even more radical Wahhabism, who butchered, crucified or beheaded people.

The failure of democratic forces

Without wishing to over-simplify matters, we can say that the turning point that brought us to the current situation came when the democratic forces of the Arab revolutions failed to steer the political transition in their countries. They failed for many reasons, and the brutality of the regimes was by no means the only one.

In addition to this never-before-seen brutality against the people's uprisings, where the Syrian regime in particular stood out as a result of its truly fascist behaviour, a political and cultural short-sightedness came to light among those very elites that had stepped up to lead the people's movements. They did so although they were not up to the task and were labouring under two illusions.

The first was that the Arab monarchies of silence would support the uprisings, initially through their press channels and later financially and militarily. But what these monarchies really wanted was to incite the Islamists into an armed conflict. In Syria, this led to the destruction of the Free Syrian Army and the dissolution of the previous opposition.

The second illusion came from listening to the globalised neo-liberal discourse, which led them to believe that Europe and the USA would regard the Arab Spring as an extension of the Eastern European Spring and support it accordingly. NATO, they believed would set things straight, as it did at the beginning in Libya. Far from it!

These two miscalculations lured the Arab countries into the trap of the Sunni–Shia or Saudi–Iranian conflict. At the same time, the military became their only hope of averting civil war or a caliphate – as in Egypt, where the military was able to take control of the whole country, carried on a wave of frustration over the lack of change.

US airstrikes on IS positions in Kobani (photo: Reuters)
A US fighter jet in the sky above Kobani. Speaking about the anti-IS alliance's campaign against the jihadists, US President Obama has said: "This is going to be a long-term campaign. There are not quick fixes involved. We're still in the early stages. As with any military effort, there will be days of progress and there are going to be periods of setback. But our coalition is united behind this long-term effort."

The trailblazers of Islamic State

All this paved the way for that bizarre creature called "Islamic State", a militia that openly states that what it wants is nightmarish brutality, not change.

IS is a child of the late cold war and at the same time the beginning of a total war against the countries of the Arab East. Armed men step out of the darkness of the present day like monsters. Their cry is a mixture of criminal obsession, bloodlust and a longing for the resurrection of the Islamic caliphate that the Ottomans took over from the Arabs five centuries ago and that fell apart at the end of the First World War.

IS is the late revenge of the desert and a cry of revenge in the face of collapsing political, moral and social values – a breakdown that had turned our countries into hostages in the hands of mafia-like officers and our women into the sex slaves of the dictatorship and its retinue. Just ask women in Iraq, Syria or Libya about how they were abducted and raped by the gangs that once ruled there – decades before Caliph Baghdadi and his warriors started calling for slaughter and enslavement. The caliphate army is simply a new chapter of this decline, completing what the previous dictatorships did not manage to accomplish.

IS will not be beaten militarily, whatever might be said about intelligent air strikes or Turkey's dream of dominating the region as it did in the past. One might be able to weaken IS or perhaps drive it out of one city or another. But that doesn't change the fact that this terrorist organisation is an expression of total despair in the countries where it has embedded itself.

Elias Khoury (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
"Our only option is to cling to the values of freedom and justice and lend them concrete significance. We cannot continue to wait for a salvation that is not going to come. The Arab system of tyranny is as little likely to save us as America is to care about our pain," writes Elias Khoury

An expression of complete and utter despair

This despair goes back to the defeat by Israel in 1967, the death of Nasser, Egypt's president at the time, and the fact that other Arab presidents who emulated him became murderers and thieves.

It is a despair that grew out of the fact that the Arab regimes had allowed the wounds of Palestine to be forgotten, and that Islamic fundamentalism, which presented itself as an alternative to Nasserism, led them to serve as vassals to the Americans in Afghanistan.

Fighter planes cannot defeat despair, only deepen and renew it. The war against IS will lead nowhere; it will only fragment the region further, destroy its minorities and make millions of Arab, Kurdish and Yazidi refugees into the signature feature of a black epoch.

Resistance begins with us realising that we are dealing with a new chapter of tyranny, which differs from those that went before it only in the religious slogans it trots out.

In the bloody conflict that lies ahead of us, our only option is to cling to the values of freedom and justice and lend them concrete significance. We cannot continue to wait for a salvation that is not going to come. The Arab system of tyranny is as little likely to save us as America is to care about our pain.

It is a battle of human values against barbarism, and this battle will last a long time. Both as individuals and as a community, we must fight this battle with the awareness of one who turns his despair into a window of hope.

Elias Khoury

© 2014

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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