Many people in the Middle East and abroad are rightly concerned about the rise and impact of hardline Salafist-takfiri fundamentalist Islamist groups that have recently proliferated and controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. Groups like the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, and many other smaller ones represent perhaps the fastest growing ideological sector in the region, in some cases attracting tens of thousands of adherents.
There are real reasons to be concerned by their behavior, from beheading and torturing opponents to imposing draconian social norms that restrict the behavior or both men and women. Yet we should not exaggerate their long-term prospects. I suspect these are essentially short-term phenomena that have no place in the future of the Middle East, because they are essentially gangs of losers and deeply alienated young men who can only try to establish their fantasy lands of pure Islamic values in areas of chaos that have experienced a total breakdown of order, governance, services and security.
These transitional movements have no possibility to control significant territory and set up their own self-contained statelets, principalities or emirates for extended periods, because they have no natural support in society and only operate when they can take advantage of lawlessness and fear. They can do plenty of damage in the short run, because of their ability to stoke sectarian conflict across the Middle East, shatter people’s lives and development, kill and main thousands, and provide scores of recruits with training and battle experience that can later be used to carry out terror operations around the world. But as political movements they are total failures, which is why they can only operate by the gun.
Al-Qaeda itself and its offshoots have tried for several decades to mobilize popular support across the Arab world, playing on the same grievances (Palestine, corruption, foreign aggressions, domestic injustices and disparities) that have brought millions of adherents to other, non-violent and locally-anchored Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Noor movement in Egypt. ISIS and other Al-Qaeda-like groups have totally and repeatedly failed the test of popular legitimacy. They have never achieved any anchorage because their violent, oppressive operating methods are deeply repulsive and alien to the overwhelming majority of Arab men and women.
So we see them only in ravaged lands, zones of chaos and ungoverned areas, in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan border areas, rural Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and parts of Libya, Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon where governance and order are weak or nonexistent. In the short term, in areas of lawlessness and chaos, groups like ISIS can control small patches of land by stabilizing security situations and providing basic services like food, medical care and their brand of harsh justice. The populations under their control appreciate these basic human needs for the short run because they do not want to live in fear and by the law of the jungle. Neither do they want to live permanently under Salafist-takfiri rule, yet they are helpless to speak out against or resist the militants who impose their rule by the gun.
When normal Arab men and women have the opportunity to push back against these abnormal movements, they do so with enthusiasm, as we witness today in the backlash against them that is taking places in parts of northern Syria and western Iraq. A combination of organized but less fanatical Islamists and indigenous armed tribesmen has fought to evict ISIS from some of the areas it recently took over. In parts of Iraq this battle against the extremists has been coordinated with the state’s security agencies. This is a clear sign of things to come elsewhere, and is no surprise.
While movements like ISIS, Nusra and others have no long-term future in our region, they can hang around and control populations for some time, because the necessary chaotic conditions for their existence are widely provided by two related phenomena: the incompetence, cruelty, violence and corruption of prevailing Arab regimes; and, the occasional act of criminal military invasion or occupation by Israeli, American, British, Russian and other foreign powers. These conditions annually generate tens of thousands of disillusioned, alienated and directionless young men who join these movements, in the same manner that their counterparts in the West in recent decades joined violent gangs, bizarre religious cults, or fringe drug communities.
Salafist-takfiri groups are a passing symptom of our countries’ problems and deficiencies, not a harbinger of our future. They can be partly contained by military action in the short run, but in the long run they can only be countered by better governance and more equitable socio-economic development and citizen rights. These remain elusive in most Arab countries, and so the Salafist-takfiri extremists hang around, like vultures living off the carcasses of Arab dignity and human decency.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
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