The frightening rise and expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has now triggered yet another round of American-led foreign military attacks in the Levant, continues to confound many in the region and around the world. Many ask: Where did these killers come from and where do they aim to go? These issues will be clarified in the months and perhaps years ahead, but one aspect of ISIS should be crystal clear to anyone who has made even a cursory review of Islamist movements in the Middle East in the past two generations.
Whatever else it represents, including a postponed and displaced resurgence of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism from the 18th Century, in contemporary terms ISIS is the latest manifestation of at least half a dozen other Islamist movements that have entered the stage of Middle Eastern society and its recurring citizen discontents since the 1970s. The very different natures of these movements and the reasons for their emergence are very relevant for anyone interested in understanding how ISIS came to be and how it could be confronted and defeated. This is because ISIS, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas, Gamaa Islamiya, non-violent Salafists, militant Salafist-Takfiris, Al-Qaeda and others before it, fundamentally is a symptom of, and a reaction to, deeper ailments in society. Such movements did not suddenly pop out of a bottle or emerge from a historical vacuum.
Three principal realities about the many forms of Islamism that our region has generated since the 1970s should be kept in mind: 1) that socio-economic and political conditions and associated regional-international interactions (Israel, Iran, United States, UK, Russia) chronically generate miserable, often humiliating, lives for tens of millions of Arab families; 2) those same subjugated citizens refuse to acquiesce in their own pauperization, marginalization and political eradication, and will always find ways to express their grievances, and to actively challenge and resist those forces that aggrieve them; and, 3) such citizen activism will almost always take on an Islamist form, mainly because religion (pick a religion, any religion) is the most effective means of action for abused citizens who are denied political rights to push back against their domestic or foreign oppressors.
So defeating ISIS by military means primarily will likely only bring about a temporary respite in the continuing effervescence of Islamist movements across the Arab world and other Muslim-majority societies. If the Arab region suffers a continuation of the underlying conditions that gave rise to Islamisms in the first place in recent decades — like corruption, mismanagement of national resources, poor Arab governance, widespread disparities in society, poor economic prospects for a majority of citizens, abuse of power, incompetence in confronting Zionism and its threats, subservience to foreign powers, and the dominance of society by single families and their multiple security agencies — then these Arab societies should only expect to see the continued birth and evolution of Islamist movements that will keep trying to achieve their versions of justice, dignity and freedom for their citizens.
The last 40 years have been very telling in this respect. The Muslim Brotherhood movement enjoyed a major boost in the mid-late-1970s as a response to two principal grievances that stressed the lives of most Arab citizens: the socio-economic distortions and inflationary pressures of the 1970s oil boom, and the simultaneous power grab of many Arab states by families and their security services (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and others). In the late 1970s some frustrated members of the Muslim Brothers turned to armed violence against the state in Egypt and Syria, and were crushed by the brutal reactions of those states.
In the early 1980s Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon came into being and attracted significant followings, because they combined Islamist principles of clean government with military resistance against Israeli occupation and attacks. In the latter part of the 1980s Al-Qaeda was born to fight against Soviet troops in Afghanistan and Arab governments that they saw as unIslamic. After 2001 smaller groups of militant Salafists started to operate in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and other countries and engaged in battles with state armies, while non-violent Salafists operated at community level, especially in the poorest areas, and later showed their strength in strong election results after the 2011 revolutions.
ISIS, Jabhat El-Nusra, Ansar Beit el-Maqdas and dozens of other small Salafist-Takfiri groups have emerged in the last few years as the latest, brutal manifestation of Islamism, reaffirming the very wide range of peaceful and violent Islamist responses to oppression, misrule and occupation. Nobody should be surprised if even worse responses show up in the years ahead, if the underlying problems of our countries are not addressed at their roots.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global