The startling developments in northern Iraq, where the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has taken control of Mosul and other cities, highlights several troubling trends that have been evident across much of the Arab World for many years. ISIS moved into Mosul and other cities swiftly and without any real combat because these underlying trends all played their role in this great unfolding drama that speaks to the troubling realities of the Arab world.
This is about much more than any individual issue such as spillover from Syria, lack of Western military assistance to anti-Assad rebels, growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, or the spread of extremist Islamist militancy. Iraq today is a huge moment of reckoning for the weaknesses of modern Arab statehood and governance. External factors certainly played their roles, such as the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003, decades of Israeli meddling in Arab conditions, and Iran’s growing influence in the region.
These external factors, however, could only impact on conditions in Iraq because of the underlying structural problems whose consequences are now playing out before us every day. These underlying Arab-made structural problems include corrupt and incompetent governance, weak citizenship, brittle statehood, and a severe lack of cohesion among different ethnic and sectarian groups within countries.
The shocking news that many locals have not resisted, and even often welcomed, the arrival of ISIS should clarify the intense problems that existed between the government and mostly Sunni local communities in northwest Iraq. Air attacks by the Iraqi government or military moves by foreign powers like Iran or the United States will momentarily delay the expansion of ISIS-controlled areas. But military power in the long run remains helpless in the face of determined moves by a disgruntled citizenry to regain what it sees as its dignity, freedom and rights.
The best proof of this is the steady expansion in the numbers and capabilities of extremist Salafist-takfiri militant groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and dozens of others that have been repeatedly targeted by military strikes by local governments and the American armed forces. So military attacks against ISIS and its local allies in Iraq would momentarily pause the current trajectory of ISIS’s expansion, but will not stop it in the long run.
The fact that some Iraqis would consider life under ISIS’s draconian rules as preferable to the conditions they had endured under previous elected Iraqi governments shows how severe were the grievances that ordinary citizens suffered for so many years under the rule of Arab tyrants. Most disgruntled Arab citizens would not join groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda, but rather would seek reforms of their mismanaged states through gradual changes, or the revolutions some of them experienced in the last three years.
So the only lasting antidote to the problems we witness in Syria and Iraq, and in less intense forms in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, requires many years to take shape. That antidote is more democratic and inclusive government systems coupled with growing economies. Even just one of these two imperatives would give citizens the sense of hope that they and their children might enjoy a better future. When citizens suffer both police state-style governments with stagnant economies that mostly favor a small number of families close to the ruling regimes, we end up with situations like Syria and Iraq — citizens who have been driven crazy by their mistreatment by their own governments desperately turn to groups like ISIS to give them an alternative lifestyle. There can be no greater indictment than this of the sickness, criminality and rot that have defined most Arab governance systems in recent decades.
Making the transition from this desperate condition to a more democratic and economically growing society takes a long time. But ordinary Arab citizens who pay the price today — including millions of refugees, like the half million who fled the city of Mosul in two days earlier this week — have no practical options but to keep exploring ways to transform their failing autocratic systems into more coherent and satisfying ones that are bases on participation, pluralism and accountability.
ISIS’s rapid expansion in Iraq is not a sign of the future, because these extremists have no base of support in the region. They only gain territory by force and in conditions of chaos. In more normal conditions, they have never had any serious support in Arab countries. ISIS is frightening, to be sure, but not because it portends our future; it is frightening because it reminds us of the criminal incompetence of ruling Arab regimes during nearly the past half century, and as such it clarifies what must be done to bring Arab societies back to some semblance of normal life. This will be a long and hard struggle, but we have no other options.
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. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global