'Islamic State' as a Western Phenomenon: Reimagining the IS Debate
30 March 2015
By Ramzy Baroud
It is as if leaders of the so-called ''Islamic State'' (IS) are getting tips
on demonising Muslims from world leading Islamophobes and as if they are
trying to live up to the expectations of hate-mongering organisations like
that of Pamela Geller's American Freedom Defense Initiative, whose latest ads
all over San Francisco compared Muslims to Nazis.
Yet, no matter how one attempts to wrangle with IS's rise in Iraq and Syria,
desperately seeking any political or other context that would validate the
movement as an explainable historical development, things refuse to add up.
Not only is IS to a degree an alien movement in the larger body politic of
the Middle East, it also seems to be a partly western phenomenon, a hideous
offspring resulting from western neocolonial adventures in the region,
coupled with alienation and demonisation of Muslim communities in western
By ''Western phenomenon,'' I refrain from suggesting that IS is largely a
creation of western intelligence as many conspiracy theories have
persistently advocated. Of course, one is justified in raising questions
regarding funds, armaments, black market oil trade, and the ease through
which thousands of western and Arab fighters managed to reach Syria and Iraq
in recent years. The crimes carried out by the Assad regime, his army and
allies during the four-year long Syria civil war, and the unquenchable
appetite to orchestrate a regime change in Damascus as a paramount priority
for Western powers made nourishing the anti-Assad forces with wannabe ''jihadists''
justified, if not encouraged.
The latest announcement by Turkey's foreign minister Meylut Cavusoglu of the
arrest of a spy ''working for the intelligence service of a country
participating in the coalition against ISIS'' – presumably Canada – allegedly
for helping three young British girls join IS, was revealing. The accusation
feeds into a growing discourse that locates IS within a western, not Middle
Still, it is not the conspiracy per se that I find intriguing, if not
puzzling, but the ongoing, albeit indirect conversation between IS and the
West, involving French, British and Australian so-called ''Jihadists'', their
sympathisers and supporters on one hand, and various western governments,
intelligence services, right-wing media pundits, etc on the other.
Much of the discourse – once upon a time located within a narrative consumed
by the ''Arab Spring'', sectarian divisions and counter revolutions – has now
been transferred into another sphere that seems of little relevance to the
Middle East. Regardless of where one stands on how Mohammad Emwazi morphed
into a ''Jihadi John'', the conversation is oddly largely removed from its
geopolitical context. In this instance, it is an essentially British issue
concerning alienation, racism, economic and cultural marginalization, perhaps
as much as the issue of the ''born, raised and radicalised'' attackers of
Charlie Hebdo is principally a French question, pertaining to the same
socioeconomic fault lines.
The Other 'Roots of IS'
The conventional analysis on the rise of IS no longer suffices. Tracing the
movement to Oct 2006 when the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) – uniting various
groups including al-Qaeda – was established, simply suggests a starting point
to the discussion, whose roots go back to the dismantling of the Iraqi state
and army by the US military occupation authority. Just the idea that the Arab
republic of Iraq was led from 11 May 2003 until 28 June 2004 by a Lewis Paul
Bremer III, is enough to delineate the unredeemable rupture in the country's
identity. Bremer and US military chiefs' manipulation of Iraq's sectarian
vulnerabilities, in addition to the massive security vacuum created by
sending an entire army home, ushered in the rise of numerous groups, some
homegrown resistance movements, and other alien bodies who sought in Iraq a
refugee, or a rallying cry.
Also conveniently missing in the rise of ''jihadism'' context is the
staggering brutality of Shia-dominated governments in Baghdad and militias
throughout Iraq, with full backing by the US and Iran. If the US war
(1990-1), blockade (1991-2003), invasion (2003) and subsequent occupation of
Iraq were not enough to radicalise a whole generation, then brutality,
marginalisation and constant targeting of Iraqi Sunnis in post-invasion Iraq
have certainly done the job.
The conventional media narrative on IS focuses mostly on the politicking,
division and unity that happened between various groups, but ignores the
reasons behind the existence of these groups in the first place.
The Syria Expansion
The Syria civil war was another opportunity at expansion sought successfully
by ISI, whose capital until then was Baquba, Iraq. ISI was headed by Abu Bakr
al-Baghdadi, a key player in the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra
Front). The highly cited breakup between al-Baghdadi and al-Nusra leader
Mohammed al-Golani is referenced as the final stage of IS's brutal rise to
power and ISI becoming ISIL or ISIS, before settling finally at the current
designation of simply ''Islamic State'', or IS.
Following the division, ''some estimates suggest that about 65 percent of
Jabhat al-Nusra elements quickly declared their allegiance to ISIS. Most of
those were non-Syrian jihadists,'' reported Lebanon's al-Safir.
Militants' politicking aside, such massively destructive and highly organised
occurrences are not born in a vacuum and don't operate independently from
many existing platforms that help spawn, arm, fund and sustain them. For
example, IS's access to oil refineries says nothing about its access to
wealth. To obtain funds from existing economic modes, IS needed to tap into a
complex economic apparatus that would involve other countries, regional and
international markets. In other words, IS exists because there are those who
are invested in their existence, and the highly touted anti-IS coalition has
evidently done little to confront this reality.
Intellectual Arrogance and Western Muslim Debate
Particularly interesting is the rapidly changing focal point of the debate,
from that pertaining to Syria and Iraq, to a western-centric discussion about
western-styled jihadists that seem removed from the Middle East region and
its political conflicts and priorities.
In a letter signed by over a hundred Muslim scholars that was published last
September, the theologians and clergymen from around the Muslim word rightly
disowned IS and its bloodthirsty ambitions as un-Islamic. Indeed, IS's war
tactics are the reverse of the rules of war in Islam, and have been a godsend
to those who made successful careers by simply bashing Islam, and advocating
foreign policies that are predicated on an irrational fear of Muslims. But
particularly interesting was the Arabic version of the letter's emphasis on
IS's lack of command over the Arabic language, efficiency in which is a
requirement for making legal Islamic rulings and fatwas.
''Who gave you authority over the ummah [Muslim people]?'' asked the letter.
''A group of no more than several thousand has appointed itself the ruler of
over a billion-and-a-half Muslims. This attitude is based upon a corrupt
circular logic that says: 'Only we are Muslims, and we decide who the caliph
is, we have chosen one and so whoever does not accept our caliph is not a
The letter confronts the intellectual arrogance of IS, which is based mostly
on a misguided knowledge of Islam that is rarely spawned in the region
itself. But that intellectual arrogance that has led to the murders of many
innocent people, and other hideous crimes such as the legalisation of slavery
– again, to the satisfaction of the numerous Islamophobes dotting western
intellectual landscapes – is largely situated in a different cultural and
political context outside of the Middle East.
In post-11 September attacks, a debate concerning Islam has been raging,
partly because the attacks were blamed on Muslims, thus allowing politicians
to create distractions, and reduce the discussion into one concerning
religion and a purported ''clash of civilizations''. Despite various
assurances by Western leaders that the US-led wars in Muslim countries is not
a war on Islam, Islam remains the crux of the intellectual discourse that has
adjoined the military ''crusade'' declared by George W Bush, starting with
the first bomb dropped on Afghanistan in 2001.
That discourse is too involved for a transitory mention, for it is an
essential one to the IS story. It is one that has involved various schools of
thought, including a breed of Muslim ''liberals'', used conveniently to
juxtapose them with an ''extremist'' bunch. Yet between the apologists and
the so-called jihadists, a genuine, Muslim-led discussion about Islam by non-coopted
Muslim scholars remains missing.
The intellectual vacuum is more dangerous than it may seem. There is no
question that while the battle is raging on in the Middle East region, the
discourse itself is increasingly being manipulated and is becoming a Western
one. This is why IS is speaking English, for its language complete with
authentic western accents, methods, messages and even the orange hostage
jumpsuits, is centred in some other sociopolitical and cultural context.
It is strange, but telling, how a discussion that began with uprisings for
freedom and equality in Arab countries has been reduced to those concerning
Islamic revival – liberal western Muslims vs extremists, Jihadi Johns, and
western ''spies'' recruiting western Muslim youth, escaping marginalisation
in their own communities. Yet, instead of serving as a wake-up call and
urgent need for introspection by the West, there is a stubborn insistence on
using IS as a springboard for more interventionism in the Middle East, thus
feeding the cycle of violence, without confronting its roots.
- Ramzy Baroud – www.ramzybaroud.net – is an internationally-syndicated
columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of
PalestineChronicle.com. He is currently completing his PhD studies at the
University of Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).