The Islamic State Through The Looking-Glass
The Islamic State Through The Looking-Glass
Op-Ed / Jihad in Modern Conflict 17 minutes

The Islamic State Through The Looking-Glass

They will say, "Our eyes have been deceived. We have been bewitched."
Surat al-Hijr (15:15)

One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. Even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has made forays into our collective psyche, where its brutality and taste for gory spectacle is a force multiplier. Perhaps more than merely evil, the Islamic State is diabolical: like the Satan of scripture, it is a creature that is many things to many people, enjoys a disconcerting allure, and ultimately tricks us in to believing that we are doing the right thing when we are actually destroying ourselves.    

This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts. 

The semantics deployed in response to it are telling: each party projects its own national traumas and anxieties. In the West, the threat posed by Islamic State has been equated with anything from Auschwitz to the genocide in Rwanda to the siege of Sarajevo, even though none of these precedents has much in common with the phenomenon at hand. Among Muslims, the comparisons tend to point to Islam’s early traumas – Sunnis refer to the Khawarij, Islam’s first radicals, while Shias draw comparison with the Umayyads, the Sunni dynasty whose rise the partisans of Ali opposed. These sectarian-tinged views duel with the Islamic State’s own depiction of itself as the embodiment of pious, brave, ruthless and egalitarian comradeship – a utopian image of early, conquering and united Islam that it cultivates meticulously (and which works all the better the less versed in Islamic culture its audience actually is). 

This is a sign of the times we are living in, not just in the region but beyond. We are emerging from a relatively well-defined, intelligible world into a moment of chaotic change and reinvention. Out of fear of the unknown and a need to categorise what is happening, we use flawed parallels and historic references. One day it is the end of Sykes-Picot borders; the next the Cold War is being revived. Iranian officials like to view current events through the lens of the 1980s, when they fought a heroic and traumatic war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and his backers.

In the West, rather than naming things that trouble us, we tend to use vocabulary that is designed to be reassuring rather than true. It doesn’t take much to see a “national unity government” in Baghdad instead of a profoundly unbalanced and dysfunctional cabinet; we say “Iraqi army” for what in reality is a worn-down collection of abused and often corrupt men who fled as the Islamic State advanced and left most of the fighting to Shia militias. We posit “ceasefires” in Syria to refer to surrenders under the regime’s bombardment, siege and starvation; a “Free Syrian Army” or more recently “moderate rebels” to describe unruly militias fighting Assad. The worst things get, the more we seem willing to describe things as we wish they might be rather than as they are.


The Islamic State is one of many forces tearing the Arab world apart. But it evokes reactions of a unique magnitude, not least a profound malaise across the region and a “global coalition” of 60-odd countries proclaiming they will defeat terror. Its crimes are better publicised than others’ because their perpetrators advertise them so effectively. Some are uniquely loathsome, notably the taking of Yazidi captives as sex-slaves. But the group’s henchmen are not the only ones to rape, to maim, to execute summarily, and even to decapitate or burn alive. Arguably the greatest horror of all in the region—the use of chemical weapons on a large scale against civilians in the suburbs of Syria’s capital, Damascus, in August 2013 – prompted little more than a guarded, ambiguous and technical response, which led to the on-going effort to dismantle Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons program. 

Militarily, the Islamic State’s expansionist ambitions have been relatively easy to stymie, with airstrikes and skirmishes proving sufficient to break its momentum toward Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as push it back at the Mosul dam, at Baghdad airport, in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane and in Sinjar. In all likelihood, the group belongs to a category of actors that grow beyond their ability to sustain themselves. This doesn’t mean it will disappear into thin air – it is likely to stay – but that its reign of terror will likely be overtaken by other developments in an increasingly overlapping set of regional crises. 

In a region in flux, we have already seen the influence of successive actors quickly wax and wane. Until recently, Turkey and Qatar both appeared to be on the ascendant. Ankara’s soft power seemed unstoppable on the eve of the region’s uprisings in 2011; Doha peaked when Islamists gained power in their aftermath. The United Arab Emirates, long the practitioner of a low-key foreign policy, is now projecting its newly-minted military capabilities in Libya and Iraq and aggressively leading the regional charge against the Muslim Brotherhood, most notably in Cairo.  

As traditional Arab powerhouses such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt have all been brought down by civil strife in recent years, Saudi Arabia has had to assume an uncomfortable leadership role. This is despite the fact that it lacks legitimacy abroad, not to mention the institutional capacity to follow through in its foreign policy (and other fields). Iran, a more efficient player whose star has been steadily rising (in good part due to the mistakes of others), seems to believe it can bully its neighbourhood into accepting its dominance. Its leadership alternates between condoning the most wanton forms of violence on the part of its allies and trying to convince itself and others that it is a force for stability and coexistence.

The same overreach afflicts a range of non-state actors. The foremost Syrian Kurdish faction, the PYD, declared in 2013 that it had created a Kurdish state within Syria, known as Rojava, but this is already a vague memory. The Houthis in Yemen, an armed group rooted in the Zaydi minority found predominantly in the north, have conquered the country’s capital Sanaa and taken over the state, but they have neither the political experience nor broad enough backing or basic resources to effectively hold onto it. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt acted like it owned the state and its future for the whole of 12 months; its members are now locked-up, in exile or in hiding. Hizbollah, a particularly competent Shia armed group in Lebanon, behaves both like a regional power and a narrowly sectarian force (for instance by giving the red carpet treatment to the catastrophically sectarian former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki in late 2014, in what could only be understood as a misguided display of Shia solidarity), seemingly unaware of the growing tension involved by broadening its sphere of activity while narrowing its popular base. 

In the extreme state of confusion and anguish that the region finds itself in today, it is relatively easy to enjoy a brief momentum, but extremely hard to retain it. The Middle East offers a dispiriting landscape of failed leaders, in which anyone who seems to have a plan tends to raise expectations that are generally quickly dashed.  A profound, prevailing sense of cynicism and fatigue ensues. As a result, cultivating conflict, catering to factional fears and playing up the lack of alternatives remain the primary strategies of regional actors. 

All too often the Islamic State’s opponents resort to such counter-productive tactics to cloak and push their parochial interests. When Kurdish factions in Iraq cried out for help as Erbil appeared on the verge of conquest by the Islamic State, they cynically sent troops to take over the coveted, ethnically mixed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Iran continues to pump money and arms into Iraq’s Shia militias, which are waging what is essentially a cleansing campaign against Sunni Arabs. What is left of a national state in Iraq that is supposed to reach out to Sunnis is thus further eroded. Iran’s spymaster Qassem Suleimani routinely appears in photos with warlords orchestrating sectarian crimes; the Iranian air force targets areas subjected to communal cleansing, all in the name of “fighting the Islamic State” and with Washington’s blessing. The Syrian regime has also taken to bombing civilians in places where the US is hunting extremists, blurring the line between Washington and itself. In doing so it is effectively redefining the “war on terror” as an endorsement and extension of its own repression.

Equally cynical is Turkey. After helping the Islamic State by turning a blind eye as hundreds of foreign fighters crossed its border into Syria, Turkey then used the group’s attack on Kobane, right on its border, to pressure Kurdish factions involved in a decades-long insurgency on Turkey’s own territory and lobby Barack Obama for a policy reset that would include ousting Bashar Assad. Some Gulf monarchies share the latter objective, but unlike a reticent Turkey, they have joined the anti-IS coalition with the intention to push a mission-creep agenda from within. Many Western governments, keen to encourage anyone fighting the Islamic State, seem willing to work with existing and potential partners who only superficially share their goals. 

All in all, the Islamic State has prompted a response that combines all the ingredients necessary to make it stronger: Western over-the-horizon military intervention; a regional arms race as a variety of countries rush to provide money and weapons to improvised proxies (whose factional and sometimes sectarian agendas further degrade decaying state institutions and exacerbate social fault lines); and growing repression of civil liberties and empowerment of backward-looking (but formally secular) power structures. With enemies like these, the Islamic State hardly needs friends. 


In this brutal theatre of the absurd, the Islamic State has taken centre stage, capturing our rapt attention as if it was the paramount problem to be solved, not the by-product of all the other unaddressed problems. Conventional explanations of escalating violence – sectarianism, the secular-Islamist divide, the strategic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the barbarity of a nihilistic version of Islam (a morbid culture implicitly defined as Sunni, although Shia militias and secular forces commit plenty of monstrous crimes of their own) – eclipse the underlying dynamics in the region, which were adequately diagnosed in the early stages of the uprisings of 2011.

The region’s deep-seated problems include, but are not limited to: the struggle to define political legitimacy; the disappearance of grand ideological paradigms (replaced at best by nostalgia for an elusive golden age or millenarian utopias); the retrenchment of the state and rise of social movements, notably Islamist, that fill the ensuing vacuum; the transformation of cities as a result of social and geographical mobility; the narrowing educational and physical gap between rich and poor; the information revolution and its redefinition of individual, collective and transnational identities. The collapsing “regional order” is dialectically connected to its international counterpart, which has become an additional source of confusion and escalation rather than restraint and regulation. (And the recent drop in oil price will only exacerbate economic shortcomings in states that rely on patronage more than participation.) 

Many of these problems are not new: if anything the region is closing a past chapter rather than opening a new one. In the Arab world, the twentieth century was one of ill-fated experiments, accumulating problems, aborted solutions, and growing investment in containment as the answer. The West’s primary concern in the region has always been containment: of Soviet ambition, of Arab radicalism, of both Sunni and Shia Islamism, of Iraq and Iran, of the “axis of resistance”, etc. This, combined with a succession of military half-victories (such as the Suez crisis of 1956, the October war in 1973, and Hizbollah’s resistance to Israel in 2006) and traumatic defeats (the aftermath of the World War in 1918, the Arab-Israeli war after Israel’s creation in 1948, the Six-Day War of 1967, the Gulf war in 1991, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003), has resulted in a pervasive climate of self-doubt and a multifaceted identity crisis. 

The uprisings of 2011 compounded the problems. Their outcomes exposed the failure of the region’s elites – whether secular, Islamist, mainstream religious, minority-based, security-minded, or tribal – to even start to address any of these challenges. Elements of Arab societies that were hailed as offering alternatives to suffocating states, such as new business elites, turned out to be fatalistic: they grew accustomed to dealing with malfunctioning, kleptomaniac power structures. Rather than form a lobby for change, they preferred to lie low or to throw their lot in with whomever can offer even a glimmer of stability. The only “elites” that seem to have something useful to say are artists and social entrepreneurs, mostly of a younger generation whose ability to influence events remains, for now, minimal.

It is the persistence of this vacuum in Arab leadership that makes for the boom and bust cycles mentioned above. The former Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad; Turkish President Recip Tayyib Erdogan, the Lebanese Sunni preacher Ahmad al-Assir, the Islamic State’s “caliph” Abu Bakr Baghdadi – all have, in very different ways, made audacious, revivalist claims to fill the gap, just as Iran’s Qassem Suleimani, Hizbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iraqi warlords like Qays al-Khazali have done on the other side of what has become a sectarian divide. Their egos, elated in their moment of stardom, continue to drive them even as their actual popular base narrows down to factional constituencies unable to support their larger-than-life ambitions. Soon enough, their attempts to lead the region come down to preaching to the converted. 

In parallel, some of the more established, traditional forms of leadership have attempted to reassert themselves, with no more success. The clearest example is the reconstituted Egyptian regime under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – an archetypical case of outgoing elites jumping on the shortcomings of emerging elites to make a comeback, while doing nothing to address their own, previous failure. This dynamic is in evidence both within countries undergoing transition and on a regional scale, as regimes spared any serious strife – such as the Gulf monarchies and Algeria – play up the ill-fortune of others to justify doing more of the same. Religious establishments, such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, the Marja’iya in Najaf, or the richly endowed ulema of Syria have also to produce anything to recapture the moral authority they once had, abandoning the region to a disastrous tête-à-tête between various strands of secular and Islamist hysteria.

Two radical shifts have occurred in the vacuum that opened in 2011. The first is the unprecedented appearance of a public space. The explosion in politicised use of social media has given a voice to people who have long been avid news consumers, but whose opinions had been restricted to the private realm. The second is a transition from hierarchical to more organic movements, from top-down to bottom-up, from the elite to the popular. New political movements do not represent an ideology but rather express, and come to embody, a sentiment, a zeitgeist. They tap into a variety of frustrations, fantasies and fears and build their influence on that basis, rather than starting with a clear vision, developing the cadres and structures to carry it out, and striving to take over power and transform society in line with a programme. 

These new movements articulate the populations’ need for relative security, for an intelligible frame of political-cultural reference, and for representation when there is no trust in the state. They serve concrete interests in the context of an on-going process of decentralization, whereby power, notably state power, is ever more diffuse. They impose themselves through comparative advantage at a time when all players are poor performers, setting low benchmarks in terms of popular expectations. Their core appeal is to be found in competing narratives of victimhood. 

The Islamic State is a perfect example of this trend, but it is not the only one. Shia vigilantes in Iraq fulfil the same functions, and a number of more traditional actors are being transformed along these lines. Under the veneer of cohesiveness offered by Bashar Assad, the Syrian regime is fragmenting and radicalising as militias increasingly run the show The same is true of the Syrian opposition, and both have equally failed to present a vision that could transcend the emotions of the constituencies they purport to represent. Hizbollah is shifting its focus from battling Israel to fighting fellow Muslims and expanding its recruitment base in ways that undermine its claim to being a highly professional, non-sectarian, ideologically consistent resistance movement. Kurdish factions that once embraced politics and governance are redefining themselves in a militaristic way that rallies popular support and distracts from their many shortcomings. 


As the region veers toward more organic, communitarian forms of leadership, the West is only making things worse. Rather than think strategically and long-term, it has prioritised some forms of violence over others, introduced an arbitrary moral hierarchy of the different actors, and provided political support and military aid to whoever happened to be in the right place at the right time. It is either directly or unwittingly endorsing the rise of pro-Iranian Shia militias operating under cover of the Iraqi government; further militarising a fragmented landscape of Kurdish factions connected to a number of regional fault lines; and deepening the already horrendous Syrian conflict by striking jihadi targets and half-heartedly rehabilitating the Assad regime with no overarching plan. Measures that Western governments conceive as a politically neutral, technical responses to the immediate threat posed by the Islamic State will have unpredictable knock-on effects for years to come. 

This is just the latest iteration of a Western posture that has proven remarkable inconsistent, wavering and short-termist. Over the past few years we have jumped from one idea to the next – unlike Russia and Iran which, whatever one thinks of their policies, have clearly decided what their goals are and developed the strategies and devoted the resources to implement them. The West quickly moved from scepticism that anything could change in the very early stages of the Arab uprisings in 2011 to naive enthusiasm for instant democratisation, taking that idea all the way to regime change in Libya (with a similar, tacit, unfulfilled pledge in Syria). It soon became fearful of the empowerment of Islamism through elections and refocused on side effects such as the humanitarian crisis or the rise of militancy, all the while getting caught up in futile processes such as Geneva peace negotiations for Syria. By early 2014, the West was throwing its hands up in the air and trying to distance itself from the region, before returning in response to the Islamic State’s take over of the Iraqi city of Mosul in June of last year.

It is bad enough that we did not assess our long-term goals in the region, but we have not even seen through a single one of these kneejerk responses. It is as if each problem that came along distracted Western governments from the previous one. The West’s confusion has compounded the region’s distress rather than playing a steadying role. The Islamic State is both the result and the seeming escape hatch for the West from the accumulated effect of its various half-baked policies. 

The US in particular continues to desperately seek ways not to engage seriously with the region’s problems. It has developed a sophisticated narrative about a war on terror than thinly veils the absence of a genuine strategy. To have one would require addressing root causes of the current turmoil in Iraq and Syria: systemic political failure. It would also require admitting that the state-building process has derailed in Iraq and that there is no longer a government and an army to work with. Instead, the US continues to find endless reasons to believe that Syria can be left to fester longer; to further empower Iran by not confronting it about its role in the region; and, generally, to pretend to assume a role in a region it sees as economically less relevant, strategically marginal, politically immature, and beset with crumbling states and proxy wars that are beyond Washington’s ability to fix or to win. In a sense, aerial strikes have become a way to simplify the issues while keeping societies and their complexities at bay. 

This is a reflection of broader, deeper trends in the Western political sphere. The policy-making process is increasingly dominated by public relations, as spectacular events prompt a rush to put out statements that later inspire and constrain practical measures that must be made to fit into a narrative rather than into a strategy – i.e.,  a set of clearly-defined interests and goals achievable with available means. The irony in our approach to the Islamic State consists in identifying it as a paramount threat yet deploying mostly symbolic tools (harsh words, pinprick strikes and lackadaisical pledges about dealing with its root causes) to address it. The movement, in that sense, has become a reason to do less about the region’s troubles, although it clearly emanates from them.

In fairness, the region’s problems are eminently complex and there are no easy solutions. Moreover, there is no reason to expect or even to wish that our governments, given their track record on the matter, would sort out the fate of peoples around the globe. At the same time, the stakes are real, and it is all too easy to dismiss the catastrophic events in the region as a form of Arab exceptionalism. The Arab world is more integral to our own societies than we want to admit. Events there resonate not just with immigrant constituencies; most of the social, economic, political and ecological stresses at work in the region are in fact global. It is a testing ground for our ability to do more than fall back on identity politics and containment, the costs of which are clearly rising. The war on the Islamic State is the latest illustration of the increasingly exorbitant price to pay for a failed and still much-needed transition in the region. 

The answer to “what to do about it” lies in being practical. Our governments can best play a steadying role by clarifying their intentions (and therefore closing the gap between overly ambitious stated goals and mediocre means); by seeing through what they can readily achieve (not least adequately addressing the uniquely dangerous Syrian humanitarian crisis, whose consequences in terms of emigration, radicalisation and destabilisation of neighbours are among the gravest challenges we face); and by systematically tying justified support to existing state structures to the most basic and overdue reforms (which would entail security sector reform in places such as Iraq and Lebanon). What the region truly needs from the Western hemisphere is sympathy, patience, consistency and adequate resources. In other words, what we most need to give are precisely those currencies we seem to have in shortest supply. 


Former Project Director, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and Senior Middle East and North Africa Adviser
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Sarah Birke
Middle East Correspondent, The Economist

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