In February, writing in the pages of the Nation, the Middle East historian Juan Cole ruminated on how the US could defeat ISIS. The answer, he argued, is to forge an alliance with Iran and its network of militias.
Cole has a short historical memory.
The genealogy of ISIS can, no doubt, be traced a good way back in Islamic history. But it includes a very prominent and recent pedigree: the Sunni jihadists that the US sponsored and armed to fight its then-ideological enemy, the USSR, in the 1980s and 1990s. Cole would have the US attack ISIS at all costs, even if his preferred strategy plunged the Muslim world into a state of deeper violence and chaos, and birthed a fiercer enemy in the future.
Unfortunately, the prominent scholar isn’t alone in his amnesia.
The belief that Islamic terrorism represents an existential threat and that all strategies, regardless of their consequences, should be used to fight it has militarized American society in very dangerous ways while obscuring the actual roots of Islamic terrorism.
Violent trends in Islam — as in Christianity and other religions — always existed, but historically, Muslims largely mustered enough social and political will to contain them. So why is this no longer the case, and what are the circumstances that turned the ideology of Islamic terrorism into an attractive one for some today? Who, in short, created the conditions that gave rise to groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and many others?
Since 9/11, the US has pursued policies largely inspired by Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” in which the Muslim world stands as an inveterate enemy of “the West.” With the fall of the USSR and its constellation of Communist governments, US elites no longer had a ready rationale to maintain the country’s war machine. Huntington’s theory provided them one.
After al-Qaeda struck on 9/11, the Bush administration launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, seeking to eradicate networks of Islamic terror, whatever the price to Muslim civilians. Although antiwar voices in the US grew quite loud at times, and managed to elect Barack Obama as president, a new normal had been established. Obama not only prosecuted the same wars but launched new (albeit undeclared) ones in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. As a result, the Middle East is in even direr straits than when Bush departed (apologetics of Obama boosters notwithstanding).
Back at home, American society — already shot through with militarism, the product of endless military interventions since World War II — has seen a noxious new element added to its violent brew: Islamophobia. Trump’s anti-Muslim executive orders — which, despite some backlash, received higher approval ratings than his overall performance as president — were just the latest indication of how profoundly recent US wars have changed American society, and how domestically successful the campaign against Islam has been.
Deepening militarization has empowered religious fanatics and imperialist ideologues in the US, who use any pretext to march the country down the path of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” Indeed, ultra-conservative Christianity in the US doesn’t express itself primarily through violence at home. It uses its political muscle to inflict violence abroad through US wars.
Autocracy in the Middle East
If the Middle East is mired in dictatorship, it has more to do with US meddling than any innate Muslim affinity for despotism. When Syrian autocrat Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, President Bill Clinton dispatched Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to fête his son, Bashar al-Assad, as the British-educated reformer. Assad ruled with an iron first from the beginning — and the US raised no objections.
In 2009, Obama travelled to Turkey and Egypt to announce a new US posture toward the Muslim world. Gaddafi, Mubarak, Assad — all were slated for removal, to make way for a new breed of dictators cloned in the image of the ruler who was then the darling of the US and Europe: Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
But Obama’s meddling weakened an already fragile civil society, multiplying recruits to ISIS and al-Qaeda. And the region’s autocrats and others knew exactly how to play the game. They used the threat of ISIS to justify their draconian clampdown on political freedom, and as scarecrows to frighten the US and Europe into guaranteeing their survival. How else could they be “key partners” in the war against terror?
When Erdoğan came to power, the US (the EU on its heels) steered all kinds of investment and political support his way. Erdoğan was the model of the new “moderate Muslim.” Today he is dismantling a civil society that took decades to build, and anyone who dares to criticize him is labeled a terrorist. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Mubarak’s successor, is turning Egypt into a time bomb by filling his prisons with thousands of alleged terrorists. Assad finished off fifteen thousand supposed terrorists in a single prison, and his barbarity has fueled a civil war that’s left more than five hundred thousand dead and caused five million to flee the country. The Iraqi government employs Iranian-backed militias that are no less murderous than ISIS. Saudi Arabia’s ongoing, US-backed bombing campaign has leveled Yemen.
ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their ilk have often depended on the protection and support of other US allies. Pakistan nurtured terrorist organizations to use against India, and the Saudis did the same to undercut Assad’s government and Iranian influence in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. Erdoğan used ISIS as a weapon against the Kurds, and Assad did the same to cause trouble for the US in Iraq (and later the Syrian opposition).
What Muslim world are we expecting these actors to build after ISIS is gone?
No More Allies
Since the 1950s, US foreign policy has systematically worked to undermine democracy in the Muslim world. It’s labored to undercut all the optimism and reform that secularists and religious progressives advocated for and institutionalized since the nineteenth century.
Muslims, in their majority, have pushed for the separation of state and religion (shunning Sharia and reducing its application to a small realm, including marriage, inheritance, and pure religious practice). They established liberal democratic constitutions. They liberated women from many old religious customs (including the veil) and brought them into schools and universities and the workforce.
In other words, the Renaissance or Reformation that some critics insist must happen has already occurred.
That many of these reforms are forgotten today is in part due to the US’s role in impairing democratic change throughout the Middle East. From the coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 that struck down Iranian democracy to the Baghdad Pact in 1955 that targeted those Muslim countries who refused to join it, all the way to the fostering of jihadism in Afghanistan and the war on al-Qaeda that has only produced a more extreme version of it, the region has been relentlessly abused and mistreated.
There is no instant cure for its sorry condition, and we should not expect any. There is no magic panacea, only the adages of irony: the chickens are coming home to roost; too little too late; what cureth now, the same anon doth kill.
If the US persists with its current policies in the Muslim world, ISIS may yet be defeated, but only at the cost of a still-worse al-Qaeda 3.0 or ISIS 2.0. Whatever ally the US picks to help in the war against ISIS will be its next enemy and target once ISIS is gone, and the American military machine will grind on.
Ultimately, what the US needs is not allies of convenience. What the US needs is to place at the center of its foreign and domestic policy the values it brags about — human rights, democracy, dignity, equality — rather than the values that it actually promotes: imperial arrogance, racist discrimination, capital accumulation, and satellite subservience.