The Islamic State (IS) is pursuing its clearly stated objective of a greatly expanded caliphate by using extreme brutality deliberately. It expects that the extreme brutality will force others either to accede to their demands or to withdraw from the scene. Just about everyone in the Middle East and beyond are both horrified and deeply frightened by the successes thus far of the IS.
What has made it so difficult for opponents of the IS to make headway is their unwillingness to understand that it has been the follies and misplaced priorities of the opponents of the IS that have made it possible for IS to emerge and to pose such a threat.
The IS claims that it is acting out of religious motives ordained by the Koran. And most probably their adherents believe this, which of course makes it almost impossible to negotiate with them in any manner. This is what makes them different from previous so-called Salafist movements that have been around for some time. Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Taliban were all movements that combined militancy with pragmatism.
Today, the mainstream Arab Muslim movements, the governments of the Arab states, as well as the outside powers involved in the region (United States, western Europe, Russia, Turkey, Iran) all denounce the IS. However, it is widely believed that the IS has the support, or at least the benevolent neutrality, of the ordinary Sunni Muslims in the Islamic world, at least that of younger persons. These ordinary persons are streaming into zones controlled by the IS in great numbers. Persons involved in other Salafist movements are shifting allegiances to the IS.
What is it that is impelling this new attitude? It is not shar’ia law. That was after all there before. Shar’ia law is merely the covering to justify the brutal actions. Of course, once it gets a religious covering like this, it hardens the commitment. But the prime factor that underlies this impulse is a sense of hopelessness. Other movements and states – both secularist and Salafist – have failed to relieve significantly the oppression that these young Muslims feel. The IS offers hope. Perhaps one day the converts will be disillusioned, but that moment is not yet arrived.
Why then cannot there be a coalition of those who are opposed to the IS and its expansionary threats? The answer is very simple. They all have other priorities. The Egyptian government is fighting first of all the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi government is fighting first of all Iran and anyone who threatens their claim to leadership of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. The Qataris are fighting first of all the Saudi government. The government of Bahrain gives priority to suppressing the Shias who are numerically the vast majority. The Iranian government is fighting first of all Sunni forces in Iraq. The Turkish government is fighting first of all Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Kurdish movements are fighting not only for their autonomy (or independence) but also each other. The Russian and the U.S. governments are both giving priority to their mutual quarrels. And the Israelis are fighting primarily Iran and the Palestinians. Name one that puts fighting the IS at the top of its list.
This is absolutely crazy. Can anything break through this irrational schema of false priorities? Obviously, there is a dire need to create conditions in which the Sunni-Shia schism is superseded by one in which whichever is the social minority in a given state has rights to reasonable participation in governance and reasonable social autonomy. Were an accord to be achieved between the United States and Iran, they could in fact do a lot militarily and politically together to retake northwest Iraq from the IS. But will their respective hardliners really permit this?
What, you may ask, about existing dictatorships? Should we not be struggling against them? The efforts to do so as the great priority has actually reinforced them. The fears created by the IS have actually reduced in major ways the civil rights of citizens and residents in the United States and western Europe. There is massive hypocrisy concerning which tyrants are being opposed. In effect, everyone protects the tyrants that are their geopolitical ally and denounces the tyrants that are not.
It is long past time to revise radically our priorities. The likelihood of doing this, I admit, seems small at the moment. But the fact is, there is no other choice.