It’s futile to play the 'Islamic State' blame game

It’s futile to play the 'Islamic State' blame game
Trading accusations of responsibility does not help anyone understand the roots of the crisis at hand.
7 min read
06 Aug, 2014
Kurdish forces have fought IS in Kobane [Getty]

The blame game is nothing new. One of the hallmarks of entrenched political disputes is that responsibility for universally abhorrent acts are attributed to one’s opponent. This apparent deft divestment of guilt allows all parties to avoid trying to explain the loathsome phenomenon itself, but such evasion of liability is merely a display of dull-witted intellectual feebleness.

Much of the commentary regarding the Islamic State group slots easily into this category, a category that has a long and time-honoured history.

In mid-20th century Europe, despite the rivalry between the revolutionary left and the conservative right, they shared an intellectual and political revulsion against Nazi and fascist ideologies.

Socialist and Communist thought considered Nazism a phenomenon of late monopolistic capitalism, while conservatives treated it as a lingering shockwave of the French and Bolshevik revolutions. Liberals at times approached it as an offshoot of Socialist thinking, while, at others, as a by-product of extreme nationalist endeavours. Some Jewish political theorists thought it based on a redemptive, anti-Semitic structural tendency inherent in Christianity.

This wasn’t some shouting match on Facebook or Twitter, but schools of thought that preoccupied intellectuals, spreading to research centres and university departments. Left and right traded accusations of responsibility for the rise of Nazism, unable to grasp that the phenomenon combined the worst of each of them, in a very particular set of circumstances.


Left and right traded
blame for the rise of
Nazism, unable to grasp that the phenomenon combined the worst of
each of them

Entrenchment of belief

Since thought and social theory can become this entrenched, what about sectarian-political camps? Rival groups hurl mockery and rumours, torrents of abuse and satirical defamation - whether such sectarianism is religious or ideological. Add conspiracy theories and conspiratorial mentalities, and the results are alchemical mixtures and amorphous pronouncements that claim to explain complex social phenomena that are both universally reviled and feared in our societies.

There is a near total consensus that the Islamic State group is repulsive, and that its practices are disgusting.

But it is useless to attempt to understand the group based on existing political spaces, for you will find yourself reading and hearing remarkable claims: behind every movement lies a conspiracy, behind every attack lurks an intelligence service.

Opponents of the Syrian and Iraqi administrations accuse Tehran and Damascus of manufacturing, financing and directing IS, in a bid to mobilise support and to sabotage domestic revolutions - and because the rise of the armed group is a very effective illustration of the terrifying choice between despotism and terrorism.

While it is true that elements of the Syrian leadership may be able to exploit the growth of IS to their benefit, it is not necessarily true that the beneficiary is always the culprit. Syria’s supporters accuse Saudi Arabia, the United States, Qatar and others of financing and arming the group, narrating a dramatic conspiratorial plot. There are several versions of this tale, hyped or watered-down, extreme or moderate. However, they are based on the same logic - accusing the other of being the source of all evil.

Understanding that each party holds its enemy responsible for undesirable events provides no great insight. But what is missing from such a perspective, stripped of its historical dimension and isolated from its social context, is a true understanding of the Islamic State group. The path to understanding has been blocked by conspiracy and fanaticism. Memory is short and selective, governed by whims and the media, and redesigned to conform to moods, likes, dislikes, suspicions or favour.

The bigger picture

Jihadi Salafism was not born yesterday, nor was IS, its bloody incarnation. The cruelty of IS has outdone all other Jihadi Salafist trends that have sprung up in the past three years. It cannot be understood without understanding despotism in Iraq and Syria or the marriage between religious and political thought or the export of Salafist trends from the Arabian Peninsula during the oil boom period. The failure of the nation state to address socio-economic issues relating to poverty, development, citizenship and the rights of the citizen must also be recognised, along with the state’s inability to manage relations among nationalist, pan-Arab, religious and ethnic identities – and its failure at nation-building and statecraft.


While the Syrian leadership may
be able to exploit the growth of IS to their benefit, it is not
necessarily true that the beneficiary is always the culprit.

It is possible to imagine a person who has experienced the horrors of Baathist Iraqi or Syrian prisons, who then lived through and fought against a barbaric US occupation, and who was then jailed again under a loathsome sectarian regime such as that of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Each of these experiences has destroyed a life-loving part of his soul, and buried part of his humanity.

The merger between religious politics and some forms of Salafism to produce the jihadi philosophy must also be studied, alongside demographic issues such as population explosions, unemployment, education, urbanisation and the migration of young men from countries with few opportunities. Furthermore, the effects of all these factors when combined with modern communications technologies warrants our attention.

Taking up arms

Capital and corporal punishments that invoke religious laws, including being stoned to death, are not new to some Arab countries. In others, neighbours were slaughtering one another a long time before IS appeared. Brutal torture in Arab prisons exceeded the imagination of any novelist. Repressive Arab states had to deal with fighters returning from pushing the Soviets from Afghanistan – an international brigade known as Arab Afghans.

Dictators also noticed those they had tortured forming breakaway movements, branding society as “unbelievers” and taking up arms. These groups went on to fight against the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, and lived under a breed of despotism that adopted a divisive sectarian path to forge its bloody power alliances.


IS grew in dark corners and backstreets and on the fringes of disaster zones, infiltrating and exploiting existing political movements

The Islamic State group lives within the vacuum created by the failure of the nation state, but it did not emerge from a vacuum. Anyone who wishes to understand the group must understand what has occurred in the Arab world in recent decades. IS grew in dark corners and backstreets and on the fringes of catastrophes and disaster zones, infiltrating and exploiting existing political movements.

But this alone does not explain its environment, its rise, its internal dynamics or its sources of strength and weakness.

The societies that have produced young men who set sail in flimsy death boats from the southern Mediterranean to the north are the very same societies that have produced young men who speed through deserts in pick-up trucks to escape the ruins of their certitude, seeking the certitude of ruin.

An Arab religiosity of a different nature has sprung up among some Arab nomads. The state has thrown them out, citizenship has not absorbed them, and they wander aimlessly among states, having abandoned any sense of national belonging. They carry a new desert religion, destroying any monument of civilisation they come across. It is the religion of moral nihilism and wanton fanaticism which replaces individual and collective morals, the sense of belonging to a group and a place, and even the religion of Islam – which itself aimed to civilise the Arab nomads and create a sense of higher morality.


It is the religion of moral nihilism and wanton fanaticism
which replaces individual and
collective morals.

These movements did not spring up under a democratic system, nor were they the result of a democratic revolution. They arose in the shadow of despotism, occupation and brutal regime violence against revolutions.

There is no doubt that these movements will disappear, because they are contrary to the logic of this era, and of history. They stand opposed to the needs and requirements of all people. The Islamic State group will eventually fail because it is in conflict with each of us in modern, civilised Arab societies.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al Araby Al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.