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Islamist caliphate is propaganda but with deep political roots

The circumstances that have allowed jihadists to flourish in the Eastern Mediterranean are more complex than merely sectarian disputes, writes Tarek Osman
Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

The new caliphate that the Salafist jihadist group the Islamic State (IS) – formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – has announced is primarily a propaganda trick. What is serious is that the group has established itself as a key force in the plains extending from eastern Syria to western Iraq, captured strategic oil infrastructure, secured significant financial resources, threatened a major Middle Eastern capital (Baghdad), and is bent on enlarging its footprint.

Observers need to understand the circumstances that have allowed – and continue to allow – jihadists to build such serious capabilities. Simplifications – that Sunni jihadists are fighting a Shiite administration in Iraq and an Alawite power structure in Syria – slice complex situations into their basic ingredients. But the Sunni-Shiite confrontation is but a single component in the ominous mosaic that is today’s Eastern Mediterranean. Other components have played decisive roles in bringing about the present situation.

The first is that the borders of all Eastern Mediterranean countries, designed by Britain and France right before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, were drawn based on the interests of the colonial powers, more than on historical or social drivers.

This, by itself, should not have been an insurmountable problem. The same happened in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. The problem was that most of the regimes that ruled the region’s countries after the withdrawal of colonial powers failed to develop political legitimacy or effect major developmental leaps that could have cemented the new states.

Instead, these regimes gradually descended into oppression, corruption, coercion, and, by the 1990s, familial fiefdoms. The borders remained, but the aspirations that accompanied the birth of these new countries were slowly disappearing.

The second is history. Unlike North Africa, the Nile valley, and the Gulf, the Eastern Mediterranean, because of its rich and volatile history, has, for centuries, been the home of very distinct religious communities whose social norms and cultures were vastly different.

The emergence of national identities in the late 19th century; the creation, in the 1920s, of the modern Eastern Mediterranean states; and the momentum that Arab nationalism had given them in the 1950s and 1960s, seemed to offer a new frame of reference that could encompass all of these diverse communities.

But as the regimes degenerated, and as the socio-political systems were systematically weakened, the unifying identities were gradually diluted.

Amid this decline, religious identity – the third factor – was one of the few certainties left. Both the colonialists and the regimes that followed them had tried, at different stages, to co-opt, use, and crush the political factions of the religions of their countries.

But, realising the deep religiosity of the region’s people and the central role that religion has always played in their lives, none has tried to quell the religious identity.

By itself, this also should not have been a problem. But the challenge here was that the gradual dilution of the fabric of the states left religion as the strongest, and in several cases the sole, thread gathering each of these diverse groups. And in a region that, for decades, has suffered massacres, tyranny, and discrimination, and amidst the lack of transformative development, this sectarianism became parched grass awaiting sparks by any blowing wind – most recently Salafist jihadism.

The fourth factor was the emergence of alternatives to the central state. As the links between different groups and the state to which they belonged became increasingly tenuous, these groups turned to institutions that had credibility and the ability to deliver on social and economic needs. In a few cases, for example in parts of Lebanon, these were progressive civil society organisations.

But, by and large, the alternatives to the state were religious institutions, many of which never subscribed to the notion of the national, secular state.

This turning to religion gained momentum amidst an explosion in digital communication. As thousands of young Middle Easterners flocked to embrace Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Christian Orthodox, Catholic Maronite, and other identities, the traditional authorities of these religious sects were losing the control that they had exerted for centuries over religious narratives.

Through hundreds of websites, chat rooms, satellite channels, and peer to peer communication methods, the religious messages that the new generation were receiving were less the mainstream ones of the authorities and more propaganda, incitement, probing, and recruitment from marginal, and in many cases extremist, groups – from all religions.

And then there is the regional situation. Throughout the past half century, because of their own interests, the four countries that have orchestrated the region’s politics – Egypt, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia – have tried to minimise the spread of mass-violence in their neighbourhoods. That proved relatively successful during the Cold War, as well as in the last two decades of American hegemony.

But as some of these powers, primarily for internal reasons, had lost interest or influence, and as the strategic struggle between Iran and Saudi has been elevated to a higher gear, opportunities arose for non-state actors to build significant war capabilities and to extend their presence beyond the areas in which they grew. The Lebanese Hizbollah, which has been a decisive pro-Assad force in the Syrian conflict, is but the most conspicuous example.

To a large extent, the Eastern Mediterranean is reaching the end of the period that began with the withdrawal of colonialism. The notion of governing by consent (a cornerstone of Arab nationalism’s legitimacy in the 1950s and 1960s) is gone. And as the wave of Arab uprisings – even the ones that failed – is increasingly proving, governing by coercion is going.

None of the factors above will be reversed anytime soon. This could mean that the region will experience a period of anarchy and bursts of extreme violence. And not a single regional or international state has the combination of will, resources, and tenacity to impose a new order.

Two factors, however, inspire hope that the growth and spread of Salafist jihadists can be stemmed.

The first is that the unfolding chaos and violence will likely convince the leaders of the various communities in the region to cease backing the politicians, warlords, and families whose interests lie at the heart of the current struggles.

This is beginning to happen in Iraq where Shiites and Sunnis have begun searching for new political leaderships. The same could take place among Syria’s Alawites, though likely at a high and bloody cost.

The second factor is that the jihadists’ declared objective of widening their presence – the borders of their caliphate – would trigger further waves of violence and chaos, a prospect that could persuade the leaders of these communities to find peaceful ways to govern.

There are signs that federalism could become a reality in Iraq in the medium term. Some sort of federal structures could also materialise in Syria if, as many expect, the war there reaches an impasse.

The emergence of new leaders, the gradual acceptance of creative forms of governing and fairer distributions of the economic assets of these countries would dilute many of the reasons that animate these youths of these countries. If these factors fail to materialise, the jihadist threat will exacerbate the tumult that the Eastern Mediterranean currently witnesses, and will spread to the Gulf and parts of North Africa.

Tarek Osman, a political economist, is the author of Egypt on the Brink and presenter of the BBC’s The Making of the Modern Arab World

On Twitter: @TarekmOsman

Updated: July 5, 2014 04:00 AM

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