Democracy under attack

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market on Monday, 19 December 2016.  Angela Merkel, in a televised broadcast, expressed concern that immigrants might be blamed – and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party has done just that.  Angela Merkel faces an election next year, in which AfD is strongly placed to become Germany’s  largest political party – and the Berlin truck attack will help it to do so.

It isn’t only Angela Merkel’s political party that is under attack, and ISIS isn’t the only attacker. The whole of Western liberal democracy is under a 3-way attack: from an Islamic terrorist jihad to set up a universal caliphate, from a wave of anti-establishment authoritarian populism, and from Russian interference with elections.  These three directions of attack are not coordinated, but are nonetheless helping each other to undermine Western democracies and the EU.

ISIS is trying to polarise society.  It wants headlines, Western indignation and condemnation of Islam – so that more Muslims will join its cause in what it presents as a conflict between civilisations.  It did not have to arrange for the truck attack.  It merely had to radicalise an individual, provoking the attack, and then claim responsibility for it.

Authoritarian populism is a style of political leadership which feeds on people’s discontent with their current situation.  That discontent might come from job losses due to globalisation, from liberalisation in society’s attitudes on gender, from gross financial inequality, or from multiculturalism.  Donald Trump, AfD and Nigel Farage can all be categorised as authoritarian populists.  Some of their supporters have reacted to multiculturalism by supporting ‘alt-right’ racial supremacists, whose views are similar to Nazism.

It has been alleged that Russia influenced the US presidential election by hacking into email servers, and Internet attacks on German political parties have also been traced to Russia.  It has also been alleged that Russia is sponsoring the spread of disinformation on Internet social media.  Disinformation is an effective way of swinging elections: Breitbart used it to help Trump be elected and is about to launch a German site.  It has been suggested that Russia is also using disinformation as a political tool, to promote nationalism and to undermine the EU and NATO.

It is easier to describe the problem than to propose a solution.  The European Union was initially established to counteract the forces of nationalism and fascism that had led to the Second World War, but it and its members are now experiencing this 3-way attack.  Sadly, the EU is no longer seen by many people as a force for peace.  There is some justification for the accusations levelled at it: bloated bureaucracy, failing to listen to the people and the pursuit of a political dream that seems to threaten the autonomy of its members.  It is clearly imperfect, and unless it starts to address the population’s real concerns it is likely to collapse – but now it is needed more than ever.

Syrian Peace Process

On 12 February, after talks in Munich, world powers agreed a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria to begin a week later.  Much subsequent commentary is dismissive, for example the Telegraph’s remark that “The “nationwide ceasefire” supposedly agreed for Syria belongs in a special category of futility”, and has pointed out that the Syrian situation is still a grave risk to world peace. Although the civil war in Syria started as a local uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s government, its subsequent trajectory has been much worsened by the involvement of external powers.  Western foreign policy has been misguided and many of the other participants in the conflict are pursuing their own interests in wider political struggles.  The hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is an example of a tension that could erupt to widen the war-zone.

Misguided Western Foreign Policy

The Syrian civil war has been partly fuelled by a Western foreign policy of intervening in the Middle East to encourage the spread of democracy, whilst having no regard for whether it is yet viable in the countries concerned.  The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq made way for sectarian strife and identity politics.  The overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya had the same effect.  Encouragement for those who wished to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria would, if successful, have repeated the pattern.

The ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings seemed to be a clear expression of people’s wish for democracy in the Middle East.  Of course the population wanted democracy, because they thought it meant that they would have more say in how they were governed and that they would be able to overthrow the corrupt rulers who were looting their countries.  What they all failed to take into account, though, was that they couldn’t each have the government they wanted as they all have radically different ideas of what that might look like.  The fault lines within Islam, and between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, meant that the Middle East was a tinderbox even before the Western interventions in Iraq and Libya.  The flames of war are now well alight and Daesh (aka ISIS, ISIL or so-called Islamic State) has emerged as a new threat, as a global sponsor of terror as well as a fighting force in Iraq and Syria.

Combating Daesh in its global aspirations

Daesh preaches a warped variant of Islam as it tries to gain support for creating a caliphate across the whole of the Middle East, if not the whole world.  It is appropriate to use the name ‘Daesh’ for the organisation led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because its other names imply that it is Islamic.  It has been roundly condemned by Muslim leaders.  We need to avoid feeding the perception that all Muslims are terrorists because that is exactly what Daesh is wanting.  Its acts of terrorism are designed as propaganda to create hostility towards all Muslims, because treating them all badly will cause some to be radicalised and join the jihad.  This strategy has been very successful in recruiting Western Muslims, as Islamophobia is now rife in the West (as exemplified by attacks against Muslims in Britain, Donald Trump’s popularity in America and the rise of the Front National in France).  Western military involvement in Syria also helps Daesh by enabling it to argue that the whole of Islam is under attack, thereby making it a religious duty to oppose the non-Muslim West.

The Daesh-sponsored terrorist attacks need to be dealt with in the countries where they take place.  They reflect different social and political problems.

Combating the Daesh military presence in Iraq and Syria

The world’s most complicated involvement with Daesh is where it started, in Iraq and Syria (whose borders were arbitrarily established by the British and the French in 1916, under the Sykes-Picot agreement).  In that region Daesh has a constantly growing army that has shown itself to be capable of seizing and maintaining control over large swathes of territory.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Syrian government, the Kurds, the West and Russia are all opposing Daesh in its home territory, but there are also conflicts between these actors.  It will not be possible to reach a peace agreement there until order has been restored.  Bashar al-Assad’s authority will probably be re-established with Russian support, at least temporarily, even though that is unpalatable to the Western governments and their allies – who are recklessly still trying to encourage the spread of democracy in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia, for example, has threatened to remove Assad by force.

Any visible Western military involvement in Iraq and Syria is likely to strengthen Daesh’s global aspirations by enabling it to depict the West as anti-Islam.  The Syrian government invited Russia to help it to restore order, but Western countries have no mandate to operate there and they are effectively helping Daesh propaganda by doing so.  Britain’s decision to bomb Syria was politically and legally unsound, described by James Meek as an attempt “to turn to purpose the inarticulate emotions of hate, rage and fear”.  Daesh must have been delighted with the result of the Parliamentary vote.

Although it would be possible to crush Daesh by using military force in Iraq and Syria, that alone would not bring peace (and Daesh would continue as a promoter of international terrorism).

A possible peace process

Peace negotiations in Syria would have to offer something tangible to the Sunni Muslim groups, who have genuine political grievances arising from their mistreatment by the Iraqi and Syrian governments.  The Russians have made it quite clear that the ceasefire that was proposed on 12 February will not become effective whilst there is any resistance to Bashar al-Assad, but those groups whom the Americans describe as ‘moderate’ opposition will not stop fighting merely to return to the pre-war situation.

Perhaps Assad’s opponents could be persuaded to have a cease-fire and negotiate if they were offered an enforceable process with clear parameters for reaching a new constitutional settlement for the region, possibly redrawing the borders (but it is much too soon to make specific proposals on what the outcome of the process might look like).  It would have to include all the participants, including neighbouring countries – and that has previously been recognised in earlier attempts to start peace negotiations; it is likely that Daesh would be refused a seat at the table, but it could be involved by proxy.  All the parties need to accept that the process almost certainly would include the restoration of Bashar al-Assad’s control, at least temporarily, and that it could not rule out giving him a continued role in at least part of the territory – because that decision is not for external powers to make; his future should be an outcome of the process, not a precondition for launching it.

Combating ISIS

French President Francois Hollande reportedly described the recent attacks in Paris as an “act of war” by the organisation calling itself Islamic State (ISIS) – which has claimed responsibility for the killing of at least 128 civilians.  But ISIS is not just an army that can be defeated militarily.  France and other Western countries are facing three distinct but connected problems of which ISIS forms a part: ISIS aims to establish a religious caliphate; it co-ordinates acts of terrorism in several countries; and it is active in Syria’s civil war.

ISIS (which is also known as ISIL, Islamic State or Daesh) has been described as being a descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Osama bin Laden claimed that Al Qaeda was engaged in a ‘just war’ and he also claimed religious legitimacy.  Both of these claims are rejected by authoritative figures in Islam and by most moderate Muslims; and in practice ISIS is predominantly fighting other Muslims.  Western political leaders are naturally encouraging moderate Muslims to preach against ISIS and reduce its allure.  Islamic leaders have to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds.

It is attractive to disaffected Muslims to believe that they are fighting against Western oppression in the name of their religion.  Terrorism has long been part of the Islamist strategy, intended to provoke the West into sending troops to the Middle East so that other Muslims could then be persuaded to join the struggle in what would be seen as a holy war.  The Paris attacks are the latest in a long line of provocations dating back to before 9/11 – and the latter was successful in its aim of provoking George W Bush into declaring a ‘war on terror’ and sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The provocations are also helping right-wing political parties in Europe.  It has been reported that Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, has experienced a surge of support as a result of the combination of the immigrant crisis and the acts of terrorism.  Anti-Muslim feeling benefits Europe’s far right as much as it benefits the ISIS strategy.  Ultimately the revulsion of most people will be the safety valve that prevents either ISIS or Europe’s far right from gaining permanent power.

ISIS is fighting alongside other groups in Syria and Iraq which also espouse Sunni Islam but which don’t necessarily share its vision of a caliphate.  The ISIS army in Syria can be fought with conventional weapons, including ‘boots on the ground’, but Western military assistance – even in the form of airstrikes – helps to feed the ISIS narrative of Islam as a whole being threatened by the West.  Russia has been invited to help the Syrian government to restore order and that seems to be the most viable strategy for resolving what should be seen as a local military conflict.  It is not yet clear what the solution might look like; changing the government in Syria, and even redrawing regional borders, might be negotiated once peace has been restored.

The French response to the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 has taken the form of increased airstrikes in Syria.  That may be politically popular because it looks like doing something, but Francois Hollande would be wiser to attend to France’s own problem: the need to coexist peacefully with its own Muslim population. David Cameron is now reported as wanting to make the same mistake: to obtain Parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria, even though that is exactly what ISIS wants.  Doubtless the airstrikes would inflict some military damage on ISIS in Syria, but they would also provide powerful propaganda to help it recruit more followers in the wider jihad against Western liberal democracies.

Joining the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS or ISIS)

This week’s New Statesman has published an article by Mehdi Hasan, entitled How Islamic is the Islamic State?  He argues that religion is not what persuades people to join IS and that IS cannot be truly Islamic because prominent and authoritative figures in the religion have explicitly condemned the group.  He points out that those who conflate IS and Islam are helping the former.

Not all Islamic authorities agree.  As noted by Douglas Murray, in an article entitled ‘Religion of peace’ is not a harmless platitude, which was published in The Spectator on 17 January, “Last month, al-Azhar University in Cairo declared that although Isis members are terrorists they cannot be described as heretics.”  Murray states that Islam “is by no means only a religion of peace.  I say this not because I hate Islam, nor do I have any special animus against Muslims, but simply because this is the verifiable truth based on the texts.”  He doesn’t say that Islam is a violent religion overall, but he points out that there are undeniably violent elements in its tradition.  Some Muslims are violent, many more are not; they can choose whether to live peacefully with their neighbours or to support the violent elements in their religion and its adherents (4.4.4).

It seems that young people from the West are joining IS in reaction against Western violence towards Muslims – the invasion of Iraq came after a long tradition of Western colonial dominance, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay have often been cited.  Many might also feel resentment against the society in which they grew up, perhaps feeling that they were treated as second-class citizens or perhaps experiencing hostility from non-Muslims in a rising tide of Islamophobia.  By joining IS these young jihadis are helping to escalate the conflict in the Middle East towards the group’s aim of generating a global confrontation between Muslims and everybody else.

Several commentators have called upon Muslim leaders to persuade their followers to take a peaceful path.  It is equally important that Western leaders do everything possible to reduce Islamophobia and to avoid the appearance of attacking Islam.  Media channels can help by choosing their language carefully.  Islamophobia helps IS to grow by provoking Muslims to join its cause.

What drives ISIS?

In an article entitled Iraq Illusions, published in The New York Review of Books, Jessica Mathews describes the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as “only one of an almost uncountable mélange of Sunni militant groups” which form a “Sunni insurgency that has risen up against the government of Nouri al-Maliki”.  This narrative explains why ISIS encountered relatively little resistance as it swept across the Sunni Muslim heartlands of eastern Syria and western Iraq, but it does not explain why foreign Muslims are eager to join it.

Karen Armstrong, in the introduction to her book The Battle for God, describes a phenomenon which explains the ISIS success in recruiting Muslims from outside the Middle East.  She argues that “fundamentalisms” all follow a certain pattern:

“they are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis.  They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself.  Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil.

….  They fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world.”

The ideal of ‘purification’, and doing what God wants them to do, is a potent motivation for foreign fighters to join the struggle against the West – and several thousand have done so.  This echoes Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of jihad, which referred to the need to defend Islam against “the oppressive Crusader campaign led by America”.  The ISIS atrocities are seen by the perpetrators as being justified by a holy cause – and, as noted in this website’s previous post on this subject, the ISIS leadership is seeking publicity to lure the West into another unwinnable war in the region.

A jihad against the West is altogether different from a local political struggle.  If Jessica Mathews is right about the local political motivation for Sunni groups, then this is the language which should be used in talking about how to prevent ISIS from further ethnic cleansing.  It should not be seen as an American-led project.  America has been asked for help, and is giving it, but Western leaders should take care to avoid any language which suggests that this is their war.  It is a local war, with local participants, being carried out with Western assistance.

There is also the problem of labelling all Muslims as if they were the same.  Muslim leaders have distanced themselves from ISIS’s actions, describing them as un-Islamic.  ISIS is making a grab for power, using terror tactics and ethnic cleansing to achieve its aims.  This must not be seen as a religious war (which would help ISIS to recruit yet more people to its cause) but as a local territorial conflict which will ultimately need a political solution that overcomes some of the genuine problems experienced by Sunni Muslims.

Western leaders need to be very careful in the language they use to describe their intervention.  This is a local war about political power, and the West’s role is to help to restore calm.  ISIS wants escalation to an international holy war, and the West needs to be more careful in its language if it doesn’t want to get sucked in deeper.

Resisting Islamic Extremism

Prospect magazine has just published a thought-provoking article entitled Do not give Isis what it wants, drawing attention to the dangers of the West being drawn into another war.  Experience ( indicates that an invasion, which would constitute what Rupert Smith referred to as “a war among the people”, is unwinnable.  The article’s author suggests a viable alternative response by providing limited military assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, for example by using drones.

Although the Islamic State may want to lure the West into putting boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria, it is very unlikely that this would happen – but there is a wider danger of the Islamic State’s atrocities creating a popular backlash within Western countries.  If people start to persecute their Muslim neighbours, the Islamic extremists will get exactly what they want: the radicalisation of peaceful Muslims, leading to sectarian violence in Western cities.

A fatwa has been issued by leading UK imams, prohibiting Muslims from joining the Islamic State.  This is a very welcome example of moral leadership.  What is now needed is for the rest of society to support them by keeping calm.  The news media can play a part, by making it quite clear that the problem is not Islam as a whole but a group of Islamic extremists who are trying to provoke radicalisation.

Drone strikes

As reported by HuffPost, drone strike limitations are being considered by Congress.  The article doesn’t mention one very good reason for limiting the use of drones: their propaganda impact.  As reported in the book Patterns of Power (7.4.3), drones cause a lot of civilian deaths.  Al Qaeda is able to recruit more terrorists by reporting that Americans are killing Muslim children.