Exploiting the Inherent Seam in the Islamic State

Photo Credit: Reuters

By Kathryn Hillegass, Columnist

It is time to put ISIS back in its place. Not by “bombing the s**t” out them of as a certain Presidential hopeful may espouse, but by discrediting the legitimacy of a global Islamic caliphate. [i] The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is a radical Salafi Islamist movement attempting to re-establish the caliphate, but it also exhibits behavior more reminiscent of the Arab nationalism of the early 20th century. Pitting this national movement against the more polemic religious rhetoric exposes a vulnerable spot in ISIS’s narrative and provides an exploitable seam to counter the spread of ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria.

Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the caliphate in 2014, ISIS has successfully co-opted the global strategy of al Qaeda and continues to recruit impressive numbers of foreign fighters. As it embraced more global ambitions, it removed the ‘Iraq and al-Sham’ part of its name and attempted to rebrand itself simply as the ‘Islamic State.’ Despite ingenious public relations, at its core, ISIS is still a local movement aimed at redrawing the lines in the Middle East to establish a state that more closely resembles the historic concept of Bilad al-Sham, or Greater Syria. This is a decidedly pan-Arab, rather than Islamist goal.

Arab nationalism is still a relatively new concept. In the late 19th century, the Arab world experienced a cultural renaissance that sought to unite the Arab people through a common, standardized language. In the 20th century, Arab nationalism further developed as a largely secular ideology in response to the Young Turk Movement within the Ottoman Empire. Language and culture, rather than religion, was a defining feature of the movement.

Following the messy division of the Middle East after World War I, support for secular pan-Arab unity ebbed and flowed with the formation of competing national identities in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Arab nationalism played a major role in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War but seemed to have peaked with the dissolution of the United Arab Republic (a three-year political union between Egypt and Syria) in 1961. Unfortunately, the largely secular pan-Arab ideology was replaced by a much more troubling dynamic that would come to define conflict in the Middle East for generations to come: sectarianism.[ii]

Why is this history worth recounting now? Because despite ISIS’ global Islamic interpretations and appeal, its objectives and patterns of behavior may more closely align with pan-Arabism than pan-Islamism. Their propaganda confirms this suggestion. In its 2014 video, “The End of Sykes Picot,” ISIS claimed it had erased the border between Iraq and Syria, and would continue to fight until it destroyed the borders between Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and would not stop until it reached Jerusalem.[iii] Although ISIS’s public aims have clearly expanded in the past two years, there may be an opportunity to drive a wedge between ISIS in Iraq and Syria and its affiliates by unmasking what may be a contradiction in their narrative.

Countering the spread of ISIS’s narrative outside of Greater Syria and the Middle East should be focused on this juxtaposition of nationalism versus Islamism. Thus far, responding to the threat of ISIS in an Islamic context has challenged America’s sense of political correctness which so desperately seeks to avoid the perception of a religious war. Countering violent extremism through narratives emphasizing how ISIS is inconsistent with Quranic teachings has been ineffective and has alienated the Muslim community at home and abroad. Instead, counter-narratives should highlight that supporting ISIS is more likely to contribute to the establishment of a new Arab state in Syria rather than a Muslim caliphate, ideally creating skepticism amongst potential ISIS followers outside of the Middle East.

Dr. Dan Byman recommends focusing on ISIS’s affiliates who have answered the call for global jihad and continually undermine regional security outside of the Middle East. Byman suggests weakening the affiliates “by portraying the core group as out of touch with local grievances.”[iv] One way to do so is to expose how ISIS spends its money. Although precise numbers are elusive, ISIS spends considerable amounts supporting the millions of people living within their territory.[v] Governing, no matter how brutally, is expensive. Contradictory to their global message, the majority of the money is staying in the Middle East. The money flowing to fledgling ISIS affiliates in Nigeria, Somalia, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere is only directly funding violence. The West ought to recognize and exploit that seam.

That said, characterizing ISIS as a nationalist movement does not make it any less dangerous. World War I endures as a stark reminder of how dangerous nationalist movements can be. Jordan and Israel remain the most vulnerable to the appeal of the revived pan-Arab narrative due to the heavily disaffected Palestinian populations.

Yet approaching ISIS as a menacing pan-Arab movement may be more manageable than fighting global jihad. By addressing the organization in pan-Arab terms, it could potentially dissuade non-Arab fighters from joining, and may prevent would-be affiliates outside the Arab world from establishing under the ISIS banner. It also gives Arab nations an easier window to challenge ISIS’s claims, promoting their own respective national identities rather than trying to oppose them on religious grounds. The more the United States and its allies can do to contain the threat to the Middle East, the better. Much of the containment will continue to be buttressed by direct military operations in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, but as the battle of the narratives wages on, we should continue to ensure we do not give ISIS any more credit than it deserves.

[i] “Donald Trump on ISIS Oil,” published November 12, 2015, accessed March 4, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FTHXgmzURM.

[ii] Al Yafai, Faisal, “The Death of Arab Secularism,” The National, November 3, 2012, http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/the-death-of-arab-secularism#page3.

[iii] “The End of Sykes Picot,” published June 30, 2014, accessed March 1 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzDJgv6sNYI.

[iv] Byman, Daniel, “ISIS Goes Global,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/isis-goes-global.

[v] Givoanni, E Di, Leah M. Goodman, and Damien Sharkov, “How does ISIS Fund its Reign of Terror,” Newsweek, November 16, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/2014/11/14/how-does-isis-fund-its-reign-terror-282607.html.

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