ISIS could trigger Arab revolution

On the darker upper strip of my computer screen I saw my eyebrows rising, as I read, for the first time, President Obama’s mission in Iraq and Syria. Now, as his aides and spokespersons drone on and on about that mission, I get ticked off or, alternately, amused.

Can the United States and its allies really “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL)?

Personally, I deplore this war because of the deaths and devastation it’s going to cause, and the piles of dough we, American taxpayers, are squandering on it. So far the war’s price tag is estimated to be $1 billion a month. It’s likely to rise.

Yet I also see the war having a far-reaching, liberating effect on Arab societies. I see it reviving and strengthening the Arab Spring, which Arab monarchies and dictatorships had foolishly thought they had behind them. More on this in a minute.

Meanwhile, I’m afraid Obama isn’t going to “destroy” ISIS. Remember his repeated vows to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda during the Afghanistan war? Thanks mainly to that war, Al Qaeda and its many affiliates have mushroomed in the Middle East, North and West Africa, and elsewhere. If Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam had any lesson for the United States, it’s that conventional military establishments, however powerful, can’t defeat modern guerrilla forces that are ready to die to end their oppression and avenge their subjugation and humiliation.

Afghan Mujahedeen taught this lesson to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, then the world’s largest conventional military juggernaut. The Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrilla groups in Gaza have driven it home to Israel, the superpower in Middle East.

Ignoring these glaring lessons and lurching into a new war in the hope of stamping out the world’s most powerful Muslim guerrilla force is just insane. Albert Einstein defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

The gruesome atrocities that ISIS has committed against civilians in Iraq and Syria are indeed heinous and inhuman. They’re repugnant to Islamic tenets and principles. Beheading innocent civilians, killing Yazidis and Christians or converting them to Islam by force are certainly not part of the “jihad,” struggle authorized by Islam, they claim to have waged.

Islam sanctions two kinds of jihad. The greater jihad,  jihad al-kabir, is the struggle to resist one’s own immoral impulses and actions. The lesser jihad,  jihad al-saghir, is armed struggle to defend one’s community or territory against outside aggression. ISIS obviously has proclaimed the lesser jihad against the Shiite government and militias in Iraq, the Alawite government in Syria as well as America and its allies. Islam would probably support its armed struggle if it is, or was, meant to resist the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Shiite pogrom against Sunni Arabs in Iraq or the suppression and oppression of people by the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria.

But Islamic law strongly prohibits its inhuman atrocities against civilians, mentioned above. These crimes belong to the categories of the brutal torture, murder and humiliation of mostly innocent Muslims in Abu Gharib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere by American forces. They’re as barbaric as American soldiers peeing on Afghan Muslim corpses, or Israelis slaughtering Gazan children.

In any case, the more America and its allies beat up on ISIS, the more it will attract recruits and monetary support from fellow Sunnis from around the world. Already, some 3,000 American and European Sunni youths and many thousands more from the Muslim world have joined the guerrilla organization. I expect the trend to accelerate in the months and years ahead.

It reminds me of a comment an Iraqi friend made to me during one of my three research trips to Iraq. In 1991 Subhy Haddad, a veteran Iraqi journalist, was working for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. I had him over for lunch at Baghdad’s Sagman Hotel, where I was staying.

Between bites on his eggplant Domla – eggplant with meat, vegetables and spices stuffing – Haddad said I wouldn’t be able to interview some of the Shiite intellectuals and politicians I had on a list. About half of them had fled to Shiite Iran to escape then Sunni Arab President Saddam Hussein’s persecution. If Sunni Arabs (as different from Sunni Kurds) ever got knocked out of power, he continued, Shiites would wreak vengeance on them. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs “would then turn to their fellow Sunnis in the region” for support. Iraqis, he added, were “more loyal to their ethnic groups than to Iraq.”

I remembered Haddad when successive Shiite governments in Baghdad and their brutal militias began slaughtering Sunni Arabs after the United States had overthrown the Saddam regime. Many of those persecuted Sunni Arabs joined Al Qaeda in Iraq to resist the U.S. invasion and the Shiite pogrom. ISIS has resumed that struggle and strengthened it manifold.

That the United States sired ISIS is missing from American discourse on that militant group. Senator Carl Levin was a rare exception. “ISIS did not exist before our invasion of Iraq,” said the chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee at a hearing on the issue. “They are a consequence of our invasion of Iraq.”

Levin echoed a chorus of voices from politicians and pundits in the Middle East. ISIS is “the product of foreign invasion,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

And America’s expedition against ISIS is going to produce the same results as did its war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: spread and bolster the movement, aggravating threats to American security.

If the Sunni Arab militancy in Iraq and Syria has alarmed the United States, it has spawned panic among Arab monarchies, which are its next targets. In fact ISIS, the Al Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist militant groups already are calling for the ouster of repressive Arab monarchies. No wonder five of those monarchies – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates – have jumped on America’s anti-ISIS bandwagon in a desperate effort to save their thrones.

The thousands of Arab youths from Persian Gulf countries who are honing their fighting skills in this war will one day return home. They will almost inevitably revive and fire up the simmering revolutionary movements against their tyrannical monarchies, the most formidable they ever faced.

I don’t expect many of these anachronistic power structures to survive another Arab generation.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He covered seven Middle Eastern countries as a newspaper reporter and conducted fieldwork in five as a research fellow for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

 

 

Americans fed up with right and left

The documentary “2016: Obama’s America” is drawing big crowds in the South, reports my hometown newspaper the Washington Examiner . And  “liberal and conservative voters” watching it are cursing President Obama.

“I have to get some more friends” to see the documentary, says 18-year-old Tammy Birdwell who watched it in Greenville, N.C. “We have to get Obama out.”

The production is based on Dinesh D’Souza’s controversial book The Roots of Obama’s Rage.  D’Souza is a right-wing, indian-born activist and writer who used to be an adviser to the Reagan White House. His book’s underlying theme is that Obama is inspired by the liberal “anti-colonial ideology of his African father.”  That ideology, adds D’Souza, has shaped the policies of the Obama administration. A right-wing documentary luring liberals? It reminds me of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11”, which was praised by many conservatives.  Many Americans are apparently disillusioned by both conservatism and liberalism.

D’Souza’s portrait of Obama is based mostly on the president’s writings and rhetoric.  The author selectively stitched together bits and pieces of them to draw up a profile of the first black American president that repels many  Americans.

As evidence of Obama’s liberalism and anti-colonialism, the author cites his call as a U.S. senator to withdraw American troops from Iraq, opposition to Gen. David Petraeus’ “surge” strategy in Iraq, association with “Marxist professors and structural feminists” at Occidental College, unidentified plan to “spread the wealth” in America, and so forth.

This image starkly contradicts Obama’s policies or actions as president.  President Obama is known the world over for  his embrace and expansion of the Bush administration’s drone war in several Muslim countries, killing hundreds of innocent men, women and children. He continues President Bush’s policies of profiling and surveillance of American Muslims, of denying Guantanamo Bay prisoners the due process of civil law, and of refusing to identify with African American issues and priorities. Early in his administration, Obama alienated many of his liberal and leftist supporters by caving in to Republicans to focus on deficit cuts over jobs and growth.

I knew the president was about to sidestep the causes of the poor and the left when he hired such died-in-the-wool conservative economists as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag to frame and run his economic policies.  But I did not anticipate his adoption of the Bush administration’s militarist agenda.  Washington Post writer Ezra Klein’s characterization of Obama as a “moderate Republican” may apply to many of his domestic policies. In the Middle East and South Asia, his first presidential term looks more like Bush’s third. So the question, again, is why is the right-wing documentary “2016”  riveting liberals? Why do Moore’s liberal documentaries attract many conservatives?

My take on it all is that while vested interests and ideologues remain loyal to ideologies, most everyday Americans are fed up with them. They know in their bones that their political ideologies and economic and financial institutions aren’t answering their real-life problems.  They have been voting Democrats and Republicans to Congress and the Presidency, but their economy remains in a shambles. Too many of them are unemployed or have jobs that don’t relieve them of hardships and despair. America lurches from one bloody and costly war to another, yet Americans have never felt so insecure: airports, government offices, corporations and many other swaths of public space have turned into veritable fortresses, under disturbing and annoying security cordons.

Americans’ allegiance to their political and economic institutions is eroding fast. Yet they continue to shuttle between them because they see no alternative paradigm, or avenues of meaningful living. Well, not yet. New ideological or existential paradigms often come unannounced. We should keep an ear out for them.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist in Washington. He hosts the blog Beyond Freedom.