Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
The Islamic State or ISIS is like any other social movement. It supplies a range of services that are otherwise not provided to specific groups of people. These are chiefly the Sunni populations of the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, the growing and alienated mass of young Muslims in Europe. While ISIS has yet to make major inroads into the Caucasus or Central Asia, its ability to establish itself in Afghanistan to the detriment of the Taliban reveals a certain universal appeal among Sunni Muslim populations worldwide, particularly those living in failing or failed states which represent a particularly fertile soil for ISIS.
Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is illustrative of the problem facing countries seeking to combat the menace of IS. In the instance of failing or failed states like Afghanistan, Yemen, post-US attack Iraq, Syria, and Libya, even the most basic needs like safety and security cannot be taken for granted. As brutal as ISIS may seem, to a population living in a state of anarchy it may appear as salvation. This is not without precedent. The Taliban was also welcomed by many regions of Afghanistan tired of the seemingly endless civil war. In other cases, for example in the Sunni regions of post-US withdrawal Shia-dominated-Iraq or in regions of Syria in the “grey area” of mixed Kurdish and Arab populations, ISIS was perceived as a sectarian defender against the danger posed by other ethnic groups or even the Iraqi government itself. This is one of the reasons why so many towns or cities saw mass executions shortly after ISIS take-over. In many instances, the local population aligned with ISIS militants avenged themselves on other ethnic factions as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Indeed, today one of the biggest problems facing US forces in Syria which support Kurdish formations is avoiding alienating the local Arabs. Even though US forces are in Syria ostensibly for the purpose of fighting ISIS, their utilization of Kurdish militias promotes the attractiveness of ISIS among Sunni Arabs who justly fear Kurd will expel Arabs in order to create Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria.
From the perspective of belonging and self-esteem, the remarkable military effectiveness of ISIS came as a welcome change to many Arabs who have experienced a series of defeats of incompetent Arab armies by Western and Israeli adversaries. This in a very real sense is military successes were perceived by many as rescuing Arab honor and restoring long-lost Arab reputation for fierceness in battle, even among those who did not see eye to eye with ISIS on ideological or religious matters. It also did not hurt that ISIS administration of the territories it occupied was relatively efficient and well financed. ISIS had revenue from oil and looted antiquities smuggled to Turkey and Jordan, and also funds generously provided by Gulf Arab states promoting a revival of Sunni power in Iraq and Syria.
Belonging and self-esteem are also behind the so-called “ISIS-inspired” attacks in Europe and the United States, which are usually perpetrated by young Muslim males who were either born or came of age in Western countries. These terrorists belong to a group which finds it hardest to integrate after moving to a new country whose culture is both attractive and at the same time alien and inaccessible. Since their parents are unable to help them in that process, they feel snubbed, excluded, confined to menial jobs, so they turn to militancy as a means of restoring the sense of self-worth.
Finally when it comes to self-actualization, let’s face it, ISIS offers the prospect of a grand adventure, a de-facto extreme sports tournament with live ammunition which is enormously attractive to young adult males seeking a rite of passage to establish their sense of manhood. That sense of youthful adventure emanates from many ISIS videos, particularly the ones from their almost unopposed “victory tour” through Iraq and Syria in long columns of brand new Toyota trucks before the romanticism of the adventure faded under a rain of Russian bombs. In a very real sense ISIS is a latter-day re-enactment of Attila the Hun and other nomadic raiders of antiquity whose strength only grew with their conquests. Like Attila, ISIS has been able to attract many recruits from conquered territories with their promise of adventure combined with not a small dose of pillage and plunder. After all, given a choice between being a victorious conqueror and a member of an apparently unstoppable jihadist force, or a civilian in an ISIS-administered region subject to possibly draconian laws and economic exploitation, the vast majority of eligible men would opt for the former and even be encouraged by their families to do so in order to curry favor for themselves with their new overlords. This phenomenon gave ISIS that peculiar self-sustaining momentum which allowed it to effortlessly overrun Sunni-majority areas and even make advance into territories where the Sunnis were not represented.
The current Western panic over “fake news” and the escalating effort to censor social media, though currently mainly focused on the “Russian threat”, is an older phenomenon dating to the concerns that young Muslim males living in the West are being “radicalized” by the Internet. In actuality the task of radicalization has been accomplished by Western societies’ inability or unwillingness to assimilate their families. That sense of alienation means these young men do not feel they have positive role models in their own societies. This leads them to seek out “counterculture” alternatives, a phenomenon common among other young males who join gangs, join the illegal drug culture, or engage in other illicit activities. But since the alienation of young Muslim males takes place along ethnic and religious lines, it is only natural they will seek out role models who are Muslim themselves, and ISIS propaganda videos fill that void.
In this rebellious interpretation, their cultural and religious affiliation was facilitated by the current condition of the Western society, in which the image of the strong male as a provider or warrior is being systematically destroyed. While this policy in the main influences indigenous Western populations, it also creates an open niche for the new arrivals who, given their own social and cultural upbringing, interpret this as a permission to engage in criminal activity. What is more, even the police are trying to conceal or “soften” these patterns of behavior which have attracted publicity.
The phenomenon of the ISIS also is a challenge for most of the scholars of “post-materialism” and “post-modernism” who sprang up like mushrooms after the end of the Cold War. The general belief in the West in the 1990s was that, now that the “end of history” was upon us, it meant the end to nationalism, tribalism, identity politics of any kind. Because if identity is constructed, now that world peace was upon us, all of the group identities constructed in the course of earlier centuries and even millennia could be deconstructed and the global society built on the basis of 7 billion atomized specimens of “homo economicus”, rational actors pursuing self-interest framed solely in the terms personal material gain. What the constructivist crowd missed is that the human psyche has a hard-wired need to construct group identities. In the absence of state-sponsored nation-building, non-state actors will naturally rise to fill that void. While this has been a perennial problem for weak and failing states, in the post-Cold War era even the First World countries encountered the problem of identity which they thought they had well in hand.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from all this. The first is that there are many parts of the world, including Central Asia and the Sahel, where ISIS is still not heavily represented but where it could easily take root if the relevant governments fail to take preventive measures or panic and over-react. Secondly, the problem of ISIS cannot be solved through military means alone, nor can it be addressed by propaganda, re-education, or mandatory lectures on the proper interpretation of Islamic scriptures. ISIS has prospered because it found a way to exploit vulnerabilities in MENA societies and even in European ones. It remains to be seen whether they can be addressed by Western states adhering to the neo-liberal economic dogma, even if they are actually interested in defeating ISIS rather than using it as a proxy force. To make matters worse, the United States has of late been displaying interest in Uighur-populated Xinjiang province and is stepping up its economic and political pressure on China. The interest in Central Asia as a political and even military battlefield from which Russia’s and China’s interests could be pushed out also means that Western intelligence services are not yet ready to curtail their reliance on Islamist extremists as proxy warriors. Since even 9/11 failed to dampen the enthusiasm for such practices, the occasional ISIS-inspired or even ISIS-planned act of terrorism in the West is apparently treated as “collateral damage” that does not fundamentally affect the cost-benefit analysis.
After all, thus far the only success at practically eradicating an ISIS-like entity was scored by Russia against the Caucasus Emirate in Chechnya and Dagestan thanks to a comprehensive array of military, political, and economic measures. Unfortunately, Russia does not really have allies other than Syria and Iran in that fight, though that may change should ISIS activity intensify on or within China’s borders. Therefore there is no reason to expect the ISIS phenomenon will fully disappear in the years or even decades to come.