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Talking Policy: Fawaz Gerges on the Islamic State

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, recently published ISIS: A History, a book that analyzes and contextualizes the Islamic State’s rise to power. Gerges argues that decades of sectarian violence have strengthened today’s global jihadi movement. In order to curb it, the Islamic State must be militarily defeated; even more importantly, however, the Middle East must reconstruct itself based on good governance, rule of law, and tolerance. In an interview with World Policy Journal, Gerges discusses the origins of the Islamic State, the ongoing rebirth of Salafi jihadism, and the long-delayed Arab Spring.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: ISIS’s rise to prominence is recent, and its time as a headline in mainstream Western news media is even shorter. When did you decide to write ISIS: A History? Did any particular event prompt you?

FAWAZ GERGES: ISIS is really an extension of the global jihadist movement. It has different tactics and different strategies, but it’s part of the same family. It’s part of the same gene pool. So my book on ISIS is a comparative book. It contextualizes ISIS within the global jihadist movement and the ideology of Salafi jihadism.

I was as surprised as other scholars by the swift resurgence of ISIS in 2013 and 2014. With this resurgence, this rebirth, I was motivated to take a closer look at this particular movement because ISIS is really just a different name for al-Qaida in Iraq. By 2008, al-Qaida in Iraq was, for all purposes, defeated. And then you had 2010, which was really a critical moment because Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of ISIS, basically was anointed as the leader for al-Qaida in Iraq.

For me, as a scholar who has spent two almost two decades researching the global Islamist movement, I think the resurgence of ISIS in 2013 and 2014 was also a critical moment. It’s really when I decided to really research the mutation—I don’t call it a movement, it’s really a mutation—of al-Qaida in Iraq. So ISIS is in many ways just a different name for al-Qaida in Iraq.

I am really a historian at heart, so the book looks at the background and context of ISIS within the logic of Salafi jihadism. But the book is as much about Islamist politics as it is about al-Qaida in Iraq. You cannot understand the resurgence of ISIS without understanding the organic crisis in the Arab Islamic world. And what I mean by the organic crisis is the breakdown of government institutions, the existence of economic vulnerabilities, the existence of political authoritarianism, the creeping sectarianism, the lack of hope, the blockage of the system, and, very importantly, the derailment of the Arab Spring. So really this book is not just about ISIS, per se, this book is about the drivers, the causes, that have allowed ISIS to become the most powerful Salafi jihadism movement in the past 100 years.

WPJ: While you write that the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was responsible for the initial rupture of Iraqi society, your book emphasizes the failure of al-Maliki to build strong and healthy governance in the years following. What action, if any, do you believe Western powers could have taken a decade ago to help minimize today’s situation with ISIS?

FG: There is no single cause that really explains the resurgence of ISIS. This is a very important point. Many commentators and journalists really simplify it a great deal. The global jihadist movement existed before the U.S. invasion, and the most important factor in the rise of al-Qaida in Iraq was not only the invasion. It was also the dismantling and destruction of Iraqi institutions. This allowed al-Qaida to infiltrate politics, to plant itself within the local Sunni communities, and to depict itself as a defender of the Sunnis. Besides the U.S. invasion and the destruction of state institutions, the third factor in the rise of al-Qaida in Iraq was the dismal failure of the post-Saddam Hussein political elite in Iraq to mend the ideological and social rift between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.

However, there are two major mistakes made by the U.S. that could have prevented not only the emergence of al-Qaida in Iraq but also the deepening of sectarian tensions.

The first one was the dissolution of the Iraqi army and security forces. In one stroke, the U.S.-led occupation authorities dissolved the army, thus turning three hundred thousand Iraqis into potential rebels. And secondly, sadly, the U.S. helped construct a sectarian based regime in Iraq by dividing the spoils along sectarian lines, as opposed to building a system based on citizenship and the rule of law. These mistakes are still with us today. Iraq does not really have a functioning, effective army, because the army had to be built from scratch.

These three factors: the U.S. invasion, the dissolving of Iraqi institutions, and replacing Saddam Hussein’s regime with a sectarian-based system really helped al-Qaida in Iraq, which is now called ISIS. Do you see what I’m trying to say? ISIS is not alien. It did not parachute out of nowhere. It is an extension of al-Qaida in Iraq. But in terms of ideology, in terms of worldview, in terms of structure, it is more effective and more brutal and powerful because it has reorganized leadership and integrated thousands of former military officers of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

WPJ: One of ISIS’s greatest mistakes has been its miscalculation of its own military capacity. What has prompted this overestimation on the part of its military leaders?

FG: ISIS is not the only Salafi jihadist group to monstrously miscalculate. Two lessons I have learned about the global jihadist movement through my research over the decades: It is resilient, it is dynamic, it has the capacity for self-renewal and regeneration. Many of the researchers who have penned the obituary of the global jihadist movement are basically surprised by the capacity of this movement to renew itself.

The second lesson, which is really in parallel, is that they are their own worst enemies. The totalitarianism, the obsession with military capacity, the fanaticism: They are blinded by power and ideology. Therefore, they monstrously miscalculate. Like al-Qaida did, ISIS is turning the entire world against it, by alienating more and more Sunnis who live in these territories, and by not appreciating that governance requires compromise, adaptation, and tolerance. And also, finally and most importantly, it does not really have a positive vision for governance. Initially, many Sunnis fought under the banner of ISIS not because they believe in its totalitarian religious ideology, but because they were angry at the sectarian-based regimes in Iraq and Damascus. But more and more Sunnis who live in al-Raqqah, who live in Mosul, come to realize that ISIS really does not have anything to offer them except chaos and fighting and death.

So my take is that ISIS is digging its own grave. ISIS has turned the entire world against it. Of all states, Turkey was almost a neutral state. I would never say that Turkey supported ISIS, but it was a neutral state. And ISIS has succeeded in turning even Turkey against it both in Syria and in Iraq.

WPJ: You point out another weakness in ISIS’s long-term staying power: Its imbalance of soft versus hard power. Do you believe that ISIS is capable of correcting this imbalance? What would be the consequences if it did?

FG: ISIS’s leaders, like al-Baghdadi and his inner circle, are offering themselves as an alternative to the discredited and failed secular authoritarian order in the Middle East. The idea of the caliphate from the beginning tried to fill a vacuum of ideas, not only a vacuum of security. What al-Baghdadi is saying is that he has an idea, and the idea is called the Islamic State.

So ISIS leaders have an idea, but they do not construct a positive, lasting vision. They did provide services to occupied territories initially, but one cannot govern with just bread—one needs to provide a long-term vision of positive governance. How do you provide productive bases? How do you manage societies? How do you give people hope and a stake in the existing order? How do you convince them you have the tools and the influence needed for governance?

Remember, the reason why ISIS has done as well as it has is because it has blended with rebellious communities. People came to ISIS not because of its ideologies, but because they felt alienated. So what ISIS had to do was convince them that they were offering a good alternative. But it has not succeeded. More and more people in the areas controlled by ISIS are dispirited. They are desperate to leave. There’s no food, water, electricity, or hope. That’s why I say that ISIS is digging its own grave: because ISIS is basically alienating a large segment of the public that lives in its own territories. They are using domination as opposed to positive values like tolerance, legitimacy, and compromise. Remember, we are talking about Syria and Iraq, which are two very socially developed countries in terms of cosmopolitanism and openness. This is not Afghanistan. ISIS is trying to govern Syria and Iraq like the Taliban have done in Afghanistan. And sooner or later, once its military capabilities decline, as they seem to be now, you will see popular restiveness turning into rebellion and anger against ISIS.

WPJ: You predict that ISIS will eventually fall. However, there are few signs of global jihadism dying out. Do you see another non-state actor in the Middle East rising to power again soon?

FG: My take on it is that ISIS will most likely be militarily defeated. But this does not mean that ISIS or its ideology is going to disappear. Salafi jihadism is here to stay. And this religious totalitarianism is bound to gain more followers in the years ahead. Why? Because you have broken institutions, creeping sectarianism, civil war, and we know that these groups are nourished in chaotic situations in conflict zones. The U.S.-led coalition and the local populations could militarily defeat ISIS and al-Qaida. But you have to deal with the ideological underpinnings. You have to fill the vacuum of ideas.

The big point I am trying to make is that you have to reconstruct the state on a new basis: citizenship, rule of law, reconciliation between different social groups, transparency, and an end to the tyranny that has ravaged the Islamic world. If this does not happen, ISIS may be militarily defeated, but it will rise again. Al-Qaida in Iraq was defeated in 2008, but look what we have now. We have ISIS. ISIS could be defeated in a year, but in three years you could have an even more brutal Salafi jihadist group, unless you delegitimize this ideology by rebuilding the state on new foundations and give people hope and a stake in the emerging order.

I’m not just talking about employment and educational opportunities. I’m talking about really reconstructing the state system. If you tell me how to define ISIS, I would say ISIS is a symptom of the breakdown of the state system in the heart of the Middle East. ISIS would not have done as well as it has without the sectarianism and the raging civil wars in heart of the Arab world. So when you don’t put out these fires, you have an ideology that is nourished on chaos and war and abject poverty—and sectarianism. Sectarianism is really the bread and butter of ISIS. If you ask me what ISIS is primarily nourished on, I would say the rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

WPJ: What will post-ISIS governance look like in the region? Do you believe that the ideals of the Arab Spring will continue to spread and grow, despite current setbacks?

FG: The derailment of the Arab Spring allowed ISIS to infiltrate the social and political fabric of the region. We have to go back and reclaim the aspirations of millions of people who basically came out and called for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These values mean citizenship, it means that you have to reconstruct the existing authoritarian state along new lines. Without reconciliation and reconstructing the state system on a new foundation, I fear that non-state actors, including ISIS and al-Qaida and other ethnic and sectarian militias, will likely continue to be important players in the politics of the Middle East.

WPJ: Is there anything else you would like readers to know?

FG: Many people ask what the relative weight of religion is in this situation. The question is not whether ISIS is Islamic or not. It is Islamic. It uses a very narrow and strict interpretation of the religion to promote its ideology. But ISIS is an ideological movement. It has an ideological project called Salafi jihadism. The fact that it cites from the scripture should not blind us to the political-ideological project that ISIS and al-Qaida both have. It indeed legitimizes and rationalizes itself by narrowly and selectively citing from the scriptures. However, politics and ideology are key to understanding the emergence of not only ISIS but global jihadism as a whole, including al-Qaida in Iraq. Religion is important. I’m not underestimating the role of religion. But it is important inasmuch as it allows ISIS to promote, mask, and sell its ideological project to rebellious Sunni communities in sectarian based societies. 

*****

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!  

[Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson]

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