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making sense of ISIS (II)

22 Feb

Modern islamophobia often takes the form of assumptions that Islam is a uniquely violent religion and therefore Muslims themselves are uniquely violent. It is claimed by islamophobes that the Quran and Sunnah, rather than social, economic and psychological factors, is the cause of jihadist ideology. But violent exhortations to kill unbelievers, misogynistic diatribes and laws which encourage the segregation of believers from the ‘infidel’ occur in most religious texts.

Several prophetic books in the bible describe the Jewish people as like a ‘whore’ or a ‘disobedient wife’ and devote great detail to how it will be ‘defiled’. All religions teach about the theory of a ‘just war’ to ‘defend the faith’. In Thailand and Burma, Buddhist fundamentalists have murdered Muslims with government support in the name of holy war. Christian militias in the Central African Republic have burned, raped and decapitated Muslims as part of a gruesome civil conflict. In one recent interview a French hostage claimed that ISIS torturers did not have copies of the Quran, and nor did they want to encourage the hostages to read it.

What is unique about jihadism is not the fact that Islam is an especially intolerant religion. Many Muslims are motivated by their beliefs and faith in God to help others and create a decent society. What is unique about it is the extent to which jihadi ideas have gained a global appeal thanks to worldwide communications, migration and the catastrophic and short-sighted policies of western governments which enabled these networks to grow and created the conditions for them to gain a mass following. These were assisted by the deliberate policies of states such as Saudi Arabia as well as non-state organisations.

The idea of a worldwide movement of workers to defeat capital has always been regarded as intrinsic to the socialist project. The abolition of nationalism and withering away of the nation state has been regarded as an inherently progressive project. Yet dreams of a borderless world ushering in the end of capitalism and a communist utopia so far seem to be misplaced. The rise of technology and mass communications, coupled with the phenomenon of mass migration and trade, created ideal conditions for the growth of reactionary ideologies with a global base.

For example, the so-called ‘counter-jihad’ movement, which claims to be defending ‘western civilisation’ against Muslim barbarians, has enabled European far-righters to forge links with Zionists, Hindu nationalists and African militias in a common islamophobic ‘struggle.’ Even Nazism has had to rebrand itself as ‘white nationalism’ and promote ideas of the ‘white race’ which is threatened worldwide by Jews and immigration. The notion of ‘white pride worldwide’ has replaced German racial superiority for today’s Nazis.

Jihadism is arguably one of the most successful of these deterritorialised reactionary movements.Since 9/11 it has seared itself into worldwide consciousness. It kills around five thousand people every month, the overwhelming majority Muslim civilians in poor countries. It appeals to the religious identity of the ‘ummah’ in order to promote the concept of a global apocalyptic struggle between Muslims and everyone else. So it is a kind of ‘Muslim nationalism’ which has grown due to global media and the increasing sense of a common experience worldwide. The Afghanistan and Bosnian conflicts, taking place in a time when images could be quickly seen around the world, fuelled the rise of jihadism. Unprecedented numbers of fighters from overseas participated in these conflicts and were ignored and given ideological and financial support by western states, all too happy for assistance against the Soviet Union and later the Serbs.

The sight of helpless people slaughtered by Serb nationalists in Bosnia motivated many to fight from overseas. While the majority were not convinced jihadists for a significant number their experiences cemented beliefs in religious warfare. The international links made between fighters were to be significant in the growth of global jihadi networks. These networks were largely ignored by western security services as they fitted with foreign policy objectives. Margaret Thatcher gave a speech praising mujihadeen fighters in 1981 and there is even footage of her joining in the ‘takbir‘.

Jihadis from everywhere in the world participated in what was seen as one front in a global battleground. Yet when they returned home they were usually ignored because it was assumed they had no motive for waging jihad anywhere else. But the Gulf war and the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the inaction of the west during atrocities like Srebrenica, fuelled the growing sympathy for religious warfare against non-Muslim countries and America in particular. Osama bin Laden, for example, was enraged at the Saudi state allowing its territory to be used as a base for US troops.

Incidents like the Salman Rushdie affair and later, the horrific scenes in Bosnia in the 1990s meant that such views were able to gain a wider following in the west. People with experience of jihad overseas returned to their native countries and were able to inform their friends and families of their views and show them videos of what had happened, and purchase largely unregulated material by jihadi preachers. They were able to put across their ideas by talking to people that they knew. The spread of the internet and global telecommunications meant they could stay in contact with other ‘mujihadeen’ in a way unimaginable previously.

The attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 changed the political climate in western countries irrevocably. Whereas western islamophobia had usually taken the form of prejudices about immigration, this changed on 9/11. The sight of the planes crashing into the towers and the murder of almost three thousand people in the world’s richest country on a single day meant that to many Islam itself could be deemed as a threat. Islamophobic views and far right rhetoric began to grow in acceptability. Despite the denials of politicians that the ‘war on terror’ was a war on Islam their actions appeared to many Muslims – and non-Muslims – to show otherwise. As one man put it in a BBC documentary last year, many Muslims feel ‘under the microscope‘.

The illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were justified by the concept of security. The ‘war on terror’ led to people being held without charge in Guantanamo and other sites operating in dubious legal terrain. Vladimir Putin began his presidency by conducting a horrific war in Chechnya and installing Ramzan Kadyrov, a corrupt, brutal warlord as its leader. Arab regimes close to western allies used the excuse of terrorism for vicious attacks on dissent; the Saudi government has even equated atheism with terrorism.

Saudi Arabia has been promoting its form of hardline salafism across the world for decades as a form of ‘soft power‘ to build influence in Muslim communities overseas. Saudi government agencies have exported material promoting antisemitic, anti-Shia, and hardline fundamentalist views to mosques and religious schools in the UK, US and other countries. Some Saudi-funded schools in the UK were shut down when they were found to teach extremist material. Its brand of sharia law mandates punishments similar to ISIS, such as public beheadings, flogging and amputations.  It is officially forbidden to practice another religion in Saudi Arabia and the death penalty is in force for apostacy.

While the case for the Saudi state’s role in jihadism can be overstated, it has contributed to the growth of such movements with discrimination against Shia Muslims, repeated sectarian statements by state-funded religious figures and the government’s promotion of fundamentalism overseas. With the help of Saudi Arabian foreign policy, a fundamentalist form of Islam has assumed a position of prominence in countries like the UK which it did not previously have. Salafist doctrine is used as justification for destroying many of Islam’s holiest sites and historical heritage – many of them particularly sacred to Shia – and replacing them with monuments to capital. Religious police interfere with the prayers of Muslims on Hajj pilgrimages to ensure they are worshipping ‘properly’.

As the Saudi state is a useful ally in the Middle East – it is the UK’s biggest arms customer – these excesses have been largely ignored. When King Abdullah died the flag was flown half mast on British government buildings. Yet the Saudi regime is also a source of rage for jihadis angry at its repression of anti government groups and selective accommodation with non-Muslim allies. ISIS sharply criticise the Saudi Arabian authorities for relaxing sex segregation and promoting scholarships to ‘infidel’ countries for Saudi students.

In the UK a repressive state apparatus has been used against Muslims and other parts of the community, with people being arrested for talking about riots on Facebook, or for writing poems online. Yet the current and previous British governments have encouraged the growth of religious fundamentalism. Faith schools and the outsourcing of social services to religious organisations encourage sectarianism and unchallenged hardline religious views. Schools are able to impose rules such as compulsory modest dress codes. Beth Dins in Haredi Jewish communities and shariah courts, which deal with divorce and inheritance rights, have emerged as a parallel legal system. Many using them are unaware of their rights under secular law.

Religious groups’ increasing role in providing social welfare such as support for homeless people or assistance for people living in poverty means that they become hard to challenge, since they fulfil needs which are not met by the state or by “secular” community organisations. They fill a vacuum left by the collapse of community organisations and often appear to be pure and non corruptible. In Coventry, the contract for homeless services was awarded to the Salvation Army, which discriminates against LGBT people and believes homosexual activity is a sin. In London and Manchester, Haredi Jews have their own ‘faith based’ police service, the shomrim.

The authorities guiding these groups often oppose community engagement with the secular world or anything that could cause ‘dirty linen’ to be aired in public. A Channel 4 documentary showed Haredi Jewish victims of child abuse being instructed not to tell the police as it was allegedly a sin to inform gentile authorities on other Jews. Religious leaders are able to bolster their own power by promoting fear of the outside world. These parallel structures are given state approval. They provide a way for the state to cut provisions and take responsibility out of its hands.

The role of charities and ‘faith based’ outreach groups in recruiting people for religious warfare should not be understated. In 2011, the Charity Commission said that the most deadly problem it faced was the use of charity funds for Islamist extremism. The Muslim community is far from alone here. Young Hindu boys attending HSS youth camps are told that Christians have a ‘secret conspiracy’ to ‘destroy Hindu history’ and that Islam is the worst religion in the world. The neo-Nazi far right have used their charitable status to set up ‘English community groups’ which promote burning down mosques.

Some charities and religious groups encourage immigration to Israel and membership of its military, which last summer killed over 2500 people in fifty days, the overwhelming majority civilians. There are countless agencies offering programmes that aim to create a sense of loyalty to Israel. The popular ‘Birthright’ trips aim to foster young Jews’ loyalty to Israel by allowing young people to travel there for free. The Israeli military have held ‘question and answer’ sessions at synagogues for those wishing to fight for the IDF.

State and political party encouragement for ‘community leaders’ and an increased drive towards religious segregation in education and social provision, and a largely unregulated sector of private religious schools, has created a fertile ground for religious fundamentalism to flourish. Politicians are often able to use endorsements by religious leaders in order to get votes. Religious fundamentalists are thus able to gain important positions in mosques, churches and other institutions. Support to ‘soft’ Islamists such as those in the Muslim Council of Britain, toleration of practices such as gender discrimination in family law if it is religiously based, are paradoxically coupled with islamophobic dog whistle attacks by politicians. As the state has no legitimacy this means that religious figures are able to develop their own. As Egerton writes, almost all those involved in jihadi terrorist plots in the west had prior contact with fundamentalist preachers. According to one study, two preachers are followed by 60% of foreign ISIS members using social media accounts.

The recent massacre by jihadis of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris has been used by the French government  as an excuse to clamp down on anti government criticism. The idea of laicite (secularism) is applied unequally, with many French public schools holding Masses and serving fish on Fridays. Churches built before 1905 have access to state funds, whereas mosques do not. Children and parents in France will soon have to sign a pledge to support its so-called secularism. This ‘secularism’ is used against some religions, but not others, such as Catholicism. In the name of supposedly promoting free speech and ‘western values’, European states such as France resemble their counterparts in the Muslim world for whom religion is a weapon of state control. 

In Muslim countries, punishments for blasphemy go hand in hand with insulting government policy. In Morocco, you can be jailed for insulting Islam, insulting the king, and for saying that occupied Western Sahara is not part of Morocco. Other Muslim states have used Islamist gangs to break strikes and terrorise workers’ movements.

In Azerbaijan, the fight against “terrorism” has taken on an ethnic dimension with the majority of government raids against “salafis” taking place against minority groups in the north of the country. They are far from the only ones. In Burma, violent islamophobia, promoted by Buddhist organisations with the complicity and support of the state, is combined with the aggressive enforcement of blasphemy laws In the UK people who have bought Charlie Hebdo magazines have had their details taken down by police. There are growing calls for blasphemy laws based on ‘civility‘ to Prophet Mohammed and other sacred figures.

The parameters of acceptable political debate are becoming increasingly narrowly defined across Europe with restrictions on free speech covering an ever widening range of subjects. This is not purely driven by the state but increasingly lobbying and activist groups trying to silence people they disagree with and corporations silencing criticism by workers. The recent proposals to ban antisemites (but not islamophobes) from social media will not persuade people convinced of a Jewish conspiracy that it does not exist. They will do the exact opposite.

Meanwhile stories such as the firebombing of a synagogue going unpunished because the attackers want to “raise awareness of Gaza” only feed resentment among non-Muslim populations. The far right are increasingly perceived to be the only ones willing to discuss these issues. Many young Muslims also report that due to fear or lack of knowledge, these issues are not discussed in mosques at all. Imams and others often have few ideas of the issues affecting young people and may be little help to someone already speaking to jihadis. These developments coupled with the rise of religious fundamentalism and state violence create a dangerous atmosphere, polarising public opinion based on religious identification and alienating people from each other.

Government austerity measures in the UK, increasing prices and falling living standards have particularly affected women and members of minority communities. The number of women murdered by their partners has sharply risen. Last year 19 police forces reported a rise in homophobic attacks. Despite the advances made such as gay marriage and improved employment rights, there are increasingly few places for gay people to socialise, especially outside London, and employment protections are rendered meaningless for many with the introduction of fees for tribunals.

As people from a particular ‘community’ are lumped together it makes dissent within that community harder. ‘Apostates’ and those who take progressive stances on creationism, women, LGBT issues and the actions of particular states are increasingly pressured to keep their mouth shut. Shia Muslims in the UK often go to Sunni mosques when there is no Shia mosque available, but this is rapidly becoming more difficult. This is not helped by hypocritical calls for ‘integration’ and attacks from outside the religious community. It is not helped by the devastating results of western foreign policy towards the iddle east, which are apparent to all and can be viewed instantly online.

Muslims have often borne the brunt of austerity measures in the UK and Europe. They are more likely than any other group to be out of work or in low-paid jobs. They are more likely to be in substandard housing. This situation has worsened in the last ten years. A third of social housing tenants, for example, say their standard of living has worsened in the last two years. Prisons in the west have also been breeding grounds for ‘gangster jihadis’, many of whom were not originally from Muslim backgrounds. Rather than a period of regular Muslim belief before being radicalised, people are converting directly to jihadi ideology. Many are attracted by the discipline and routine of this lifestyle and the sense of global community it offers.

Disaffected young people who do not identify with their parents’ culture, which is often perceived as old fashioned, patriarchal and restrictive, or the ‘values’ of the state may turn instead to religiously based ideas. This serves to cause increased fractures of society on religious and sectarian lines, particularly when ‘charities’ and states such as Saudi Arabia – or Israel – use their influence within minority communities to promulgate their views. At the same time the fact that religion, so heavily promoted in ‘faith based’ initiatives is coopted by the state is not lost on those who turn to fundamentalists who sell out less easily.

Much has been made of the fact that ISIS were so violent that they were kicked out of al-Qaeda. Not least by al-Qaeda themselves, who are using their rivals’ brutality to reposition themselves as more ‘principled’. A Jordanian al-Qaeda cleric was released following the recent murder of Muath al-Kasasbeh. He went on national television to say that ISIS’s actions had nothing to do with Islam, which was quoted approvingly on Twitter by the US state department.

The US government even attempted to use him to reason with ISIS clerics. The catastrophic policy of encouraging jihadi groups in order to stave off what is seen as a greater danger, whether it is ISIS or ‘reds under the bed’ threatens to repeat itself.  In fact al-Qaeda’s leadership were always acutely aware of the danger of alienating ‘soft’ support in the Muslim world. Zarqawi’s relentless bombing of Shia targets was seen as a distraction from the main jihad.

But the exit from al-Qaeda left the organisation free to concentrate on ‘remaining and expanding’. Rather than building a caliphate at some point in the future, they could take advantage of the chaos in Iraq and start building one now. ISIS leaders such as al-Baghdadi were imprisoned by the Americans in Camp Bucca, but continued building the organisation in jail right under their noses. Prisoners’ experiences of places such as Camp Bucca and the notorious Abu Ghraib, and being constantly surrounded by jihadist ideas and the likes of al-Baghdadi who prisoners were expected to show “respect” to, helped ISIS to gain many followers inside, unchallenged.

The extreme violence ISIS uses has to some extent become normalised in many parts of the Middle East, and part of many people’s everyday reality. There is still significant sympathy for the organisation in Jordan, particularly in poorer towns.

The years since 9/11, and the years since the global economic crisis began especially, have seen a catastrophic decline in the living standards of millions across the world. We live in a world where people are increasingly disconnected from each other, which makes it difficult to empathise or understand each other’s lives. Capitalism has taught many people that human life is worthless and given sadists and the power hungry the ability to control life and death.

As one Kurdish organisation warned, ISIS’s twisted version of Islam can appeal to those whose lives are out of control and are “looking for a leader“. The attraction of this ideology is no longer purely based on religious fundamentalism, if it ever was. The strict rules and righteous anger of jihadi organisations, based on an identity that unites people across the world, that transcends racial and class barriers, that seems to fight injustice, can seem an attractive alternative to the hypocrisy and violence of modern capitalism. We should not assume this is a purely Islamic issue. It affects everyone.

Note: For more on deterritorialism and jihadism please read Frazer Egerton’s book ‘Jihad and the West’. I also used the book ‘Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalisation and Terrorism in Europe’ to research this piece.