Monday, January 22, 2018

The Once and Future Arab Spring

One of the most under-reported stories of 2017 - to our great collective shame - was the almost complete destruction of the Islamic State's caliphate (minus a few holdouts). This was done mostly through local forces enabled by newly invigorated USA-led Western capabilities in support. Russia deserves a best supporting actor mention as well - but that is a different topic for a different day.

There are many more chapters in the Long War to come, but as this one comes to and end, we need to remember how we got here.

Over at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain has an interesting take that deserves your consideration. Some of his writing comes from an angle you may not read all that often.
Among the revolutionaries there was a democratic trend that included liberal activists, nationalists, and Islamist groups willing to engage in the electoral process. Alongside the democrats was a violent, wildly utopian religious movement launched by groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda that tried to destroy Muslim societies and recreate them as a “caliphate” — an imaginary community where all the world’s Muslims would ostensibly live happily-ever-after under the rule of jihadis.

The democratic movements were largely crushed by the brutal response of local dictators. The jihadis, meanwhile, briefly managed to achieve a version of their caliphate, only to see it destroyed in a final cataclysm. But while the core idea that animated the Arab democrats continues to be attractive despite its repression, the utopian project of the jihadis has been undermined in critical ways by its failure.
IS should never have existed - but there was an opening when the chaos of the Syrian civil war coincided with the disastrous early withdrawal of USA forces from Iraq. It took the opportunity and created a nightmare.

Its strategic Center of Gravity was always the religious justification for its existence. It had to be destroyed by Muslim forces, on local terms, in order to make sure that CoG was thoroughly undermined. The Trump administration annihilation policy in support of local forces made this more effective.
The defeat of the Islamic State might ironically be a letdown for some in the West. Western politicians, military officials, and their assorted hangers-on in the media and think tank world have already begun planning for a long war against “global jihadism,” an analogue to the Cold War that would justify their inflated budgets and provide a continued sense of purpose. Unlike communism or nationalism, however, there’s little indication that apocalyptic jihadism as an ideology is attractive or sustainable enough to meaningfully compete with Western democracies in the way that those ideologies did. Diehard Islamic State sympathizers may continue committing individual acts of terrorism for the foreseeable future and mini proto-states pledging allegiance to the group will still proliferate, but the rapid rise and fall of the caliphate demonstrates an important lesson about the fundamentally self-destructive nature of millenarian movements.
Exactly. Recognize what they are, ID their weakness, destroy it. Notsomuch a national or ethnic movement - but a movement based on a cult-like belief system - but here is a critical point that the author mentions but underplays; there is not an insignificant religious basis for their actions. Destroying such systems are not easy, but once defeated, the intrinsic fragility of its foundation can make its immediate defeat effective. We did it with Nazism, and mostly to State Communism. Both of those movements have something in common with Islamic terrorist movements;
Instead of a return to traditional values, Saleh describes Salafi jihadism as the latest iteration of a quintessentially modern phenomenon: nihilism. A philosophy with its roots in 19th century Europe, nihilism denies that the material world and life itself hold any intrinsic value or meaning. While nihilism does not inevitably lead to violence, its world-denying tenets helped inspire numerous campaigns of terrorism by its adherents. In Europe, where atheism had already become normative, local expressions of nihilism were atheistic. But in Muslim-majority societies like Syria, nihilism “looks for its pillars of support in the religion of Islam,” Saleh says.

The nihilism analogy goes deeper into the practices of groups like the Islamic State. Suicide and murder are normally considered to be grave sins by Muslims. But during periods of widespread crisis and trauma, radical groups like the Islamic State exploit a cognitive opening to try to portray these acts as acceptable, even positive. The religious concept of an afterlife is also twisted to support a nihilistic worldview, by devaluing acts committed in the material world in favor of a promised hereafter.

Yet this radical inversion of traditional values is not one that has shown itself to be appealing to large groups of people in Muslim countries. Rather than a mass movement with deep social and cultural roots, Saleh says that jihadism relies mainly on exploiting conditions of crisis to coerce the support of people who would normally find its tenets repellent.
Though I'm not in full alignment with Saleh quoted here, he is not wrong on all counts. Percentage matter - especially when the majority is powerless and supine - but this is a global war in the small details vice broad fronts;
“There is a lot of attention to jihadism because it feeds into the narrative of the U.S. global war against terrorism and because Western media and politicians are generally obsessed with Islam. But I don’t think we should be deceived by this — we are not talking about a civilizational conflict here,” says Saleh. “These are armed groups that combine religion with military training and fascist educational indoctrination. But they are mainly concerned with violence. They do not have any meaningful social, political, or cultural base, nor do they offer any real emancipatory potential for Muslim societies.”
There is one big difference between the IS's philosophical underpinnings and those of the Nazis and Communists the author references for comparison; they were secular philosophies - this is religious.

For all its faults, there are hooks in Islamic teachings to justify what the IS did. The IS is almost gone, but the hooks remain - just waiting for someone else using a different name and justification to hang their bag on.
While the movements were not morally equivalent, sometimes the intensity of the conversion experience for jihadi recruits and former communist revolutionaries were not dissimilar. Arthur Koestler described his initial belief that Soviet communism would liberate the oppressed masses of Europe as a feeling of “mental rapture,” in which “the new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull [and] the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw.” The euphoria of that conversion was equaled only by the pain of his eventual disillusionment.

“Though we wore blinkers, we were not blind,” Koestler reflected. “Even the most fanatical among us could not help noticing that all was not well in our movement.”

Surveying the destruction of ancient cities like Raqqa and Mosul, and the millions of shattered lives left in the wake of the Islamic State’s failed revolution, it’s hard not see the group, now stripped of its power, as anything other than the latest, most fanatic attempt to remedy the ills of long-tyrannized societies. Although jihadis may be killed and their ideology may even fall out of favor, until the people of the region experience genuine emancipation, there is unlikely to be an end to terrorist violence, nor to radical armed groups promising to bring heaven down to earth by any means necessary.
There is much unfinished business in the Arab world and the non-Arab Muslim outer belts.

History is not done here - and for the West, the Long War is not going away.

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