The religious façade is merely another element of IS propaganda, the mobilising ideology that provides a veneer of legitimacy for its existence
Yesterday, in the Daily Mail, Piers Morgan wrote about his “uncontrollable rage” at watching the video of the Jordanian pilot, Muaz al-Kasasbeh, being burned alive in a cage by the Islamic State.
“If any Muslim remains in any doubt as to whether this is the right time to stand up and cry ‘NOT IN MY NAME OR MY RELIGION!’ then I suggest they too watch the video of Lieutenant al-Kasabeh [sic] being burned alive.
He could be YOU.
This is YOUR war.”
Pathetically, neither he nor the Mail’s copyeditors could even be bothered to spell al-Kasasbeh’s name properly.
“Any Muslim who won’t stand up to these barbarians,” screamed his headline, “must watch it too.”
Morgan went on to compare IS to Nazis due to their aspirations to exterminate “large numbers” of people, pursue “power through death and mayhem”, and inflict “physical and mental torture and murder so depraved that it defies belief or reasoned understanding.”
The war on Islamic State will only be won, he concluded, “by the Muslim world turning on ISIS, rooting them out of their societies and bringing them to justice. Of the legal or fatal kind.” Only when “hundreds of millions of Muslims who’ve had enough of seeing Islam’s name and reputation being desecrated in this way” take action against IS “militarily, financially and politically”, can it be defeated.
What role religion?
Morgan’s rage is an entirely appropriate response to such a horrifying atrocity. I too feel that rage. But unfortunately, the rest of his prescription for IS’s defeat is so soaked in delusion and fantasy that it would send us down a path of no return resulting in prolonged catastrophe.
This is precisely the path we appear to be on.
Morgan’s rage-filled screed is precisely the ill-conceived, reactionary response that IS’s disgusting propaganda video is supposed to provoke: a mindless call for war.
And that is exactly what IS wants.
By pinning responsibility for the defeat of IS on hundreds of millions of Muslims across the planet, Morgan makes the mistake of presuming that this is a war about religion.
But the religious façade is merely yet another element of IS propaganda, the mobilising ideology that provides the veneer of legitimacy for IS’s existence, violence and contempt for the rule of law.
So thin is IS’s veneer of religious motivation that French journalist Didier François, who was held hostage by IS for 10 months before his eventual release, revealed that his captors were so uninterested in religion they didn’t even have copies of the Qur’an, and never engaged in religious discussions.
“There was never really discussion about texts or – it was not a religious discussion,” François told CNN. “It was a political discussion. It was more hammering what they were believing than teaching us about the Quran. Because it has nothing to do with the Quran. They didn’t even have the Quran; they didn’t want even to give us a Quran.”
One extremist Saudi preacher, Sheikh Mani’i al-Mani’i, who last year declared on Twitter that he had joined the “land of jihad” and pledged allegiance to IS, ended up fleeing to the Saudi embassy in Turkey. IS, he told Saudi TV, promotes a religion which “is not the Islam I know.” IS may parade and enforce a self-styled system of “Shariah law”, but its roots in Islamic texts are mostly a matter of caricature: black burkas, brutal stoning and beheadings, rigid regulation of prayer, excommunication of anyone who rejects its legitimacy as an infidel deserving summary execution, and so on.
Young aspiring IS jihadist supporters and recruitees are rarely motivated by any detailed exegesis of religious texts, Foreign Policy reports, as opposed to “anger and humiliations big and small”, all manner of political grievances, and a life of hopelessness mired in unemployment and drug addiction.
The implication is obvious. Muslims worldwide can scream “not in my name” until they’re blue in the face. Indeed, they are. I’m one of them. The problem is that IS doesn't care.
To cure a disease, one needs to first diagnose it correctly. A disease as mind-blowingly disturbing and insidious as IS requires a process of diagnosis that is commensurate.
Distorted pseudo-religious ideologies don’t become capable of conquering vast areas of land and indoctrinating thousands of foot-soldiers, out of the blue, purely due to the power of fanatical belief. For violent extremism to translate into terrorism requires a material infrastructure: not just ideas, but the capacity to transmit those ideas, receptivity to those ideas, and concomitantly, the organisational training and networks to act on those ideas.
In the case of IS, Islamist ideology is so far removed from any meaningful textual basis in canonical Islamic texts that anyone who claims that the principal approach to defeating IS is to do so through the realm of ideas and Islamic texts is living in a dream world.
This doesn’t mean that Islamist ideology plays no role here - but we must understand precisely that role before jumping to faulty conclusions and ill-conceived reactions. Islamist ideology is critical for one reason only: It provides a movement with no basis in Islam whatsoever the cultural and linguistic resources to manufacture an appearance of exclusive religious legitimacy, for people stupid and angry enough to swallow it. The point here is that its modus operandi is not even mildly related to rational discourse on theology, but on inculcating blind and unquestioning obedience to its supremacy through the use of powerful symbolism, repetition and perpetual propaganda, proffered with the tantalising promise of holy salvation.
As such, it attracts recruits whose capacity for rational thinking is already becoming closed, whose circumstances make them susceptible to such psychopathic propaganda, and whose outlook on life is forged by experiences creating grievances that normalise the practice of extreme violence.
The question, though, is how such a movement managed to become so powerful, in such a short space of time?
Fire from above
Go back little more than a decade, and we begin to see a glimpse of the answer. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a brutal sectarian dictatorship that oppressed the Kurdish and Shiite minorities. But it was also staunchly secular, and reasonably developed, with a strong economy and one of the best health and education systems in the world. There was not a sign of al-Qaeda in sight, despite the best efforts of the post-9/11 neoconservatives to concoct one.
In the first Gulf War, we used indiscriminate aerial bombardment to kill 200,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians. The casualties included thousands of soldiers who had been ordered by Baghdad to retreat from Kuwait, and posed no threat as they were leaving in compliance with UN resolution 660 of 2 August 1990. The White House had promised that coalition forces would not attack Iraqi troops leaving Kuwait. As Iraqi troops made their way back along the six lane highway between Kuwait and Iraq, they were slaughtered en masse from the air.
The victims included countless Palestinian and Kuwaiti civilian refugees trying to escape the impending siege of Kuwait. All had been burned alive, incinerated inside their vehicles by the bombing campaign. The military convoy was also dotted with civilian cars, buses and trucks, many of which were carrying Palestinian families and their possessions. The destruction suggested the use of napalm, phosphorous and other incendiary bombs.
Inside Iraq, the US-led coalition campaign left Iraq in a near apocalyptic condition according to UN observers. We targeted and destroyed power plants, water treatment facilities, telephone and radio exchanges, food processing and storage facilities, railroads, bus depots, bridges, oil wells and refineries, sewage systems, textile and automobile factories, schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, shelters, residential areas, hotels, shops, historical sites, private vehicles and civilian government offices. Up to 20,000 homes and apartments were obliterated, along with the families and children inside them. We terrorized an entire population. We did so in flagrant violation of the UN Charter, Geneva Conventions, Nuremberg laws, and other laws of war.
One giant concentration camp
After the war, we pressured the UN to impose economic sanctions on Iraq that deprived the country of so-called “dual use” items that could supposedly help make weapons of mass destruction. That included bicycles, books, bowls, candles, cups, desks, fans, fax machines, glue, hairpins, ink, kettles, music CDs, paper, paperclips, pens, photocopiers, shoe polish, shoes, shovels, socks, sponges, spoons, telephones, tissue and toilet paper, toasters, toothbrushes, vacuum cleaners, wallets, watches, water pumps, wood, wool and zoom lenses. I’ve just identified a tiny fraction of the quantity of everyday things that were banned.
Declassified Pentagon and UN documents show that our governments were fully aware of the comprehensive destruction of civilian life due to the sanctions. Dennis Halliday, then UN assistant secretary-general and coordinator of humanitarian relief to Iraq, eventually resigned in disgust, describing the programme as “a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide.” Specifically 1.7 million Iraqi civilians died due to the sanctions regime, half of whom were children.
Still no sign of al-Qaeda though.
If we kill you, you’re an insurgent
By 2003, we had invaded and occupied Iraq to destroy the threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction - a threat our own governments had deliberately fabricated to justify a war to open up Gulf oil to global markets. Intelligence sources and leaked documents prove there was no “intelligence failure”, but an effort to “cherry pick” from “partisan material” falsely dressed up as “intelligence”.
American Sniper would have you believe our troops were fighting a country filled with nefarious terrorists to protect American and Western lives. Braver Iraq War veterans than the late Chris Kyle have spoken out on how they were ordered to establish “free fire zones” in civilian areas where there were supposedly “no friendlies”, but where no enemy combatants were in sight, just civilians; to fire at anyone digging near road-sides; to impose night-time curfews on cities then shoot at anything that moved in the dark; to use Iraqi children as human shields; to fire indiscriminately at civilian cars, houses and apartment blocks; the list goes on and on.
Jason Wayne Lemue, a Marine who served three tours in Iraq, said that anyone seen “carrying a shovel, or standing on a rooftop talking on a cell phone, or being out after curfew were to be killed. I can’t tell you how many people died because of this. By my third tour, we were told to just shoot people, and the officers would take care of us.” Another Iraq war veteran, Jason Moon, explained the thinking behind such orders: “If you kill a civilian he becomes an insurgent because you retroactively make that person a threat.”
There has been much debate about casualty figures post-2003, but the media has largely blacked out the most credible and robust scientific estimate of the death toll, published in the journal, PLOS Medicine. That study found that at least half a million Iraqi civilians were killed under the direct and indirect impacts of Anglo-American war and occupation, from 2003 to 2011. This is likely “a low estimate” according to lead author, Professor Amy Hogopian of the University of Washington in Seattle.
Altogether, we killed, conservatively, about 2.3 million Iraqis, and virtually destroyed an entire country. The pseudo-democratic regime we then attempted to impose amidst an escalating insurgency (predicted by our own security agencies to emerge as a direct consequence of making the entire 200,000-strong Iraqi army unemployed), turned out to be another sectarian nightmare, guilty of marginalising, persecuting and even assassinating the Sunni minority.
Radicalising through torture
It was not long after the invasion that we began to hear reports of an increasing Islamist presence in Iraq, led by al-Qaeda. Many of the people recruited to the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq at this time were ex-Ba’athist generals and military officers. Recruits also included the people that went on to create the backbone of IS - such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Al-Baghdadi was detained by US forces in February 2004 at Camp Bucca. A Pentagon official described him as a mere “street thug” at the time. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.”
Camp Bucca, run by both US and British soldiers, may as well have been a Nazi concentration camp. Detainees there experienced brutal, prolonged physical and psychological torture day in and day out.
US torture of Iraqis at Camp Bucca included the following crimes: repeated beatings; the legs of a prisoner being held apart while soldiers kicked him ceaselessly in the groin; detainees tied together naked and paraded in front of female soldiers; a prisoner having his hands and legs hogtied, with scorpions placed on his body; prisoners forced to undergo invasive surgery without anesthetic; repeated rape including forced sodomy; being simply shot to death with impunity; forced to sleep outside in the cold and rain, or punished during the day under the heat of the sun.
But most of the people at Camp Bucca were not even terrorists or insurgents. A confidential report by the International Committee of the Red Cross leaked in May 2004 showed that around 90 per cent of detainees there had been arrested “by mistake”. Many were simply Iraqis who opposed the occupation.
No wonder James Skylar Gerrond, a former compound commander at the camp, conceded: “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.” He recalled that “everyone in the chain of command” at Bucca was “always concerned” about this.
Ahmad al-Rubaie, an expert on Iraqi militant groups, noted that many detainees had started out as “the biggest opponents of al-Qaeda and its counterparts, and advocates of Iraqi and Arab nationalism - but when they were released they became jihadi takfiri sheikhs.” The US military leadership anticipated this result. According to Hamid al-Saadi who sat on Camp Bucca’s prisoners affairs committee from 2005 to 2007: “The Americans knew the prisoners in Bucca would get out to plant IEDs again and get back at anything and everything in their way.” In fact, the committee pleaded with the camp’s overseers not to release them, to no avail.
The money trail
It’s not just that we tortured people like al-Baghdadi into a state of depraved sociopathy so unhinged that they are now perfecting their atrocities into a veritable artform from hell. It’s not just that even now, IS atrocities, however horrifying, pale in comparison to the sheer systematic scale of the inhuman extermination of innocent men, women and children our governments unleashed on Iraq.
We also helped finance the al-Qaeda nexus that spawned what we now know as IS. It’s not clear when that began, but by 2007, evidence had emerged from a range of American intelligence sources that the US was coordinating covert funding controlled by Saudi Arabia to al-Qaeda affiliated groups across the region, in an effort to counter Iranian and Syrian geopolitical influence. Iraq was one country where much of this funding was being mobilised. By the time a popular uprising erupted in Syria, rebels trained and armed by the US and Britain were already active in the country. In ensuing years, the US, British, French and Israeli intelligence services established a secret command structure to coordinate Gulf state financing and training of anti-Assad rebels in camps in Jordan and Turkey, most of which went to Islamist extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda and IS. Even aid that went to apparently “moderate” rebels ended up in the hands of IS after disillusioned groups defected to the extremists, convinced only IS could win the war. We even bought oil from IS refineries in Syria, because at the time, it suited us.
In October last year, US Vice President, Joe Biden told a White House press conference that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey among others, were pouring “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons, of weapons” into “Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis” as part of a “proxy Sunni-Shia war”. Yet this jihadist funnel was arranged and supervised precisely by US and British intelligence officers working on the ground in Turkey and Jordan, coordinating airlifts, and “vetting” recruits themselves. He even conceded that, for all intents and purposes, it is not possible to identify “moderate” rebels in Syria.
It is not even clear whether our allies have shut down this jihadist funding. In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2014, when we were coordinating airstrikes in Iraq with our allies, Gen. Martin Dempsey was asked by Senator Lindsay Graham whether he knew of “any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL [IS]”? Gen. Dempsey said: “I know major Arab allies who fund them.”
And even now, while our politicians pontificate (rightly) about the evils of IS, they remain strangely silent about the complicity of our dictatorial allies in ongoing state-sponsorship of IS, especially, for instance, Turkey.
Make no mistake. IS did not pop up out of the blue. They are not a product of Islam, or of “the Muslim world” and its inherent backwardness. IS, and its Nazi values, is a product of what we did to the region.
Not in my name
So who is responsible for the rise of IS? Everyone and no one.
No one, because we will all protest our innocence. Islam has nothing to do with it. Two billion mostly peaceable Muslims are horrified by IS. The West was trying merely trying to take down the despicable Assad. We voters can’t control our governments’ foolish decisions, and half the time are deceived into supporting them by a bankrupt media that takes its cues from defence agency press releases. And the Gulf states are merely trying to defeat Assad, too.
Everyone, because we are all guilty. Islam has indeed been wrongly hijacked. Muslims around the world should recognise that IS’s attractiveness to a marginalised minority unavoidably means that Muslims have failed to articulate the beauty of Islam sufficiently and convincingly in our communities. Western publics have failed to reign in our governments while they erode democracy and accelerate slaughter abroad in our name. And Muslim-majority publics remain largely powerless to reign in the Middle East tyrants that oppress them with Western aid while sponsoring extremists.
Uncontrollable rage and ritual denunciations are not going to defeat IS. To defeat IS, we need to recognise that this Frankenstein's monster is neither simply a fault of “the West”, nor of “the Muslims”. It is a co-creation of the Western and Muslim worlds, specifically of Western and Muslim “security” agencies who have lost all moral compass in the pursuit of geopolitical prowess, self-aggrandisement and corporate profiteering.
Citizens of all faiths and none must stand together in solidarity to reject the violence perpetrated in our name on all sides. We must pressure our governments to re-configure our alliances with brutal regimes that sponsor terror, ending our abject, slavish dependence on Middle East fossil fuels, and cutting off open-ended financial ties and investments. Our governments must deploy diplomatic, economic and other pressure to shut down the financial networks sustaining IS, incubated covertly by countries like Turkey. We should work with Russia to come to an agreement to decisively end all military and financial support to actors on all sides in the region, to force them to end hostilities and come to the negotiating table.
We must exert robust oversight over our unaccountable intelligence services, whose secret support for militants abroad has undermined national security and permitted associated extremists to run amok at home.
We must mobilise as citizens to not merely denounce the atrocities committed by Western governments, the dictatorships they support, and the Islamist terrorists wreaking havoc in various parts of the world, but to work together in generating new inclusive discourses of peace, diversity and co-existence inspired by faith and non-faith values alike.
Ultimately, we must re-evaluate the role of the West in the region and, in doing so, accept that the only way to end IS’s capacity to recruit extremists is to restore hope: the same hope that we extinguished with unfathomable levels of violence, which to this day we continue to deny. Restoring hope means that Western governments must let go of their counterproductive geopolitical self-interest, apologise wholeheartedly for their wanton destruction of Iraq, and replace the endless provision of instruments of death and torture, with meaningful aid to help rebuild life in the form of humanitarian relief, reconstruction and economic development.
Unfortunately, without massive public pressure, Western governments are unlikely to do anything of the kind, just as the Muslim dictatorships our governments court and support will baulk at any reforms that undermine authoritarian power structures.
So, yes, not in my name. If we want to destroy IS, we must transform the system that incubated it.
Fellow citizens of Planet Earth: Let’s get started.
- Nafeez Ahmed PhD, is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: "IS, and its Nazi values, is a product of what we did to the region" (AFP)