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IS: Just a murderous death cult?

If we are serious about helping to reduce IS’s power and territory, what we desperately need is a grown-up, nuanced, evidenced-based debate

The language and framing we use to speak about an issue can either illuminate and help to explain or it can obfuscate and limit our understanding, and thus keep possible solutions out of reach.

Driven by the media’s McCarthy-style witch hunt of anyone who does not publicly denounce Islamic State (IS) in the strongest terms humanly possible, politicians and commentators have fallen into the dangerous habit of simplistically defining and dismissing IS.

They are an “evil death cult”, the Prime Minister told parliament in December 2015. Following her leader’s example, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan called them a “murderous death cult” on BBC Question Time. Not to be outdone, the neutral BBC’s Andrew Neil named them “A bunch of loser jihadists” and “Islamist scumbags” carrying out “Beheading, crucifixions, amputations, slavery, mass murder, medieval squalor… a death cult barbarity that would shame the Middle Ages.” The Left has scarcely been better.

Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Politics left-wing writer Owen Jones stated IS “is a murderous death cult… that attracts these pathetic, murdering losers”. Challenged on how we should deal with the group, Jones explained: “Obviously there is no prospect, ever, of negotiating with this murderous death cult. They don’t want to negotiate, they have an apocalyptic vision of the world which they wish to satisfy.”

These statements certainly describe one, very public, side of IS. However, as the retired American General Stanley McChrystal told The Guardian, “If the West see ISIS as an almost stereotypical band of psychopathic killers, we risk dramatically underestimating them.” Charlie Winter, a senior researcher focusing on IS at Georgia State University concurs, explaining: “Far from being an army of irrational, bloodthirsty fanatics, ISIS is a deeply calculating political organisation with an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure.”

Writing about IS’s attempted state-building, Charles Lister, author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, notes ISIS’s “standard governance practice” includes “establishing public welfare programmes, offering countless forms of social service, commercial good quality inspections, tax offices, transport companies and much more.”

In a 2014 article titled "The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has a Consumer Protection Office," Aaron Zelin, a Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, comments that the group’s “sophisticated bureaucracy” includes a court system and a roving police force, along with services such as an electricity department, a post office, road repairs, religious schools and healthcare. “ISIS helps run bread factories and provides fruit and vegetables to many families,” Zelin notes.

“In Raqqa, ISIS has established a food kitchen to feed the needy and an Office for Orphans to help pair them with families” as well as conducting polio-vaccination campaigns. Apparently IS have set up a complaints office (complete with a suggestions boxes) in an attempt to weed out corruption. And last week The Guardian reported on the organisation’s research and development centre run by technicians and scientists and its communications team, which is staffed by up to 100 people and has “a schedule and workload that could rival a television network”.

Rather than wilfully play into the media’s seedy little game of feigned moral outrage, politicians and commentators need to face up to some very inconvenient facts. According to the EU Commissioner for Justice over 5,000 Europeans have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join IS. Numerous reports have noted that many Sunnis have chosen to live under IS control rather than the Iraqi government. According to Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, there is evidence of refugee flows into IS-controlled territory.

Though far from easy, there are positive steps that could be taken in response. To stop IS recruiting in the West we need to stop publicly labelling the people who join them “pathetic, murdering losers” and engage and deal with the complex personal, social, economic and political factors that lead them to turn to ISIS in the first place.

To reduce IS’s power and control in Iraq we need to consider why much of the Sunni population is so wary of the Iraqi government forces. And to reduce IS’s authority in Syria we need to reduce the violence and chaos that the group exploits and push for an end to the war as soon as possible.

The problem is this: all these possible solutions involve coming to terms with our own reprehensible role in the crisis. The West’s military interventions in the Middle East have undoubtedly played a key role in radicalising Muslims residing in the West. The West has supported the Iraqi government while it gunned down unarmed Sunni demonstrators, barrel bombed Sunni-dominated areas and let Shia militias run wild, carrying out widespread war crimes.

And in Syria the West has helped to escalate the conflict and wrecked attempts at negotiation a peaceful solution to the conflict. So as well as being deeply unhelpful when it comes to defeating IS, calling them “a murderous death cult” also has an important political role – of moving the spotlight away from own destructive actions.

If we are serious about helping to reduce IS’s power and territory, what we desperately need is a grown-up, nuanced, evidenced-based debate about the organisation and the reasons behind its growth and continued existence. To take one example, a rational approach would dismiss Owen Jones’s crude assertion that “there is no prospect, ever, of negotiating” with IS and ask questions about IS’s internal divisions and factions and its external support. Is there a more moderate or pragmatic wing of the group? How might groups or fighters that are currently fighting with or allied to IS be persuaded to break away? Could we negotiate with the state and non-state actors currently supporting IS? Would it be possible to persuade – that is negotiate with – those who plan on joining IS in the future?

And finally we need to remember the simplistic and often hysterical public statements and positions the media demands politicians and commentators robotically parrot are not necessarily good for the wider world and are not helpful if we wish to reduce the terror threat to the UK and other countries.

-Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March that Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003. He tweets @IanJSinclair

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Iraqi counter-terrorism forces drive in the Tameem district of Ramadi, a large city on the Euphrates 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Baghdad on 9 December, 2015. Iraqi forces consolidated newly gained positions in Ramadi, after achieving a breakthrough in their fight against the Islamic State (IS) militant group by retaking a large part of the city (AFP).

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