Roots of ISIS go deeper than the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Since most of the victims of ISIS have been Muslims and since much of the group’s conduct and philosophy are widely viewed as a perversion of Islam, one of the commonly cited pieces of evidence supporting the view that ISIS is not genuinely religious, is the fact that it is run by Iraqi former Baathists. On that basis, the organization’s religious trappings could be seen as merely a cloak for a political project.

In a discussion on the BBC World Service, however, Hassan Hassan and Jason Burke underline that the Baathists in ISIS are indeed religiously driven.

Hassan Hassan: It’s well known that the top echelon of ISIS is dominated by former Baathists who served during the Saddam Hussein regime in one way or another and that also applies to some elements within Jabhat al-Nusra in fact.

For ISIS, the Saddamist elements within ISIS also should be viewed as religious zealots. They are not any more secular Saddamist —

Owen Bennett Jones: I’ve wondered about that. You think they’ve genuinely come around to this jihadi point of view…

Hassan Hassan: There’s no doubt that’s the case. The process of transformation that these people went through is quite clear.

Jason Burke: I was in Iraq in the 90s on a number of occasions and the vision from outside was of the secular Baathist state of Saddam Hussein. Whereas he had already by the mid-90s worked out that the broad shifts in the rest of the Arab world were towards a much more religious posture — culturally, politically, otherwise — and he was tacking very much that way.

I don’t think for a moment that he himself was in any way pious, but he launched a “faith campaign” as he called it. He talked about building the biggest mosque in the world. There was some huge construction under way in Baghdad that I used to go and look at. He talked about writing the Quran in his own blood. There was lots of religious programming on the TV.

So, at the same time of course you had the UN sanctions that were on Iraq. And I remember going to schools and hearing school children singing songs — the normal stuff about fighting the Zionists and so forth, but also against the U.S. and the West and so on. So the process of radicalization, if you like, or Islamization, was well advanced even before 2003 and an invasion that effectively ousted the Sunnis from their position of dominance.

And just a very telling anecdote: When I was in Baghdad after the war I spent a day with an insurgent fighter who was very much in that kind of Sunni nationalist mode and he clearly professed himself to be a devout Muslim, but he still didn’t like what he called the terrorists.

So, there were still all sorts of different currents at that stage, but I think it is certainly the case, as Hassan was saying, that a lot of the senior Baathists and a lot of the society more generally Shia and Sunni, was very much more advanced down the path towards a religious resurgence than people would think.

Amid the ongoing debate about how to tackle ISIS, many observers prefer to sidestep that question by pointing out that ISIS would not have come into existence had it not been for the disastrous choice the U.S. made by invading Iraq in 2003.

Much as this observation is valid, it also has the effect of reinforcing the dogma which portrays the ills of the world as all ultimately being products of America’s excessive military power and the misuse of that power.

Devout believers of this political dogma, especially those who are themselves Americans and who can easily point to the destructive impact of decades of U.S. meddling in global affairs, on this basis commonly conclude that little else really needs to be understood about the world than that America is the problem.

From this perspective, the best the U.S. can do is to get out of the way. If America is the problem, then non-interference is the panacea. Moreover, a common assumption is that even if chaos continues to prevail, U.S. involvement will only make the situation worse and thus we can and should disengage from the affairs of the Middle East.

I have little doubt that those Americans who subscribe to this view see it as a foreign-policy equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, thinking that the only way the U.S. can do no harm in the world is by attending to its domestic concerns and assuming a much more modest role on the global stage.

This sentiment, however, licenses ignorance and the ready acceptance of simplistic analysis — such as much of that now being applied to ISIS. It also facilitates the propagation of conspiracy theories.

But anyone who wants to seriously think about ISIS — to understand how it emerged and how it is evolving — needs to set aside this perspective that insistently overstates American power.

If we only see ISIS as a product of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, we’re not going to see how its emergence needs to be placed in a wider historical perspective: as a product of the failure of Arab secular nationalism and authoritarian rule.

The uprisings of 2011 during the Arab Spring posed a threat to every single government across the region. What has in large part saved most of them from the threat of democracy is the subsequent growth of a threat from terrorism.

ISIS as a reactionary political force has played a major role in shifting the regional debate from a contest between dictatorship and democracy, to a bloody struggle between stability and chaos.

Those who are threatened by ISIS’s expansion nevertheless also benefit from its existence. Stability becomes imperative only when instability is seen as the sole alternative.

This is how Bashar al-Assad, in spite of destroying much of Syria and driving half the population out of their homes, is succeeding in keeping tyranny alive.

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