Magical thinking about ISIS

Adam Shatz writes: There has been a lot of magical thinking about IS. Liberal hawks, like Roger Cohen in the New York Times, have called for a ground offensive in the usual Churchillian terms – something no Western leader has any appetite (or sizeable constituency) for after Afghanistan and Iraq. Leftists have demanded an end to the drone war, a breaking of ties with Saudi Arabia and the creation of a Palestinian state. According to a writer in the online magazine Jadaliyya, only ‘hallucinating’ neoconservatives could argue that the attacks target the West or France for what they are, rather than for what they do. But IS says very clearly in its communiqué that it’s attacking Paris both for ‘the crusader campaign’ and as ‘the capital of prostitution and vice’ – and it seems obtuse not to take it at its word. To be sure, anger over Western policies is among the drivers of recruitment for groups like IS, but IS is not a purely reactive organisation: it is a millenarian movement with a distinctly apocalyptic agenda. As Elias Sanbar, a Palestinian diplomat in Paris, points out, ‘One of the most striking things about Islamic State is that it has no demands. All the movements we’ve known, from the Vietcong to the FLN to the Palestinians, had demands: if the occupation ends, if we get independence, the war ends. But Daesh’s project is to eliminate the frontiers of Sykes-Picot. It’s like the Biblical revisionism of the settlers, who invent a history that never existed.’ The creation of a Palestinian state is a necessity, above all for Palestinians, but it’s not likely to make much of an impression on IS, which rejects the Middle Eastern state system entirely.

A far more subtle – but in some ways just as wishful – analysis has come from Olivier Roy, who argued in the New York Times that the Paris attacks are a sign of desperation rather than strength:

Isis’s reach is bounded; there are no more areas in which it can extend by claiming to be a defender of Sunni Arab populations. To the north, there are Kurds; to the east, Iraqi Shiites; to the west, Alawites, now protected by the Russians. And all are resisting it. To the south, neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for Isis. Stalled in the Middle East, Isis is rushing headlong into globalised terrorism.

It’s an intellectually seductive and almost reassuring argument: IS appears to be on the march, but it’s actually in its death throes, having suffered losses in Kobani and Sinjar. But it’s also an argument that has been made before. After 11 September, it was widely argued that al-Qaida attacked the ‘far enemy’ in the West because it had failed to defeat ‘the near enemy’, the regimes of the Middle East. Today that theory seems less credible. Al-Qaida experienced a regional revival, thanks in large part to the Iraq war. And for IS, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, the distinction between near and far enemies is porous: all apostates are enemies. Although it has conquered a significant piece of territory – something bin Laden and Zawahiri never dared attempt – its power is only partly rooted in the caliphate. It is as keen to conquer virtual as actual territory. It draws on a growing pool of recruits who discovered not only IS but Islam itself online, in chatrooms and through messaging services where distance vanishes at the tap of a keyboard. Indeed, the genius of IS has been to overcome the distance between two very different crises of citizenship, and weave them into a single narrative of Sunni Muslim disempowerment: the exclusion of young Muslims in Europe, and the exclusion of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq.

Roy is right that IS can’t ‘win’ in any conventional sense, but it doesn’t have to expand the caliphate in order to remain in business. In the global society of the spectacle, it’s on a roll. [Continue reading…]

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