Ghulam Esposito Haydar explains why Muslims in the west should not be travelling to Syria for jihad, whilst highlighting the reality of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the execution of James Foley and how British Muslims will be affected by it.
ISIS or whatever moniker they’re calling themselves these days have been beheading Muslims in Syria for the last few years, curtailing and reversing the efforts of the resistance against Bashar al-Assad and recently Iraq before beheading the independent American journalist James Foley. All indications appear that he was a genuine journalist whose only goal was to report on the events in those regions. In fact, his parents have said that he sympathised with the Syrian people against the regime of Assad. Sadly, he was captured by Syrian rebels and then handed over to ISIS, who executed him.
The initial reaction of many were that the reports were a hoax until mainstream media outlets unanimously started covering the story showing intermittent snippets of the video. Dr Claire Hardaker, a linguistics experts at Lancaster University, told several media outlets that the man’s vowels marked him out as likely from the south-east of England, but most likely from London. Within hours of the video being released, President Barack Obama made an official statement condemning this act whilst Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his family holiday to hold emergency meetings about the situation in Iraq and Syria.
There isn’t much left to say about the brutality and crimes of ISIS which hasn’t been said already. Muslim scholars and religious leaders in the west have been unanimous in warning their communities about ISIS’ ideology for some time now, but the question remains – why are so many basic western Sunni Muslims supporting them and how have they emerged?
Sectarianism and the rise of ISIS in Iraq
Leaving the conspiracy theories regarding the upper echelons of ISIS aside, the group only gained prominence due to a backlash of Western intervention in Muslim countries and their sponsored support for dictatorships who serve their imperial interests. If they hadn’t got involved before, half these problems would have never existed.
Let’s take Iraq as an example and the crimes committed at the behest of Nuri al-Maliki the former PM of Iraq. By handing over a significant Sunni population to a vengeful extremist Shia, they allowed sectarian strife to increase to an unimaginable level. Shia governmental officers were given cart blanche to humiliate Sunnis daily at checkpoints throughout the country, beating their children and sexually abusing their women, all the while trying to provoke a reaction so that they can kill you or take you to prison and torture you to death.
Local Shia militia gangs were allowed to kidnap loved ones and friends, demanding huge ransoms in return which were desperately paid within hours by selling all of one’s possessions, only for the ransom to be collected and the loved one being returned in a bag. Is it any wonder that ISIS has been welcomed begrudgingly by so many of the Sunni population in Iraq?
ISIS in Syria
In Syria where Bashar al-Assad has committed unspeakable atrocities upon his own civilian population, many Muslim groups took up arms as a form of legitimate resistance. With each group respectively serving their own agenda, their seemed to be a great deal of cooperation early on as their mutual enemy was the Assad regime.
This was until ISIS came onto the scene, who although claim to share the same enemy, also views anyone not subscribing to their ideology as heretics and therefore worthy of exterminating. The damage ISIS has caused to the overall resistance in Syria by fighting other rebel groups has been a major blow and has worked to the advantage of Assad.
Their propaganda videos and outward religiosity has hoodwinked many naive western Muslims in joining them in their fight against anyone who opposes them. There is also significant evidence that most of the Syrian rebels (bar ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra) don’t want inexperienced Muslims from the West coming out there to fight, unaware of local conditions and the complexity of the war.
John Foley, military intervention and blowback
David Cameron had already warned us about the threat of ISIS inspired attacks on British soil, a threat which has also been confirmed by a former head of MI6 but how realistic is this “threat”? Does the likelihood of any threat increase with military intervention? Is this threat being overplayed to provide an excuse to increase surveillance and reduce civil liberties at home while preserving Western oil interests in the Kurdistan?
US airstrikes under the guise of a “humanitarian rescue missions” in aid of the Yazidis whilst neglecting the atrocities in Syria, Burma and Gaza does suggest it has everything to do with protecting their imperial interests. It was as a direct consequence of the recent shelling of ISIS held locations that led to the execution of James Foley. The beheading of James Foley was not only a crude means of propaganda and a deplorable act, it also raises questions of how ISIS is likely to affect British citizens.
Another pertinent question that needs answering is how a British citizen (if the speculations are correct) could conduct such a barbaric act? As advocacy group CAGE righty stated, a look into the video and its content should give us a brief insight into the political grievances held by ISIS. The orange jumpsuit, the condemnation of America for their latest intervention in Iraq, the appearance of a British citizen – these are all reminders that Western occupation and human rights abuses are at heart of what is taking place in that country now.
The execution of Foley has made the question of intervention in Iraq even more poignant than it already was. If you ignore them they will continue their brutality. If you attack them, you run the risk of creating further hatred with the possibility of blow-back attacks at home. If you arm local forces to counter them today, they can easily develop into enemy combatants tomorrow similar to Al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan.
As the media storm prevails and public opinion inevitably swayed by it, discussions around the prevalence of religious extremism and curbing it are likely to resurface. There is a likelihood that domestic policies against Muslims will be tightened as it was last year with the government’s Extremism Task Force report, which further alienated the Muslims in the UK.
The government’s proposed measures to tackle “Islamic Extremism” failed to engage in any meaningful dialogue with the multitude of voices within the Muslim community. To the majority, it seemed that government officials in Whitehall were only keen to listen to the opinions which agreed with their preconceived ideas about Islam and Muslims, opinions which gave legitimacy to the “conveyor belt theory”. The Extremism Task Force failed miserably in defining “Islamic extremism”, conflating it with religious conservatism.
In order to have any meaningful discussion on “extremism”, the government needs to attain a genuine nuanced understanding of Islam and the make-up of the many different Muslim communities that reside Britain. This would require the government to work with a range of Muslim organisations to achieve an overall goal that is shared. In order for this to work, the prerequisite step is for British Muslim scholars and academics to come together and discuss what constitutes “extremism” is. Only then will we be able to disseminate our views to policy makers.
Back to Iraq where US airplanes continue to strike ISIS locations, early indications suggest that another campaign of vengeance and retribution will create more enemies. Unless the West, namely the US, are able to take a step-back and resist rampaging through Iraq and think of more constructive ways to deal with this threat, their actions will only breed more violent enemies such as ISIS.
With the different variables considered, the American and British government need to decide what is more important to them – serving their imperial interests or greater security at home and abroad?