The sickness that gave birth to ISIS

It is already very clear that combating ISIS and the "Islamic State" will be no easy task. It is not simply a matter of defeating an evil and particularly brutal fighting force, because the "Islamic State" is where a multiplicity of the Middle East's most deep-seated problems have come home to roost.

"ISIS is the offspring of more than one father, and the product of more than one longstanding and widespread sickness," Ziad Majed, a Lebanese researcher at the American University of Paris, wrote in a recent blog post. He went on to describe six "fathers" of ISIS:

  • Decades of despotism in Iraq and Syria

  • The American invasion of Iraq in 2003

  • Iranian regional meddling

  • The growth of Salafist networks

  • A belief that seventh-century religious ideas can solve modern problems

  • An environment of violence

It is important to keep these background factors in mind and address them as far as possible. Otherwise, even though ISIS may eventually be crushed, the causes that gave rise to it will remain and new groups will eventually emerge to replace it.

There is not much that can be done now about the political legacies of Saddam Hussein and the Assad family or the American invasion of Iraq. But a lot could be achieved by a serious effort to combat the politicisation of religion. In the long run, changing the way people view religion is the only way to put an end to the Middle East's sectarian conflicts. 

That is a formidable task, of course, and it can't happen overnight. It requires a wholesale shift in attitudes among the Arab public and a radical change in the way Arab governments behave.

In an article for al-Arabiya, Hisham Melhem writes:

"Ever since the 1967 Arab defeat in the war with Israel, Arab politics have been influenced and mostly shaped by various stripes of Islamists, including the radical and violent groups that constitute the antecedent of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Their emergence was in the making for decades. Today most of the politics in various Arab states from the countries of the Maghreb; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, through Egypt and on to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen is highly influenced by Islamists who occupy a shrinking spectrum. Most of the debates are essentially 'all in the family' of Islamists kinds of debates. 

"The rise of the Islamists; such as al-Nahda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the various Salafists, the Jama’a Islamia, Hezbollah, Hamas and later al-Qaeda and ISIS has been facilitated by the depredations of the 'secular' Arab regimes, the military strongmen and the one party rule, particularly the depravities of the Baath Party in both Syria and Iraq."

That is true, as far as it goes, but it grossly underestimates the scale of the problem. The problem, put simply, is not only one of organised Islamist movements but, more importantly, the widespread idea that people can (and should) be punished and discriminated against for "incorrect" religious views and practices.

In the course of research for my new book, Arabs Without God, I have spent a lot of time talking to Arab atheists and agnostics about their struggles for acceptance – by their families, by governments and society in general. Non-believers are especially despised but the hazards they face are shared too by religious folk who don't fit the requirements of whatever happens to be the local orthodoxy.

Though Islamist movements have played their part in this, much of the blame lies with supposedly moderate Arab governments which enforce religious rules for their own political purposes and have actively contributed to the spread of intolerance among their citizens.

The biggest sinner in this regard is probably Saudi Arabia, which for years has been the world's leading exporter of religious bigotry. This month, amid international outrage over the beheading of James Foley by ISIS, Saudi Arabia quietly beheaded 19 people – eight of them for nonviolent offences, including one man for the religious "crime" of sorcery.

The Saudi government may be alarmed at the growth of ISIS, but they both have a lot in common where "proper" behaviour is concerned. An article from a journalist in Mosul last week described the efforts by ISIS to impose its idea of religious virtue on the city – especially for women:

"Among other things, the IS fighters have forced women to completely cover themselves up. They must wear gloves and the niqab, rather than just a headscarf or hijab. Married women are supposed to wear a black niqab and unmarried women must wear a white niqab. Additionally women have been banned from working outside their homes – the only exceptions are obstetricians and nurses.

"Women were also instructed not to leave the house alone unless it was an emergency or they were accompanied by a male relative. The extremist group banned mixed classes at schools and universities and said that any violations of any of these rules were punishable by flogging."

Ghada Shafiq, a female doctor at Mosul’s General Hospital, was stabbed to death after protesting an order to treat her patients fully veiled and in gloves.

In a supreme act of hypocrisy, Saudi Arabia has now 
promised $100m to help the UN combat terrorism and counter what officials described as "an evil that affects us all". But Saudi Arabia's official definition of terrorism is not necessarily what others think of as terrorism. It includes "calling for atheist thought in any form", showing disloyalty to the king or harming " the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means" – in other words, virtually any attempt, peaceful or otherwise, to challenge the political and religious status quo.

Imposing a particular brand of religion on people may be a Saudi speciality, but the kingdom is not by any means the only culprit:

  • Islam is also the official "religion of the state" in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, the UAE and Yemen.

  • Sharia law is “the source of all legislation” in Yemen and in “the basis of legislation” in Oman. It is “the main source of legislation” in Egypt, while in Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, Qatar and the UAE it is “a main source”. In Iraq, it is “a fundamental source of legislation”.

  • The constitutions of Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen all specify that the head of state must be a Muslim (and a Christian in the case of Lebanon).

  • In most of the Arab countries, legally speaking, religion is not something you choose but something you inherit from your father – and if you decide to renounce it later you may be in trouble with the law. Apostasy is a crime in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, and in theory the death penalty can apply. 

  • Then there are the outrageous blasphemy laws which allow governments, and often private individuals, to bring cases against people whose views they happen to disagree with, or against whom they have some kind of grudge.

  • Fasting during Ramadan is a religious obligation for Muslims, but some countries also turn it into a legal obligation. Fast-breaking in public is a crime in the Gulf states, along with Algeria and Morocco. It's not a crime in Egypt, though people have been arrested and punished for it, nevertheless.

As long as Arab governments claim the right to impose religion on people, groups like ISIS will feel justified in doing the same, and society in general will regard sectarianism as legitimate behaviour.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 24 August 2014