I am sure that ISIS, the “Islamic State, ” (IS) needs destruction, through extermination or through any other means. That entity is one of the several clear manifestations of dire evil in my lifetime and since Nazism. If it’s allowed to exist, the world is going to become a much worse place. The hard conquests of civilization can in fact be rolled back. If they are, it’s going by IS and by its imitators. Besides, those who brag about murdering American civilians deliberately should never again experience a good night sleep in their lives. The USA should bomb them till the end of time regardless of what its alleged coalition partners will or will not do. And I am not talking about justice or even about retribution but about inspiring fear for our own future protection. That’s an easy one.
This certainty does not prevent me from having doubt about two related issues. One is how much of a danger IS actually presents to Americans in the US. Of course, IS activists and would-be spokespersons can easily be found who will brag about planting the flag of IS “on the White House.” That’s bracing, exalted speech. Why not? How could they not do it and be taken seriously by other jihadists including jihadist-in-the-making? Does this justify attacking IS? I mean does it provide an additional justification, over and above what I mentioned in the opening sentences of this essay? Would it not make more sense in this regard to re-enforce, even to multiply heavily intelligence and police forms of protection at a fraction of the cost? I bothers me that the question is hardly raised, even in the traditional, “anti-war” left media.
The situation reminds me of the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq when, presented with about 200 different good reasons to attack the Saddam Hussein regime, the Bush administration staked all on weapons of mass destruction that turned out to not exist. This failure of collective judgment, with a respected though political general (Colin Powell) in the vanguard, destroyed the administration’s credibility with respect to all subsequent events. The excellent, beyond-doubt reasons to destroy the Hussein dictatorship were lost from sight forever. (Digression: I was and I am still in favor of the war against Hussein. He was a butcher who needed killing. I regret that the mission inexplicably degenerated into a doomed nation-building project. The most stupid thing a general ever said was by the same Colin Powell, ” If you break it, you own it.” Why would that be? The arrest, trial and execution of Saddam Hussein was a useful experience for the Middle East though. The different rounds of unimpeded voting also were irrespective of the subsequent corruption of the Iraqi polity.)
My second doubt revolves around the ability of IS to grow and even around its steadfastness. There is bifurcated thinking needed here. I believe the notion that it’s built around a hard core of experienced fighters, some former Baathist generals under Hussein (whose army melted after a couple of weeks in 2003, but let it pass). This core, however, is surrounded by half-haphazardly recruited volunteers. Many or most come from the area and they may have nowhere else to go. (See below.). They are only cannon fodder, anyway. The violent jihadists we worry most about are those coming from Western countries because they are theoretically able to come “home” easily and create havoc. I don’t mean to affirm that they present no danger at all. I just doubt it’s on the scale of drunk driving, for example, or comparable in societal damage to that caused by the War on Drugs.
I have had several glimpses at French jihadists, specifically, returning from Syria and Iraq, that encourage me to take the threat more lightly than the American media makes it to be. Several have spoken to the French press of being treated as servants because they did not come from Arab countries; others declared themselves disgusted by the atrocities they witnesses on IS-held territory. A few even hinted that they couldn’t take the discomfort – and the health conditions – associated with simply living in one of the Middle-Eastern countries. (There is hot water available in all French government housing projects, and even sewer services; health care is of good quality and practically free.)
In mid- September (2014), the Turkish police put three French jihadists wanted by the French police on a plane. There was a mix-up and the trio landed in the wrong French city. The next day, their attorneys called the police to invite them to pick up their clients. It seems the returnees from the IS battlefield were eager to spill the beans. I also saw a bone-chilling short documentary in which two (or three) French female Muslims in Islamic garb recounted in detail how they had been used as prostitutes for jihadist fighters. Their confessions were in French, of course; I have no doubt about what they actually said. (I have not been able to find the reference to this short film two months after the fact but I saw it with my own eyes; it’s not hearsay. At the time, I judged the source credible.)
I suspect the IS recruitment in the West may be largely a cultural epiphenomenon. It’s heated up by the Internet which idle young Westerners of all religious backgrounds follow avidly. It’s almost a fad, you might say: IS beheads people; we show we are with it by beheading also, even all the way to Oklahoma*. Like Rap, before it, jihadism appeals to many young men who don’t see a future for themselves in the welfare states of the West. The stagnant economies of much of the West naturally facilitate the recruitment of young men into just about any new cultural movement. Yet, the same means of communication that made going jihad cool for a time, will eventually make it uncool, it seems to me.
In the Middle East itself, violent jihad appeals to the thousands who also don’t see a future for themselves but for more permanent reasons than sluggish economic growth. In the petro-dollar countries such as the United Arab Emirates it might be because although they are rich, they are profoundly underdeveloped in a social sense. They often offer generous handouts but no middle-class entry positions. (See my old but still valid article on Kuwait (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02686463#page-1///////.) The rest of the Muslim countries of the Middle East are poor, unstable and underdeveloped in a classical sense: If our uncle does not take you in his shop, no one will pay you although someone else will probably feed you and give you a place to sleep. If you are really smart and exceptionally disciplined, you might be able to join the armed forces and receive a monthly salary, health care, and start a long, slow climb to the top. IS, on the other hand, will pay you well from the first (according to reports). It will offer you endless possibilities for personal advancement because its top ranks tend to die early. What’s not to like if you a re a twenty-two year old facing a lifetime of playing dominoes in front of the same cup of cold coffee?
There may be another factor in the indigenous middle eastern enthusiasm for joining IS that the American media are too politically correct do inquire into. The adventure IS offers must act as a powerful attractant to the millions of sexually frustrated young men in the Middle East, especially in Arab countries. A little-discussed aspect of Islam as a culture is that Muslim men, by and large, buy their wives from their families. They often call the bride purchase price “dowry” when discussing marriage customs with or for Westerners. This is an obvious misuse of the term. In Western cultures, “dowry” refers to the wealth a bride brings with her to a marriage, not to the reverse. For a variety of subtle reasons that have to do with globalization and with progress in the education of girls, bride price has been going up in many Muslim regions. (When two sheep would close the deal, a car and certain career may now be the norm.) There is a sort of market failure traceable to the fact that the merchandise that does no sell today will still be good tomorrow. This inflation happened at the same time as normal commercial sex outlets (brothels) were being closed down because of growing Islamic puritanism. This happened as the traditional Sharia punishment for sex outside marriage (“adultery “) became ever more likely to be actually applied. The age of marriage and with it, the resolution of perennial sexual hunger keeps going away into the far distance. Millions of young Muslim men thus live in sexual frustration with no happy ending in sight. It would be surprising if it were not the case that a small percentage of them felt they did not have much to lose in trying to die for God.
Stagnant, undeveloped societies and closed sex markets are not about to disappear quickly. IS and its imitators will not fail to recruit in its regions for the foreseeable future. Only military means will destroy or contain it. I don’t shudder at the prospect. Nor do I hide my face from the obvious. I lived through the Cold War. It took forty years of fortitude but we destroyed communist tyranny and its threat to us. (North Korea and Cuba are best kept intact as educational museum pieces. Communist China is not communist.)
Yet, you can’t find a single general who will state that air raids can overcome the IS. A large land army will be needed. I see no prospect that any Western country – including the US – will become so involved in the near future. The 5,000 Syrian freedom fighter Mr Obama has feebly agreed to train and arm overtime aren’t going to do it no matter how brave they are. The able Kurdish forces are going to be understandably reluctant to fight much outside of their homeland. The Iraqi army has evaporated (again), the Jordanian army is small. There are only three large armies in the area: Iran’s (540,00), Egypt’s (468,00), and Turkey (495,000). We and others who want to are not going to destroy IS unless we can persuade either Egypt or Turkey to send in their armies for the slow slog (preferably the latter because the Turkish officer corps has a long memory of their country being part of NATO). If this does not happen, the Islamic Republic of Iran will fight this war and win it against the Islamic State but also against us. Another form of Islamic totalitarianism will then win.
*A man shouting Islamic slogans beheads a woman in his former place of work in Oklahoma. The manager, who was a reserve sheriff’s deputy, threatened the terrorist with pepper spray. whereupon, the murderer immediately surrendered.
Even if you are a mainstream liberal, flute playing and Kumbaya-chanting, you can sense that this story is a little bit wrong.
No, in reality, he shot him, several times. Or, maybe the terrorist should have been ignored; maybe he would have been satisfied with one decapitation and left.