By Hari Narayan
April 4, 2015
The rise of Islamic State- ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution: Patrick Cockburn; LeftWord Books, 2254/2A Shadi Khampur, New Ranjit Nagar, New Delhi-110008. Rs. 250.
The Arabs opposed the Ottomans and sided with the allied powers in the First World War in the hope of getting the right to self determination.
Veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn (65), who has reported from the Middle East since 1979, has three full-length books on Iraq already to his credit. This monograph on the rise of the ultra-jihadist Islamic State builds on his reportage for The Independent and long-form writing for the London Review of Books.
It attributes the birth of IS to the belligerence shown by the West following the 9/11 attacks. It makes clear that it was not 9/11 but the reaction of U.S and its allies to the attacks that made al-Qaeda’s rise and expansion inevitable, giving birth to other splinter groups, including the most recent and the most violent one. Cockburn says that if the West’s war on terror has been a spectacular failure, it is because of its failure to target the epicentres of jihad -- Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Two recent developments that Cockburn says provided fertile breeding ground for the IS are: marginalisation of the Sunnis in Iraq; and the hijacking of the Syrian uprising by jihadists. In both cases, Wahhabi Islam, a puritanical form patronised and exported by the House of Saud, provided the ideological fuel.
It is clear from the pessimism expressed by the book about the future of the region that questions behind the rise of the groups like IS need to go beyond those merely focused on security and stability: they need to take into account colonial ambitions that were instrumental in creation of the nations as such. For, isn’t the rise of non-state actors in the Middle East a product of the way the states were organised there 100 years ago?
The Arabs opposed the Ottomans and sided with the allied powers in the First World War in the hope of getting the right to self determination. However, they were used as strategic bargaining chips by the victors. The application of Sykes-Picot line to divide the region into French and the British spheres of influence was matched in its mendacity only by the Treaty of Versailles signed a few years later. The people of the region were left betrayed.
As written by T.E. Lawrence -- Lawrence of Arabia -- and quoted by Robert Fisk in The Great War For Civilisation, the Arabs did not risk their lives in battle simply to “change masters.” They wanted independence of their own.
Their experiments with puppet administrations started in 1922 when Britain installed King Feisal — neither an Iraqi nor a Shia — in Shia-majority Iraq. Robert Fisk calls this “our first betrayal of the Shias of Iraq.” There were more betrayals in store, resulting in societies, with a glorious record of coexistence, getting split further along sectarian lines. Cockburn foresees balkanisation of the region into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves where the ‘other’ is targeted. Here, he fears we may see a repeat of the carnage that accompanied India’s partition. However, military interventions in the form of air strikes continue, in the hope of defeating the enemy. Assuming that IS can be defeated by military means, a question that arises is: What could be done to prevent the future emergence of such groups? This book doesn’t provide many answers but the corpus of literature on the region does.
The West needs to attempt a genuine reconciliation with its erstwhile colonies and present-day clients. The next year will mark a century since the Sykes-Picot pact was signed. Serious reflection on what went wrong with the re-organisation of the states in the region needs to take place. This has to involve acceptance of historical blame.
The superpowers need to learn from history that Iraq and Syria are progenies of civilisations which a rich culture of tolerance and state building. The Mesopotamian civilisation, as fabulously documented by Jared Diamond in the rambunctious read, Guns, Germs and Steel, had a centralised state as early as 3500 BC.
The rich Mediterranean climate of Tigris and Euphrates valleys and the emergence of writing and irrigation technologies led to the formation of complex political organisations. What explains the irony that, in a region which has inherited such a sophisticated system of state building, the most popular party is a non-state actor?
The prime reason is the encumbrances thrown in the path of nationalist movements, first by colonial powers like Ottoman Turkey and Britain and later by post-colonial ones like U.S. and Soviet Union, which prevented the rise of modern institutions. Alas, U.S. and its allies show collective amnesia when it comes to history. The IS has numerous enemies but, as Cockburn says, they are disunited and have varying ideologies. IS is neither Islamic nor a state but to “degrade and ultimately destroy” it, as President Barack Obama put it, the West has to allow the organic evolution of genuine states, where Islam and democracy can both be allowed to play a role and where national aspirations, not external interests, provide the binding force.