Tuesday, September 29th 2015
Last month The New York Review of Bookstook the unusual step of publishing a book review, “The Mystery of ISIS,” by “Anonymous,” identified only as an individual with “wide experience in the Middle East” who was “formerly an official of a NATO country.” The August 13, 2015, review focused on what has attracted 20,000 foreign fighters to join Daesh.
“. . . commentators still prefer to focus on political, financial, and physical explanations, such as anti-Sunni discrimination, corruption, lack of government services in captured territories, and ISIS’s use of violence. Western audiences are, therefore, rarely forced to focus on ISIS’s bewildering ideological appeal,” the anonymous reviewer wrote. Contradictions and dilemmas abound. “We are not only horrified but baffled.”
The books under review were ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan and ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. Here are some excerpts from the review:
Nor have there been any more satisfying explanations of what draws the 20,000 foreign fighters who have joined the movement. At first, the large number who came from Britain were blamed on the British government having made insufficient effort to assimilate immigrant communities; then France’s were blamed on the government pushing too hard for assimilation. But in truth, these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar). Analysts who have argued that foreign fighters are created by social exclusion, poverty, or inequality should acknowledge that they emerge as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada). It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria) or allowed an Islamist party to be elected. Tunisia, which had the most successful transition from the Arab Spring to an elected Islamist government, nevertheless produced more foreign fighters than any other country.
Nor was the surge in foreign fighters driven by some recent change in domestic politics or in Islam. Nothing fundamental had shifted in the background of culture or religious belief between 2012, when there were almost none of these foreign fighters in Iraq, and 2014, when there were 20,000. The only change is that there was suddenly a territory available to attract and house them. . . . We are left again with tautology—ISIS exists because it can exist—they are there because they’re there.
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Part of the problem may be that commentators still prefer to focus on political, financial, and physical explanations, such as anti-Sunni discrimination, corruption, lack of government services in captured territories, and ISIS’s use of violence. Western audiences are, therefore, rarely forced to focus on ISIS’s bewildering ideological appeal. I was surprised when I saw that even a Syrian opponent of ISIS was deeply moved by a video showing how ISIS destroyed the “Sykes-Picot border” between Iraq and Syria, established since 1916, and how it went on to reunite divided tribes. I was intrigued by the condemnation issued by Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar—one of the most revered Sunni clerics in the world: “This group is Satanic—they should have their limbs amputated or they should be crucified.” I was taken aback by bin Laden’s elegy for Zarqawi: his “story will live forever with the stories of the nobles…. Even if we lost one of our greatest knights and princes, we are happy that we have found a symbol….”
But the “ideology” of ISIS is also an insufficient explanation. Al-Qaeda understood better than anyone the peculiar blend of Koranic verses, Arab nationalism, crusader history, poetic reference, sentimentalism, and horror that can animate and sustain such movements. * * * * *
. . . five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.
We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.