Friday, September 25th 2015
On March 17, 2015, the Project on Middle East Political Science, based at the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University and supported by the Carnegie Corporation and the Henry Luce Foundation, issued a report, “Islamism in the IS Age.” In the introduction to the report, Marc Lynch commented:
It is in the realm of confronting jihadist ideology that trends are the least promising. The currently favored strategy, which combines autocratic repression with the official promotion of “moderate” Islam and the conflation of very different movements under the banner of “terrorism,” is likely to make problems worse. Radicalization is driven less by Islamist ideas than by failures of both governance and popular uprisings and the elimination of nonviolent alternatives. The Islamic State gained traction, recall, in a distinctive regional political environment shaped especially by extensive public regional mobilization in support of a sectarian Syrian jihad and the July 3, 2013 military coup in Egypt that brought down the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi. The coup and subsequent regional wave of intense repression of the Muslim Brotherhood ended an extended period of the open political participation by mainstream Islamist movements, discrediting the idea of such democratic inclusion for the foreseeable future and marginalizing the advocates of mainstream political strategies. The regional environment after the failure and perversion of the Arab uprisings is deeply hostile to any public role for non-violent Islamists and highly conducive to radical movements of all flavors.
It is a potentially fatal flaw in the emerging strategy that the Arab world’s autocratic resurgence and proxy wars are constantly replenishing exactly the pool of potential extremists which the counter-IS strategy hopes to drain. The Islamic State’s appeal beyond Syria and Iraq should be understood within the political context of the advantage of the chaos and poor decisions that followed the Arab uprisings. The failures of attempted transitions toward democratic governance, along with the region-wide repression of mainstream Islamists and secular activists, have been a strategic gift to al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremist trends. The failure of almost all of the Arab uprisings, with the sole and partial exception of Tunisia, has badly ndermined the idea of the possibility of peaceful political change. The horrors of collapsed states and civil war in Libya, Yemen and Syria hang over all political life. None of the underlying drivers of those protests have been resolved and many – from personal insecurity to economic misery – have deteriorated. Focusing on Islam to the exclusion of these vital issues of governance, democracy and economic opportunity will guarantee failure. Encouraging or tolerating repression in the name of counter-terrorism will only fuel the grim cycle of repression, protest and radicalization. Put bluntly, the anti-Islamist campaign being waged by Egypt and the Gulf states that combines fierce repression with the promotion of “moderate” Islam is likely to badly fail: The Islamic messages will have no resonance with intended audiences, while abusive autocracy will continue to drive alienation and rejection of an illegitimate order.