Book reviews: ISIS A History and Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World

Not all countries in the Middle East aspire to a western-style democratic model and it is this misunderstanding of people’s needs that has led to the inexorable rise of IS, writes JP O’Malley.

Book reviews: ISIS A History and Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World

ISIS A History

Fawaz A Gerges

Princeton University Press, €26.50

Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World

Shadi Hamid St Martin’s Press, €24.00

IN decades hence, when historians begin to document how the state system in the Middle East drastically altered in the second decade of the 21st century, a pivotal turning point will be June 10, 2014: when IS captured Mosul, Iraq’s northern capital city, after four days of intense fighting.

After the victory, the leader of the de-facto state, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claimed that the entire “earth [was] Allah’s”.

If al-Qaida’s raison d’être was to perpetually declare war with a western power they saw as the devil, IS began implementing a far more ambitious agenda.

They believe that Baghdadi is the only legitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammed. IS’s end goal is not just to occupy Iraq and Syria, but to create a world-wide caliphate.

IS are the only organisation to have brought about a functioning caliphate since the last one was officially abolished in 1924: following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Currently, IS controls an area geographically as large as the United Kingdom, and it’s responsible for the management, bureaucracy, and daily needs of a population that ranges anywhere between six and nine million citizens.

President Barack Obama has taken a more hands- off approach than George W Bush did in the Middle East in recent years.

However, like his predecessor, he’s sung a similar tune in many respects.

Believing that, if countries in the region just embrace liberal democracy, and a free market, relatively stable economies, the rule of law, social cohesion, pluralism, liberty, freedom, and peaceful neighbouring states will eventually come to pass in the region: like they have in the west.

But this is a view that presupposes every country across the Middle East aspires to western-style democratic values. They don’t. The reasons for this are complicated.

But a century of western domination of Muslim culture has a lot to answer for.

This began with the Sykes–Picot Agreement: made secretly in 1916 between the British and French who divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire between them.

If you want to figure out how the loss of a once proud pan-Muslim identity — anchored in centuries of history and culture — has culminated in a situation where young Muslim men are now willing to blow themselves up in public in the cosmopolitan European cities they were born in, these two intriguing books might not be a bad place to start looking for answers.

In ISIS A History, Fawaz A Gerges — a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics — explores the history of IS through the framework of identity and sectarian politics.

According to Gerges, IS will likely gain more followers. But ultimately, he predicts, it will self destruct.

Beyond a cult of death, it has nothing substantial to offer to Arabs and muslims in the medium to long term.

Its strategic goal is to establish a totalitarian system that is rooted in a reactionary interpretation of sharia law.

But it’s important to remember that even if it attacks European cities from time to time, IS’s enemies are actually closer to home: Shia Muslims.

IS’s caliphate is one that envisions room for Sunni Muslims only.

The nasty sectarianism is fuelled by the geo-strategic rivalry between Shia dominated Iran, and Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia.

This cold war between the two superpowers of the Middle East — and within Islam itself — presents a huge roadblock for bringing stability to the region.

It’s also now playing out in a spectacularly violent fashion on the streets of weak Arab states, such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

The rise, and then sudden fall, of the Arab Spring, in 2011, has been hugely influential in shaping the political manoeuvring that’s taken place across the Middle East in the last five years especially.

This political vacuum across the region has made considerable space for one ideology to flourish: Islamism.

This merging of Islamic faith with politics into the apparatus of state systems has ensured that religion has now entered into all facets of social, civic, and public life.

However, to simply claim that IS is a direct result of the Arab Spring, Gerges reminds us, is to absolve Western governments of any blame.

After all, the west has propped up and financed secular Arab dictators in the region for several decades now.

This is a subject that Shadi Hamid — a senior fellow at the centre for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution — tackles head on in Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.

Hamid’s narrative explores how numerous forms of Islamism has gripped different countries across the Middle East in various ways.

The radical ideology of IS, for instance, is very different to the gradualist

approach of the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; or the Islamist politics now taking hold in Turkey and Tunisia.

The key commonality that links Islamism together — whether it’s in an extremist form, or one that is more compatible with democracy — is the interchangeable relationship between religion and politics in public life.

Sometimes, the fightback is a moderate form of Islamist politics. But other times — as we are seeing with IS — it’s savage, bloodthirsty, totalitarian, sectarian, and hateful.

Hamid spends considerable time and effort exploring the complexities of this issue.

He asks, for instance, how compatible Islam is with the nation state?

Concluding that, unlike, say, Christianity — which found a way to include religion side-by-side with the concept of the modern nation state — Islam, for a variety of complicated reasons, will not take the same path.

Many academics and historians are predicting a point in the near future where Islam will move into the private realm: like say the birth of modern European protestantism.

But there is not a shred of evidence, the author suggests, that this will happen.

Indeed, as both of these books remind us here, it’s this myopic belief in applying western values to the Arab and muslim world that’s lead to more violence, misunderstanding, and inevitable chaos in the region.

Pace 2003, an obsession by the West to impose democracy on certain Middle Eastern states has caused a civil war in Iraq, leading to the collapse of the state structures that were extremely fragile anyway; its fuelled ethnic conflicts and tribal hatreds between Sunni and Shia muslims; and this, in turn, has allowed room for IS to flourish.

Thus making the current war in Syria go from bad to apocalyptic.

Religion, identity, and cultural belonging — or lack of it — both authors believe, are at the very heart of the current political crisis in the Middle East.

Neoliberals may believe that economics, by itself, will simply lift the region out of what appears to be a never-ending blazing political inferno.

To use an old Clintonian proverb: it’s the economy stupid.

But this view is deeply misguided. The problems across the Middle East are rooted in existential human questions linked to a major crisis of identity.

They cannot be solved by simply applying a western model of statecraft, dropping more bombs, or talking about rising GDP figures to the IMF.

The current fragile state structure across the Middle East are the results of a catastrophic, multifaceted crisis that has troubled Arab countries for nearly a hundred years now.

This last point is particularly important: especially since most countries in the region don’t have a strong history of democracy.

Therefore expecting democracy to simply flourish overnight is incredibly naïve.

The ruthless-genocidal Assad regime in Syria is a perfect example of this weak-dictatorial Arab state system at its very worst in action.

Perhaps Shadi Hamid’s sobering analysis is a fitting note on which to leave this subject.

Rather pessimistically, he concludes that: “There is little to suggest that violence and the dehumanisation that leads to it, will diminish any time soon in the Middle East.”

After reading both of these excellent books, it’s pretty hard to disagree with his depressing prediction.

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