Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment: ISIS: Back to Pre-Islamic Arab structures

Sunnism has always had a particular link with the state. (We are not talking Westphalia here, with its homogenous national identities, but something more complex, with different ethnicities, sects and tribes jostled together under a single strong authority).  Sunnis feel somehow intimately connected to the state, in a way others do not: by which we mean that they feel that they founded the state, that they are somehow ‘the state’, and are ‘of it’.  Concomitantly, the Shi’i are often derogatorily called (largely by Sunnis) ‘the rejectionists’ (of ‘their’ state), and are viewed as too attached to their notions of justice to make reliable adapts to the pragmatic art of statecraft.  In short, they are seen (by Sunnis) as being potentially naturally disruptive, and even revolutionary.  From their perspective, the Shi’i view Sunnis as so pragmatic in the exercise of power that they lose sight of the radical, spiritual component to the Prophet’s message.

But over the recent period, Sunni states have not at all fared well.  All the so-called ‘models’ for Sunni governance have either imploded or stand largely discredited.  The Sunni ‘sphere’ visibly has been in a process of degradation.  And, since Sunni ‘identity’ is so closely linked to the notion of a powerful state (the ideal being the early years of Islamic expansion after the death of the Prophet), this has been accompanied by a psychological fragmentation, and the profound sense that their ‘way of being’ - their 'cultural values' - are being somehow overrun and ignored.

And this has come to be, precisely at a moment of renewal and energy in the Shi’i ambit, which has added considerably to Sunni discomfort.  Unsurprisingly therefore, we are witness to profound feelings amongst the Sunnah of dispossession from ‘rightfully held’ positions of leadership; of frustration at (what they perceive to be) their diminished standing in directing the future of Islam and the region - and of resentment at their perceived marginalisation from affairs.

Much of this is more imagined than real – which is not in any way to diminish its psychological and political significance.  Nevertheless, Sunni ‘state’ models are in crisis: there has been marginalisation of Sunnis in Iraq, that is so; but across the region (including Syria) it is not correct to suggest that Sunnis are somehow ‘victims’, threatened with being overrun by the ‘foreign’ cultural tide emanating from Iran.  Sunnis are the majority (but not to the extent often suggested for the region), and they predominantly continue to hold the political and economic levers of power.  But the region is rebalancing and that understandably is unsettling, and the cause of turmoil.

What is the more politically significant is that Europe and America uncritically have so absorbed this narrative of Sunni ‘victimhood’ that it has left them confused and passive in the face of the rise of Da’ish (ISIS).  Yes, Shi’i Islam is enjoying a renaissance, but it is truly simplistic to attribute the Sunni psychological distress simply to the Shi’i resurgence. The failings within Sunni Islam have as much to do with it - as does the rising self-confidence of Iran.  In short, Sunnis do have to answer to their own circumstance: it cannot all be attributed to external forces.

It was, after all, Sunni rulers who were discredited in the recent Arab upheavals.  It was a breakdown of the Sunni social contract that was at the core of it, rather than ‘machinations’ emanating out from Iran.  Yet this simplistic view (that Sunni distress is primarily caused by Iran and Shi’i ‘activism’) has become the established European and US consensus. Europeans and Americans are (and should be), of course sincerely troubled by ISIS and its sudden seizure of swaths of Iraq, but they also are struck by certain Gulf and popular Sunni support for ISIS: as a leading political commentator notes, “US officials note that ISIS enjoys significant support from the Sunni population, thus risking the perception that the US [would be] taking anti-Sunni action [were it to intervene to support Iraq]”). Indeed, a former Qatari ambassador to the US cautioned the Obama administration against any military intervention on behalf of Maliki: It would be seen as an act of “war” on the entire community of Sunni Arabs, he warned.

This embrace of the Sunni narrative (the nonsensical claim that the rise of ISIS is attributable to President Assad and PM Maliki’s sectarianism) has paralysed western initial reactions to Iraq’s requests for assistance, and has left western policy explicitly in a state of fundamental contradiction  - with the US increasing the financial support for Syrian insurgency (the fertile ground out of which ISIS emerged and was armed), while at the same time hesitating to offer the Iraqi government grudging assistance to defeat ISIS.

We have written here about the radical nature of ISIS and the truly revolutionary significance of its revisionist historicism, but what is so important for understanding the significance of ISIS is this paradigmatic shift of emphasis from the actions of the Prophet himself and of Medina, as a societal model - to the privileging of the conduct of the first and second Caliphs (Abu Bakr, whose name the new ‘Caliph’ takes as his ‘nom de guerre’ - and the second Caliph, Umar).  This shift tells us much about this new orientation of thinking, and why it should hold such broad appeal, spanning the spectrum from angry young Sunni Muslims to Gulf leaders.

In one sense, ISIS' thinking seems to offer young Muslims a romantic, ‘heroic’ solution to the Sunni crisis of discredited models of statehood (see here for an extraordinary piece lauding the ISIS conception for a new model of citizenship! (with its scant mention or criticism of Saudi and Gulf support for ISIS and radical jihadists).

Abu Bakr and Umar did, as it were, consolidate the ‘state’.  They launched wars against apostates and enemies of God, and they had no hesitation in using ‘rough violence’, burning alive and ordering the severing of heads of opponents.  (We see the same approach in Iraq now.)

But Abu Bakr and Umar are also noted for mitigating the spirituality and radicalness of the Prophet’s message, by surrounding it, and returning it to within the embrace of the prevalent Arab mores and culture of the period. Not only was the style of warfare adopted -- one of traditional Arab warring -- but traditional patriarchy and male primacy were reinserted into interpretations and commentary on the Prophet’s sayings and actions.  The Prophet’s messages on social relations were tempered by a recovery of traditional Arab culture (particularly by Umar as Caliph)

Thus, when we read the ISIS literature, the emphasis on Abu Bakr and Umar suggests not so much a return to the model of Medina (to which the Muslim Brothers as well as most Salafists aspire); but to a model of the Islamic State, which is pre-Islamic in its main characteristics.  We find the notion of the Medina Charter as the template of political society (which was drawn up during the Prophet's stay in Medina) is gone from the ISIS narrative, as too is the Muslim Brotherhood’s claim that the first Communities were founded on the peoples’ sovereignty. This ISIS reorientation represents a dramatic and significant change in Sunni Islamism towards pre-Islamic structures of state and society.

ISIS essentially is moving the paradigm from the Prophetic period (the era of Mohammad) to that of the post-Prophetic period (i.e. to the Islamic Empire period), which was characterised more by military efficacy as its commanding ethos.  It was within this spirit that the first two Caliphs reinstated much of the pre-Islamic ways of ruling and fighting.

We have then, ISIS presenting young Muslims with pre-Islamic rulership as the ‘solution’ to the contemporary Sunni plight.  Which is to say the ISIS  ‘solution’ is Islam implanted into the traditional, pre-Islamic Arab model of the state – with Abu Bakr and Umar as its role model.

It is a model that is both autocratic and demands complete submission and obedience on pain of death to those who refuse it.  In this aspect (the insistence on authority) it is not hard to see how some Gulf autocrats are drawn by it – even as they are repelled by ISIS’ denial of their own pillars of legitimacy as monarchs (see here). The romance of ‘fighting for Islam’ as the early ‘fighting scholars’ did, and the utter commitment demanded towards an ‘ideal’ will always draw youth, who see themselves slashing and cutting away at the corruption and putrefaction of a degraded society.

In short, ISIS is a manifestation more of psychological distress and fragmentation, than does it constitute any real political solution.  It may resonate with the present psyche of many Sunnis for the moment, but it is hard to see mainstream Sunnis enduring much time under this new Caliphate.  It is, in any case, a model in which efficacy pre-empts morality, and it remains with the same fundamental flaw that scarred Islam at the outset: Opacity in the methodology of choosing who becomes Caliph.  If efficacy is its litmus, then it will likely be judged by that standard (and found wanting).

The Saudi response (as outlined in an opinion-piece by a top Saudi establishment commentator, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, who heads Al-Arabiya television) is that the ISIS threat needs to be understood properly - since there is a "genuine [Sunni] revolution against a sectarian repugnant rule” in both Syria and Iraq. ISIS tapped into this ‘Sunni anger’ to become “the star at the box office” for Sunnis all over the world … However, “were it not for Assad and Maliki, ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front would not have existed.”  (This Saudi meme is the ‘narrative’ that has almost universally been taken up by the mainstream western media.)

Saudi Arabia is prepared, Abdulrahman suggests to confront ISIS, but only - and only if  - “a political solution [is] imposed in Syria and Iraq” — a regime change that leads to wider Sunni mobilization. The sectarian policies of Assad and Maliki “triggered this chaos. Therefore, the solution lies in strong central governments in both Baghdad and Damascus with American, Western and regional support.”

But let us be clear: When Abdulrahman insists that Nouri al-Maliki must be ousted, he is not proposing that another Shi’i simply take his place – as would occur under the present political dispensation in which the Shi’i amount to 60 - 65% of the electorate.  He is calling for the overthrow of the system – with a Sunni (or a Riyadh approved Iyad Alawi) ‘strongman’ placed in power (à la Sisi).  Ditto for Syria.  It is a call for the purging of the Middle East.

It is hard to see this grandiose Saudi demand getting anywhere. ISIS will over time lose their lustre, and the Shi’i of Iraq are mobilizing, and slowly will re-organise themselves to begin the task of defeating ISIS.  It will not be quick, but it has begun.

What is going on here?  Does Saudi Arabia really believe that the Da’ish model is sustainable beyond the Sunni rush of adrenalin at ISIS’ initial military victories?  Evidence from Syria is that it isn’t.  And if ISIS is nothing more than a genuine revolution against a sectarian repugnant rule, as Abdulrahman suggests, why then is Saudi Arabia massing 30,000 troops on its borders with Iraq?  Plainly the Saudis are more nervous than they might publicly admit.

The al-Saud family is both divided and conflicted.  What this (qualified) validation of ISIS by a well-placed insider suggests, rather, is that Saudi Arabia is adrift – and is proving unable to ‘undo’ old policies – even when they threaten directly the wellbeing of the kingdom.  ‘Assad must go’; ‘Maliki must go’, and ISIS fits like an old glove: policy is on autopilot, and no one - it seems – has the wherewithal to change it, for now.

But the situation is leading to a very uncertain future. Maliki may not be much admired, and is being heavily criticized for the army’s failures in Mosul, but undoubtedly he is something of a master at Iraqi political wheeler-dealing.  So far, he is surviving.  Indeed, the very attempt to oust him by the US paradoxically may have had the converse effect - prompting the quick delivery of Russian and Iranian military assistance  - in order to forestall a US attempt to blackmail Iraqi parliamentarians by making any US military help contingent on Maliki’s removal.  “The shoe is now on the other foot, actually; if the US doesn’t get involved militarily, no one is going to miss its absence”, as one commentator notes.

Iran and Russia and Iran are co-ordinating closely, and Iran is taking the ISIS incursion to constitute the entry of Saudi Arabia into regional war with it.  Iranian politicians are now pointing the finger of responsibility for ISIS at Saudi Arabia – (and unusually) are doing so explicitly: “Saudi Arabia is the spiritual, material and ideological supporter of the ISIS and the Saudi King tasked the country’s former intelligence chief [Prince Bandar] with a special mission to support the ISIS.” (Mohammad Hassan Asafari, a prominent member of the Iranian Majlis).  The conservative Iranian press is harsher still: “America's second big gamble in Iraq smells like a loss. While the forces of Iraq's people's army and basij [voluntary forces] are cleaning up the city of Tikrit … the Americans are not willing to help the lawfully elected government of Iraq put down the terrorists; they even have taken positions that guarantee support for Da'ish.  Instead of discrediting the terrorists … US officials have accused [Maliki] of monopolism and exacerbating sectarian warfare!" (Keyhan, 30 June 2014).

American and European ambivalence (the western tilting towards the Gulf line that ISIS is just a ‘fact’ to which the West should reconcile itself, rather than a front committed to murdering all ‘apostates’) – is generating an increasingly suspicious and hostile reaction from senior Iranian politicians.  We are now drawing close to the 20 July deadline for the nuclear negotiations. It is hard to see how these atmospherics cannot but harden the Iranian determination to stand up for their interests in the last round of P5+1 negotiations before the 20 July deadline.  For now, there is too, no sign of any 'understanding' emerging between Saudi Arabia and Iran that would stabilise the region: we are moving in the opposite direction.