Islamic State Group (ISIS) and the Lessons We Must Learn from Them By Mukhtar Usman-Janguza

This article is in response to the set of questions posed by Tunde Alabi on his Facebook wall regarding the group known as the “Islamic State”. I also suggest three lessons Nigeria should draw and learn from Iraq’s tragedy.

Islamic State fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of their proclaimed capital, the Syrian northern province of Ar-Raqqa (Reuters)

  1.     What is wrong with their establishment [as a State] and mode of expansion?
  2.     Are their mode of establishment, expansion and objectives truly in line with Islamic teachings as preached by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)?

Let me preface my answer by first briefly describing what the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) now known as the Islamic State (IS) is, and what its stated goals are.

The IS is a movement led by a man called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi which aspires to re-establish a type of polity known as a Caliphate – an Islamic form of government underpinned by Shari’ah which first emerged in the 7th century after the death of the Prophet, and was abolished in 1924 with the end of the Ottoman Empire. The group is a Jihadi organization in that it ideologically believes the Caliphate can only be re-established through armed force (i.e. Jihad). And finally it is an extremist sect in that, as we have seen, it doesn’t shy away from using mind-numbing violence to impose its narrow minded and literalist interpretation of religious tenets.

Its stated goals are the:

re-establishment of the Caliphate – which it believes it has already fulfilled

expansion of the Caliphate across the Levant (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) – hence the “al-Sham” in its original name (al-Sham is the Arabic term for the Levant area)

and eventually the spread of their Caliphate across the whole world.

Now to answer the first two questions posed above. I will answer these from two perspectives. In terms of the historical perspective, there is nothing unique or new in states being born violently, and augmenting their power through expansion and conquest. While it may seem shocking to contemporary eyes that a “new state” – whether it will endure remains to be seen – is being born through war, and has set about expanding its territory through conquest. In actual fact this has been the “normal” process of state-building from a historical perspective. The overwhelming majority of states today are the products of violent creation and conquest – even post-colonial states like Nigeria where our borders were created through the conquest and destruction of pre-colonial polities by the colonial powers. As the leading scholar on Europe’s state-building process, the late Charles Tilly, famously said when commenting on that continent’s violent past: “War made the State and the State made war”.

Similarly from a religious perspective, there is nothing wrong in principle with the establishment of the Caliphate through violence and conquest. The Islamic Caliphates and Empires of the past were established, and dissolved, through exactly that process. There are major problems with the way the IS has gone about establishing its State however.

The first is the wanton butchery with which Baghdadi’s followers have gone about their business of state-building. It’s one thing when the violence unleashed is a product of the war being fought to establish the State – i.e. battlefield deaths. It is quite another thing entirely when that violence is transferred wholesale beyond the battlefield and is used to indiscriminately kill captured prisoners of war – as IS openly boasts of doing – or to target civilians – as they seem to be doing, simply because the civilians in question happen to be from a different religious sect. This is just nothing but slaughter. Criminal slaughter! I find it difficult to believe that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – who after all, led many campaigns – would openly revel in such a bloodthirsty manner as Baghdadi’s followers are known for doing after killing their enemies. And to my mind, it is the atrocities more than anything else that will eventually doom IS’ Caliphate to destruction. It will not only repel potential followers and supporters, it will also provoke the Major Powers into taking military action against it – as seems to have happened now with the US’ decision to conduct airstrikes against it.

The second major problem with the IS Caliphate is the fact that it has been rejected by the majority of Islamic scholars. Ironically, the IS Caliphate has also been rejected by other Jihadist groups. The rejection by the majority of Islamic scholars, including scholars respected within Jihadi circles, is not to be underestimated. Under Islamic law, a Caliphate can only be established one of two ways: when there is a broad consensus amongst scholars that the time is right for it, or through war. Baghdadi has obviously settled for the latter, hoping that battlefield success will legitimize his claim. Whether he succeeds or not, remains to be seen. As for me, I am highly skeptical of his chances.

  1.     Are they the ones beheading the Christian communities and issuing deadly warnings to non-Muslims? If yes, what is the basis for this in Islam?

To be honest, I have not come across any credible news outlet which has substantiated the claim that the IS are beheading Christian communities. And personally, I’d be very surprised if this was the case.

The IS, particularly its leadership cadre, are intensely ideologically motivated. The core of their ideology is their interpretation of Islam. Within Islam, Christians are recognized as “People of the Book” which means their religion is recognised, and theoretically Christians are safe from persecution – certainly this is what happened with Islamic Empires in the past. Now given that Baghdadi and his followers are intensely ideologically motivated, I find it hard to believe that they will go out and wantonly behead, or otherwise execute, entire Christian communities on a whim.

Be that as it may, what has happened to the Christian community in IS controlled territory however, is a tragic calamity in its own right. When the IS comes to town, Christians are often given three choices: convert to Islam, pay the Jizya (a form of protection tax), or leave. Not willing to convert and unable to pay, practically all have chosen to leave rather than stay and gamble with their lives given the well-known ruthless brutality of IS operatives. Therefore, Christians have essentially been ethnically cleansed from areas they’ve called home since time immemorial. They’ve been forced to flee with what little possession they can carry, not knowing when, if ever, they will return to their homeland.

The role of Ideology which makes me confident that the fate of Christians in IS controlled territory will not necessarily result in a pile of corpses, makes me less so when it comes to the fate of other religious groups that according to IS’ ideological framework are not recognised as religions. We’ve all seen the harrowing and heart-breaking images of the Yazidis atop the freezing mount Sinjar. Their hearts in their throats, their possessions in their hands, and the frailer members of the community on their backs, escaping what they believed was certain death had they chosen to hang around after IS took over their city. The options for them were stark: convert or die – according to reports. Unlike the Christian story, which I am for now skeptical of until provided credible evidence, for other non-Christian religious groups that the IS doesn’t recognize, such as Yazidis, Shi’ites etc. I honestly believe to be true the claims that they face Genocide, or at the very least mass killings of their civilian population, at the hands of the IS. The ideological beliefs of IS fighters, their sectarian rhetoric, and the increasingly sectarian nature of the Iraqi conflict makes these danger a very real possibility.

  1.     Do they pose any danger to the peace and stability of the Arab region and by extension the world?

To the Arab region, absolutely they do; to the whole world, in the long term potentially yes. The IS has made it quite clear that it aims for the destruction of the Middle East’s state system – which they view as the artificial construct of Europe’s colonial powers. Their erasure of the Iraq-Syria border, the declaration of a proto-state which straddles the two countries, and the very immediate danger they pose to Jordan and Lebanon is the most visible manifestation of this territorial threat. To the extent that the Middle East is punctuated by weak states, this threat will endure for as long as expansion and conquest remains the driving force of Baghdadi’s State.

While the territorial danger is real, we shouldn’t overestimate it however. To my mind, the IS has probably reached its furthest extent. It may still secure some tactical gains – a town here, a city there – but the big sweeping strategic advance that catapulted it to the limelight earlier this year seems unlikely for now. Everywhere, the IS Caliphate looks boxed in to me. To the south lies Baghdad, a prize Iran, and for that matter the Americans, will not let fall to the IS. To the north are Kurdish territories which the Americans, with the announcement of a supply of weapons to the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) to better defend their areas from the IS, have practically committed themselves to protecting. To the east is Iran, one of the Middle East’s few strong and capable states. And to the west are Jordan and Saudi Arabia, countries which due to their strategic relations with the US, means that country would probably unhesitatingly defend them should their territorial sovereignty be comprehensively threatened by IS forces.

The biggest long-term danger the IS poses to the world is through the material support and training facilities it could offer to other terrorist groups. The IS is now listed as the world’s richest terrorist group, with billions in cash and gold bullion; and it now controls a vast swathe of territory straddling two countries. These are obviously resources that could be used to plan and support devastating terrorist attacks against adversaries. While precautions should always be taken, I however don’t believe any international terrorist operation to be among Baghdadi’s top list of priorities for now given that he is still trying to consolidate his territory. Any terrorist spectacular against especially Western countries will only draw those countries into taking more aggressive military action against the group.

  1.  What do we do as people of different faiths in the face of this newest empire with determined objectives?

In one sentence: Learn more about it so we avoid the dangers of name-calling and fear mongering. Many will simply see the word “Islamic” in the group’s name and conclude “Yep, I said it, Muslims are unhinged killers. It’s like when you say ‘Allahu Akbar’, something happens in their brains and it comes out translated as ‘Behead that man’”! Ok, most people won’t actually think this, but you get my drift. Nothing beats knowledge to help us better comprehend complex events as they unfold; and to better shape our reactions to those complex events.

As for Nigerians, there are at least three pertinent lessons that we can draw from the tragedy that has befallen Iraq.

1. No country lasts forever:
Iraq may yet survive the IS assault and emerge with its State intact. But for now, and probably for the foreseeable future, the possibility of stitching back together the broken societies of that traumatized country will remain a distant prospect. A country that was once a regional player in its heyday has now become a playing field for all the regional powers to act out their ambitions. With Iraq’s ruling elites having botched the opportunity to reform their country’s badly dysfunctional polity, when the forces of disintegration came knocking at the door, their enfeebled State simply collapsed.

As for the Nigerians who mindlessly parrot the slogans that ‘Nigeria will never break apart because God put us together’, or because ‘we are destined to be together’, should soak in for a while the stories of an Iraq in turmoil. While I am a firm believer in the One Nigeria project; I am also a political realist in that I recognize that States don’t emerge and stay together because some higher Power has divined for it to be so. Rather, States stay together because the societies over which they govern have decided to stay together, and have decided to act purposely towards that goal. They stay together because the leaders and the elites of those societies have decided to set aside all parochial interests to forge a common destiny, and a common vision of a shared political community.

The fact is when unbridgeable fissures emerge within weak states like Iraq and Nigeria; it provides the space for the forces of decay and disintegration to thrive. Not even a Kingdom of God on earth can escape this fundamental law of political reality.

2. No one will save you when you are unwilling to save yourself: This is a particularly pertinent lesson for those Nigerians who, faced with the resurging power Boko Haram, often insist that ‘America should do this, The international community will do that, Why isn’t Cameroon doing this or that?’. It is also particularly imperative for our indolent and short-sighted elites to sit up and take note of this lesson. As the Iraq example has amply shown, when a State is faced with existential challenges, the drive for survival must come from within. An absence of this internal drive, disintegration becomes inevitable. It is a brutal world out there. And no amount of appeals to brotherly solidarity will convince neighbors, or the wider international community, to lift a finger and save a dysfunctional state from tumbling over the precipice.

Despite the Iraq crisis now having dragged on now for a while, the US only decided to act when a community was facing the real threat of Genocide (in other words not because the State itself was collapsing), and when it became clear that IS forces were expanding further into Kurdish held territory. Given that the US has strategic installations and personnel stationed here; this was a direct national security threat. As for Iraq’s neighbors, what have they done to aid the country as it floundered to contain the threat of the IS? Well, they have contented themselves with watching the drama afar; unwilling to act lest they provoke the beast now tearing Iraq apart.

3. A demoralized and politicized army can’t fight:
Iraqi army collapse as IS forces surged into the north and the west of the country earlier this year was stunning. Faced with about 800 Jihadi warriors bearing down on them, two entire divisions of the army – roughly 30,000 men – simply buckled and fled. This comical, were it not so tragic, performance didn’t happen because the soldiers were ill-equipped – the soldiers were actually relatively well-equipped compared to the Jihadist and insurgent forces. Rather it happened because the soldiers were demoralized and, in a process known as “coup-proofing”, the officer core had been gutted; with competent officers replaced with politically pliant ones. This meant that when it came time to actually fight, the soldiers were simply not willing to sacrifice their lives for a mission they didn’t believe in. Neither were their officers competent enough to restore military discipline once it began to break down.

This is a very important lesson for Nigerians, particularly for our military planners and political leaders, to ponder on as we battle our own determined group of violent extremists intent on imposing their narrow (and heterodox) vision of Islam. While it is now no secret that Nigerian troops are badly equipped. The “mutiny” of the soldiers from the 7th Division on the 14th of May, and the often reported stories of soldiers fleeing at the sight of Boko Haram fighters, should be seen as warning signs of creeping mission weariness. It should also be seen as a problem arising not only from poor weaponry, but also from low morale and the erosion of command and control capabilities – i.e. the ability and competence of commanders to exercise authority over their troops.

If there is anything we can draw from the Iraq experience on this issue, it is that, even if adequately equipped, soldiers debilitated by poor morale, lacking belief in the mission they are meant to risk their lives for, and are led by incompetent officers, will likely flee when faced with a determined adversary!

Mukhtar Usman-Janguza is a London based Africa and Middle East public affairs commentator. He blogs at janguzaarewa.blogspot.com

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