The country’s extremist problem goes way beyond ISIS. And unless the state fixes its governance troubles, it will have to fight this war all over again.
Last spring, it would have been difficult for the world to imagine large chunks of Iraq falling into the hands of the Islamic State. But the group’s presence — through the fall of Mosul, its expansion into Syria’s civil war, and its claiming responsibility for attacks around the world — has all but become the singular representation of Muslim radicalism, even though it has only commanded the world’s attention for just over a year. The circumstances that incubate this kind of ideological radicalization, however, are much older than the Islamic State — and they will almost surely outlast it. Unless the Iraqi government, with the help of the international community, is able to engage in legitimate state development and governance in the region, militant extremism will continue to rush in and fill the resulting social and political vacuums.
The U.S.-led military campaign — despite some successes — has struggled to push the group back. To actually help Iraq defeat the Islamic State, however, the United States needs to diversify its approach. Fighting the kind of radicalization epitomized by the Islamic State means addressing the base problem: the lack of legitimate governance structures that provide citizens with opportunities for prosperity. Iraq cannot achieve this level of legitimacy without help and investment in the country’s economic and social infrastructure. If the United States wants Iraq to overcome this challenge, it needs to help Iraqis rebuild an inclusive governance model as well as educational and economic opportunities in a way that benefits all constituents — or face the possibility of groups violently fracturing off to tend to the needs that their government cannot.
Though the Islamic State is the current enemy, the problem Iraq is fighting has deep roots. The Middle East is no stranger to ideologies that use Islam as justification for political violence. Before the Islamic State, there was al Qaeda. It, in turn, was preceded by the often forgotten radical Islamist groups that splintered off from the Muslim Brotherhood some decades ago, such as the Takfir wal-hijra, loosely translated as “excommunication and exodus.” So-called takfiri organizations like these — in Arabic, the term literally means the act of excommunication — have proliferated throughout the region. They have no official bond but share a common tendency to cast anyone who doesn’t subscribe to a particular insular ideology as an infidel target. The Islamic State is just the latest — if not, most successful — incarnation of this phenomenon. And it is the ideology incubating these extremist groups that must truly be defeated in Iraq and the Arab region.
A military strategy alone can only achieve short-term goals on the ground — what the Iraqi state needs to make those gains stick is national legitimacy.
Weak states like Iraq function as petri dishes for extremism. The Islamic State has been able to draw recruits from local and international civilian populations at least in part because they are able portray themselves as upholders of righteousness when cast alongside the corrupt, authoritarian governments. The states’ lack of legitimacy drives people into the arms of extremist ideology.
The more extreme pressure on civilians becomes, the more they flock to groups like the Islamic State..Even so, the Islamic State has proven itself uniquely adept at recruiting. According to CNN, the CIA estimates that there are between 20,000 and 32,000 Islamic State fighters. And though U.S. intelligence officials estimated in early June that the U.S.-led bombing campaign alone has killed more than 10,000 Islamic State troops, experts estimate that foreign recruits have more than made up for those lost. In a May report, the United Nations estimated that more than 25,000 foreigners had travelled to join militant Islamist groups worldwide. This ability to suck in civilian recruits wasn’t nearly as apparent in, say, post-2003 Iraq, when sectarian insurgents were at each other’s throats. Nor was it as rampant when al Qaeda was at its operational zenith in the years leading up to 9/11. The Islamic State’s ability to acquire and control territory — an accomplishment that has to do with active or tacit support from local populations — helped fuel this recruitment.
Still, the simple reality is that the situation in Iraq has grown dire for many civilians, and the Islamic State has continually been able to exploit the sectarian cracks that have crept across the country. Sunni Muslims have been dealing with social and political marginalization since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which paved the way for the Shiite majority to acquire political control. In more recent years, indiscriminate violence by Iraqi military forces became a prime reason for local civilians to turn to the Islamic State, according to Iraq-based journalist Mohammed al-Dulaimy.
The military strategy against the terrorist group has included the elevation of anti-Islamic State militant groups in the area — a security-centered approach that has led to unhelpful cycles of regional and local violence. Regional conflicts have divided into local conflicts, and more and more civilian communities are being militarized. The collapse of the Iraqi Army last summer in several key battles has led such militias, many with Iranian, Kurdish, or Turkish backing, to fill the security vacuum, which introduced an extra dimension of sectarian complication.
Kurdish groups and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias who are fighting against the Islamic State are now responsible for a good portion of sectarian violence in both Syria and Iraq. Shiite militias entering traditionally Sunni areas of Iraq, for instance, has resulted in further unrest, despite their supposed anti-Islamic State mandate. Western support for supposedly moderate militias fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces has exacerbated sectarian rifts, as these militias have engaged in reprisal attacks against Sunnis.
The Yazidis of Iraq (mainly in the Mount Sinjar area) started to take revenge after being pillaged by the Islamic State last summer and violence against Assyrian Christians in northeast Syria and the Coptic Christians in Libya has prompted Christian fanatics to travel from overseas to “protect” their religious brethren.
The Iraqi Christians of Assyrian descent, who have also suffered under the rise of the Islamic State, have even taken to crowdfunding to bolster their retaliatory efforts.
The Iraqi Christians of Assyrian descent, who have also suffered under the rise of the Islamic State, have even taken to crowdfunding to bolster their retaliatory efforts. In many cases, civilians are being armed and trained to fight. For instance, pro-Kurdish forces are training Yazidis and other groups in Iraq against the Islamic State, while pro-Shiite factions are training Shabaks, another ethnic and cultural minority in Iraq, and other Shiite Iraqis to do the same. This regional dynamic can facilitate a future where different sectarian or ethnic militias will resort to violence to achieve political goals with the support of larger regional powers like Iran, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia. This is a recipe for more instability.
If the world hopes to dial down this kind of local and regional sectarian-based violence, there needs to be a strategy — by both international and regional powers — working alongside the current security-centric plan. This cooling effect is impossible at the present pace of local militarization, often carried out along political and sectarian lines.
Counterbalancing the forces that seem to be destabilizing and reorienting the Middle East demands a comprehensive strategy that bolsters institutions of education and social security, which can improve the economic inequality and lack of upward mobility in much of the region. This, however, needs to be done in a way that is suitably tailored to the characteristics of each country. So far, the proposed approach of cross-sectarian nation states adheres too much to secular Western social standards, which are often impractical and unpalatable for the region’s populations. Moreover, the West has a credibility problem that it has to overcome.
To begin with, policymakers in the West would do well to reconsider their alliances with certain authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have strategic agendas that don’t always align with the United States. Not only does this foster cynicism among civilians, it also directly facilitates regional instability and violence by way of a highly perceivable double standard. Iraqis also balk at what they see as a double standard regarding how the world seems to legitimize sectarian militias in Syria that are anti-Assad but label similar groups in Iraq as “terrorists.” The alleged GCC-based funding of anti-Assad militias in Syria is a good example of this mismanagement, as a substantial portion of its funding went to extremist groups, which helped exacerbate the Islamic State problem next door.
Secondly, consistent militarization of localities and civilians will result in heightened radicalization. The United States and other countries should start cutting off the flow of weapons into places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Libya, though the genie is out of the bottle by now.
The offspring of Iraqi insurgents in post-2003 Iraq will come of age and possibly continue the same fighting that their fathers engaged in unless the region’s governments start taking their citizenry more seriously by transitioning into truly representative democracies and implementing measures that benefit everyone, regardless of sect or ethnicity. None of this can be done through forceful foreign imposition, which makes ethno-sectarian divisions even more dangerous and perhaps more capable of sparking radicalization. The question of how Islam might play a role in state-building must also be addressed. Managing sectarianism means the facilitation of moderation. This can be done by providing a platform for mainstream Muslim scholars to project their voices in public discourse. One example is Mauritania’s Abdullah bin Bayyah, who has long advocated the resolution of sectarian differences within the global Muslim community.
Western nations must reconsider their priorities in a way that helps restore regional legitimacy to states and protects people during conflict while enhancing their quality of life in peacetime. This means pouring more resources into areas like educational and economic development, all done in a way that bolsters inclusive and peaceful coexistence in a diverse society. Investment in inclusive governance and development will go a long way in terms of building a government’s legitimacy, which has long been a problem for the Middle East. New leaders must also embody this new legitimacy by voicing a willingness from the state to address issues like human rights and economic inequality. Without these strategies to complement a military plan, it will be impossible to prevent further violence from animating the region for a long time to come. A Middle East with even more sectarian violence than exists today is the kind of nightmare scenario that the world should do everything to prevent.