Among the many nightmares of this decade, and the plenty of unfortunate outcomes of the Arab Spring, is the birth of Islamic State in Iraq and Sham, or ISIS, or DAESH, or whatever else you want to call it, even if you refer to it as “those violent young Muslims who cover their faces and dress in black” (which is one of the descriptions I have actually heard).
ISIS is indeed a serious threat, not just to the national and regional security of the Middle East and North Africa, but also to the security of the whole international community. The intensity of the security threat ISIS poses, and the dangers materialised by the very existence of such an organisation, are indeed disturbing.
As an Islamist movement or a terrorist organisation, ISIS is quite rich and sophisticated. Geopolitically, there are several potential hubs in which ISIS could flourish and gain increasing strength. The political reality that prevails today in places like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Sinai is certainly put to maximum use by ISIS. So far, the organisation has benefited from internal domestic disputes, the fragile state of security and all the logistic and military resources available due to the contentious political environment that exists in some regions of the Middle East and North Africa at the present moment.
Moreover, the organisation seems to be successful in making the connection between the available political opportunity and their actual operative strategy. In other words, they know how to make the best of what is available, and how to operate according to the resources they have and the intensity of the attack they are under. Therefore, ISIS poses a real threat that I will not attempt to underestimate.
However, Western media usually blows that threat out of proportion, and puts the danger posed by ISIS within a context that is neither accurate nor objective. And the main reason behind the lack of accuracy and objectivity is the fact that Western media is not interested in what ISIS are doing as much as it is interested in how Western societies react to the existence of the organisation. In other words, Western media is moved by the fact that citizens of Western societies abandon their homes and the communities they grew up in to join ISIS, much more than it is moved by the facts surrounding the organisation and its actions. The fear that surrounds the picture of ISIS in Western media is not a reflection of the organisation’s growing capacities or practical strength or even its vocal hostility towards the West; it is rather a reflection of Western societies’ response to the existence of the organisation.
Western media over-estimates ISIS due to the number of uncomfortable questions that are starting to surface in connection to the organisation and its growing Western membership.
The appeal of ISIS to those who were born in Western societies, or were educated there, or spent most of their lives there, is what baffles Western media and what stands behind the mythical image that describes ISIS in it. The surface scratched by this appeal uncovers a number of uncomfortable questions and sensitive issues.
The “ISIS appeal” raises questions about citizenship status, minority rights, equal opportunities, cultural integration and ethnic and religious differences. While these issues are starting to be debated, a growing hostility towards Islam and Muslim minorities in the West is detected in various forms, ranging from re-thinking cultural identities and all the way to open criminal aggression.
Therefore, the image of ISIS in Western media does not spring from mere coverage of the organisation’s violent actions or its terrorist discourse, but rather from a practical re-examination of presumed Western societal values.
So once again, this is not an attempt to underestimate the threat of ISIS, but it is a reminder that the threat is not one that is related exclusively to security, and that the efforts to counter that threat should not be mere military ones. ISIS does not simply represent a radical Islamic movement or an ordinary terrorist organisation, it is rather a very brute model of fanaticism, a demonstration of the different uses of an idea. And before we start thinking about how to face or stop fanaticism, we must first face that which gives birth to fanaticism.
If fanaticism in the Arab World is a product of totalitarian regimes that ban all forms of legitimate political participation and crack down on all those who do not obey or openly criticise, and eventually leaving no room for genuine moderate opposition, then fanaticism in democratic societies must be further examined.
Fanaticism is born from the womb of moral and social conventions in the same manner that it is born from the womb of politicised legislation and biased judiciaries.
Countering the threat posed by ISIS requires questioning our daily routines and our social structures as much as it requires military coalitions and political alliances.
The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.