IS represents the tip of the iceberg | Arsalan Alshinawi

Baghdad-born Dr Arsalan Alshinawi, a lecturer in International relations at the University of Malta, gives a Middle Eastern perspective on the rise of Islamic State (IS) in his home country

Lecturer Arsalan Alshinawi (Photo: Ray Attard)
Lecturer Arsalan Alshinawi (Photo: Ray Attard)

There can be little doubt that we live in a time of great upheaval and uncertainty. Political realities that we used to think of as very strong – almost permanent, in fact – have dissolved before our eyes in the space of a few years.

The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ abruptly terminated the regimes of dictators such as Libya’s Gaddafi, Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali. Elsewhere, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was toppled by a US-led invasion in 2003, while neighbouring Syria has been plunged into civil war.

With the possible exception of Tunisia, the result seems to have been violence and chaos on a scale that has clearly both surprised and unsettled the Western world.

But what is the reaction at street level in the countries where all this is taking place? How representative of the local populations are movements such as the Islamic State, which aims to establish a caliphate stretching from Iran to Spain in the west of Europe?

University lecturer Arsalan Alshinawi is better positioned than most to answer such questions. A specialist in political and economic development in the Mulsim-Arab world, he was born and raised in Saddam Hussein-era Baghdad, and also spent 13 years working at the Maltese embassy in (among other countries) Libya.

Unlike most European observers in recent years, the great changes that have taken place in this region did not unduly surprise him.

“For people living in the Arab world, it certainly wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t something that was not expected. But there are differences in how we interpret things. In Tunisia, everybody [in the West] associated what happened with the case of that person who complained, in the middle of the market-place, about lack of employment and opportunities… he doused himself with fuel and burnt himself alive.”

But that was only a symptom of a much deeper and more widespread malaise. “If you ask the people of that region what caused the uprisings, they will answer that the system in place until that time was not working. The question is, what had kept that system in place?”

Alshinawi argues that European perceptions of such issues are rooted partly in a misinterpretation of the systems that have just crumbled.

“Let us talk of the three most confusing and most dramatic examples: Syria, Iraq and Libya. These three countries have something in common which, within the Arab world, makes them different. All three were very heterogeneous societies, in comparison to Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. There are different religions, different ethnicities, different languages spoken, all under the banner of a single country. By way of contrast, one of the most homogeneous societies of that region is Egypt. Egypt has had a concept of nation-building, of being a nation, for a good 4,000 years. That was not the case in Syria, Iraq and Libya. After the Second World War, and the end of colonialism, the only solution in those countries – which was not imposed from the outside; it was an outcome, an effect, you could almost say a necessity – was to have a dictator. Only that could maintain power over all the conflicting religions, ethnic groups, linguistic groups…”

This heterogeneity – which in the case of Libya is more tribal than religious or ethnic– is also the root cause of the problems facing those regions today… and which are on an altogether different scale from the problems facing Egypt and Tunisia.

“If you take Iraq as an example: the reality is that there was no other choice outside Saddam Hussein when he arose in the 1960s, after centuries of Ottoman and British rule. The only way forward was to have a centralised government that would not compromise, that would not allow different factions, based on religion, ethnicity and so on, to plunge the country into conflict. If there was any choice, it would have been another dictator who would have done more or less the same thing. Let us not forget that this is the Old World we are talking about here. If America and Canada are the New World, Iraq is the Old World. World religions such as Judaism, Christianity, etc., all trace their origins back to Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, the New World wanted to change the Old World… and that is at the heart of the drama.”

Alshinawi suggests that Western attitudes towards the political realities in those countries have always been predicated by Western ideals that have no real place in Arab societies.

“We can perhaps remind people that words like ‘democracy’ and ‘democratisation’, as understood in the West, are the results of four or five centuries of conflict. If Europe ever achieved something we call ‘stability’, ‘order in society’ – people now call it ‘democracy’, but we all have our own views – it was achieved through violence. There were religious wars similar to what is now happening in Iraq. Look at what happened in England and France between Catholics and Protestants. There are records of brothers and cousins butchering each other. There were wars between France and Germany, in which Alsace was taken and retaken countless times. We had the devastating First and Second World Wars. What we call ‘democracy’ today, with all due respect, is only from 1945 onwards. The stability we now know has to do with the economic structure and history of this part of the world. It is something extremely particular to Western Europe. This democracy thing is something we don’t talk about in Iraq. We don’t talk about it in Libya, we don’t talk about it in Syria.”

Another major factor in the West’s troubled relations with the Arab world concerns a failure to understand Islam, and what it really represents... not just to the millions of Arab Muslims who live (often alongside Arab Christians and Jews) in 22 countries from Iraq to Morocco… but also to the many European Muslims who now flock to Syria and Iraq to fight and die waving the IS flag.

“Two things should be said here. The greatest mistake is when we compare Islam with Christianity. I think the problem with interpreting and understanding the situation in the Middle East starts with that. In the last 500 years, when Europe began to change vis-à-vis the rest of the world – the modernisation of Europe, if you like – we can summarise it as a fight between society and the Church: a struggle to have a secular political and economic space, independent of religious control. This did not happen in the Muslim world. That’s a big, big difference. Any conflict that took place inside the Muslim world was between tribes, between factions, between different governments. But it was always outside Islam. Islam remained untouchable. There was no view of secularisation; no understanding of creating an independent, secular political space. Islam remained the source of hope for millions of people; it never became a private religion. It remained heavily part of public life. Unlike Europe, where many questioned the authority of the Church, there was no questioning of the Mosque.”

The type of power associated with Islam was also dramatically different. “The Church in Europe was rich. It owned land. The Mosque, on the other hand, was always poor. It never owned land. Its power was ideological: you can call it brainwashing people, or giving them direction, depending on your perspective. But Islam was always regarded as over and above political considerations…”

Alshinawi argues that the rallying call of an Islamic Caliphate – or state by any other name – is neither new nor unique to IS.

“Since the days of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, around the turn of the 20th century, there has been a revival of Islam. Islam became more prominent, especially after the Iranian revolution [1979]. For the first time in living memory, there was a state which raised the banner of Islam. It was extremely shocking at the time, but also extremely heartening: something to be celebrated by many people of the region. For the first time it was shown in reality that, yes, there could be a modern state that is ruled by Islam. I must stress how much the Iranian revolution, and the speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini, had created waves of change and turmoil in that part of the world…”

This provided other nations with an ideal to aspire to, and provoked inevitable comparisons with their own political realities.

“It must be seen in the context of the failure of local development plans. What happened in the Arab world in the last 50 years under various governments? Dictatorships provided political stability, yes… but the economic models did not function. They had been imported from the west: either nationalism under Nasser, or some kind of capitalism, some kind of communism, some kind of socialism… all these models were originally Western concepts. After these governments failed for obvious reasons – you cannot bring in a system from outside and implant it in a different background – the only natural solution people turned to was Islam. This is fundamental for people to understand. It was common for people to argue: everything else has failed, the only way forward is Islam…”

But doesn’t the emergence of IS contradict this slightly? It is not just Christians or other infidels who are targeted by IS: Muslims, too, are under attack. IS has even threatened to blow up the Kabala, the sacred site of the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. And where before we always spoke about a traditional rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims, it seems today there is a drive to eliminate all forms of Islam which do not conform with the IS views on orthodoxy…

“As I said, throughout history Islam itself remained untouchable. But the question became: who can claim to have the legitimacy to promote and protect Islam? Of course, on that there were problems. Various groups claimed to be the true believers… but it was not an entire, centuries-long orchestrated war against Islam. The conflict was: which group claimed to have a monopoly on the truth?”

The recent dramatic political changes of the Middle East have only served to exacerbate these internal tensions, he continues.

“What is happening now between Shia and Sunni? For centuries, Shia and Sunni somehow had always co-existed; maybe not always peacefully, true. But now, following the fall of Saddam Hussein and the war with Assad, there has been a complete overhaul of the balance of power that had been there for centuries. For the first time in the history of that region, a Shia government in Baghdad rules an Arab country. The only other example is Iran… but Iran is not an Arab country. Before that – with a few minor exceptions that only historians know about – the Shia had never been in government anywhere in the Arab world. Arab states were always ruled by Sunni. They are a minority in Iraq, but they had always ruled.”

The destabilisation brought about by this sudden change created fertile ground for IS to recruit volunteers.

“IS represents the tip of the iceberg. It has to do with two or three inter-related phenomena which have been around for decades, maybe even centuries. First and foremost, we have unhappy migrants who belong to the Middle East somehow, but who have lived in Europe: where they did not make it, and often found themselves on the periphery of society. Maybe they suffered racism. Maybe they had their own personal failures. Maybe they could not cope with life in the West, which is demanding.

"There are higher levels of skills required to survive in Europe. Being in France is not the same as being in Syria. These people have a problem with hegemony, with the elite of society… in fact, more than half of IS fighters are multinational. They are people who lived in the UK, France, Germany, Australia. Many lived in the US. What allowed these people to have a base from which to fight? That’s the most delicate point. These are the same people who have been around since the days of Al Qaeda. One might also ask, who created Al Qaeda…?”

This makes the phenomenon more of an international than a local organisation; and Alshinawi argues that it follows the same pattern set by other similar ideological movements of the past.

“You can draw parallels with the Maoist revolution in China, the armed struggles in El Salvador, Nicaragua… it is a movement of young people who are ready to die, this time in the name of Jihad. Why did it settle in Iraq and Syria? Largely because of two phenomena superimposed on each other: there were jihadists who were already fighting against what they perceived to be injustice in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And then, in 2003, the old order that had existed for thousands of years was suddenly toppled. The Sunni, for the first time ever, became the underdogs, under the control of the Shia…”

There were economic factors also. “For me, economy is at the heart of all conflicts. The oil in Iraq is concentrated in the Shia and Kurdish regions. Sunni are poor in terms of their own region. Now: when the Shia came to power in 2003, led by Al Maliki, the Sunni were marginalised. The Shia had been persecuted by the Sunni for centuries. It was a time of payback, a time of revenge. Suffice to say that previously, Al Maliki’s party had been banned. Anyone related to the Dawa party was eliminated within a couple of days. No law courts were necessary: it was enough to say that someone was a member of the Shia Dawa party, which wanted to overthrow Saddam, to have him killed.

"So for the first two years after 2003, leading to the civil war in 2007, thousands of Shia went to look for the Sunni to take revenge. Families who knew where a former security officer, who had reported their sons, was hiding… they went to find him and shoot him. The law was taken into their own hands. It was a rewriting of history. There was no time for these societies to reach a political formula. Millions of Sunnis were marginalised. They were excluded from any share in the writing of the Constitution.”

Law and order was not the only structure to crumble: economically the country was crippled by the controversial decision to outlaw all structures associated with the former regime.

“People who worked for Saddam Hussein – and everybody worked for Saddam Hussein: there was no choice, that was the entire system – were told they couldn’t work anymore. Iraq became a naked man in the desert.”

The result was fragmentation; and while it seems to have taken the West by surprise, Alshinawi views it as an inevitable consequence of the overthrow of the ‘old world order’.

“Today it is easy to say that Iraq no longer exists as a single country. The central government of Baghdad controls only the Shia territory. Iraq is de facto three countries now: the Kurds in the north, with their own army, their own budget, their own autonomy; the Shia region, from Baghdad to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi. All the eastern part of the country is Sunni land… inhabited by millions who have been displaced, marginalised and persecuted.”

It is perhaps inevitable, then, that some of these people would welcome the arrival of mostly foreign jihadists to take up their cause.