ISIS is scary. ISIS is coming for you in your sleep. ISIS will steal your children and turn them into suicide bombers, and I am sick of hearing about how horrible ISIS is. While sorting through misinformation and attention grabbing, fear mongering articles, I begin to feel a great sense of hopelessness. There’s this big scary threat in the Middle East and we haven’t thought of anyway to get rid of it, except that our governments continue to try to bomb the problem away, which is how we responded to the last big scary threat. What can I, as an individual, do to solve this problem? What can our governments do differently?
French professor Olivier Roy is of the opinion that, sooner or later, ISIS will self destruct and that ISIS really isn’t that scary; Naturally I went to him for answers.
Let’s deconstruct here. The problem is that a group of marginalized individuals, not necessarily Muslims, (Roy tells me that 25% convert to Islam to join ISIS), are travelling to the Middle East to fight in what was once a local conflict between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims in an effort to transform themselves into heroes. “The stroke of genius from Daesh was to combine a local conflict with a global agenda”. The problem was never a war of civilizations, ideals, “barbarians vs. the western world”, it was that the incumbent, minority Shias, had been ousted and are now seeking global troops to fight with them in their war. There is no ISIS, only a group of fighters under the same banner, just as any organization is composed of individuals. By understanding what prompts a few of these individuals to leave their homes and join ISIS, we can attempt to cut the problem off at its source . “What we find is the fascination for jihad transforms them from losers into heroes. They suddenly have the opportunity to be heroes”, professor Roy tells me. He likens their psychological state to that of the Columbine shooters. ISIS’s asset is also ISIS’s main vulnerability, which doesn’t lie in the Middle East, but rather recruitment abroad, which hinges on alienation.
The local conflict is a byproduct of historical error. In 1919, after the end of World War I, it was time to redraw the borders, due to the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Woodrow Wilson, in his 14 points, outlined that to avoid conflict people should determine the end borders of states based on cultural, linguistic, or religious affinity. This was called self-determination. The right to self determination, however, wasn’t extended to the Middle East. Border drawing was in fact delegated to two diplomats, the Brit Mark Sykes, and Frenchman François Georges-Picot. The result was several states containing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Kurds, at odds with one another; and the increased demand for petroleum literally doused local tensions in oil, making it altogether more flammable. I asked Roy if he thought there is a possibility for a redrawing of the borders, and he said that “if the Turks are unable to crush the Kurds and Isis is not defeated, yes there may be a new state.”
The problem is that in this local area, every player has another higher priority enemy than ISIS. “If the Turks are able to defeat the Kurds, ISIS will be the main problem for them. If Bashar Al-Assad is able to, with the help of the Russians, defeat the non-ISIS opposition, he will turn against ISIS”, Roy tells me as he attempts to disentangle the geopolitics of the area for me.
When viewing the problem of recruitment, Roy says “one of the problems is precisely that the people who have the monopoly of Islam are radicals, not because most of the people are radical but because the so-called moderates are not credible, either because they are first generation, or because they are in fact soft Muslims. So we don’t see the emergence of a grassroots, representative, religious, Islamic movement. So we have a generational gap. The fact is the new generation is either rather passive or heads to radicalism, but is not really engaged in building a religious community, and I think this is a big problem.” In that problem, perhaps, lies the solution: fostering and encouraging the development of a grassroots religious Islamic community in the West should help combat ISIS’s ability to recruit troops, and, while I’m at it, let’s propose redrawing Middle Eastern borders to create more culturally homogeneous states to diffuse current rivalries. Simple!