How stereotyping abets ISIS and the authoritarian state
by Bente Scheller
Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, Baghdad, Nice: The attacks in recent months have claimed the lives of hundreds of people. Whether the so-called “Islamic State” (Daesh/ISIS) admits to being responsible for the attacks or whether investigations reveal its delinquency is of secondary importance: in the words of Achim Rohde, ISIS has become the regularly reappearing “enemy of humanity” (Rohde, 2016). Several levels come together in the assessment of the risk that this enemy—as its predecessor al-Qaida before it— poses to Western societies: a fundamental fear trickles into everyday life, a fear of a hardly calculable force that arbitrarily accepts civilian victims and explicitly targets them; and that fear melds with Islamophobia and racism. This amalgam ensures that the fight against terrorism is oftentimes defined by populist responses that detract from practical political decision, decisions that are not always easy to promulgate.
The lack of a widely accepted definition of terrorism leaves it open to subjective interpretation. Right-wing movements invariably mobilize against the unassimilable “other”. The more alien and violent the depiction of the “other”, the easier it becomes to distance oneself and to construct one’s own moral superiority by demonising the “other”.
The claim to moral superiority
That works particularly well with Daesh as, unlike most other violent protagonists on the global stage, it revels in, indeed publicises its atrocities. The organisation thrives on fear and terror just as much as on its actual military successes. In the eyes of the local population, the terror militia appears even more daunting the more its “barbaric” tendencies are revealed. Far from concealing its strategy, this is why Daesh stages them.
ISIS aims to control its own image and messaging. Journalists are tolerated as tools to further diffuse these outputs but are not meant to conduct their own research. Only those who are prepared to neither scrutinise the organisation nor their own role within the propaganda machine are welcomed. With perfectly staged videos showing decapitations and photographs that depict members celebrating the atrocities, Daesh has established its brand of fear and played the media well. The blurred pictures of independent reporters like those taken by activists of “Raqqa is being slaughtered Silently” at the risk of their lives have less traction in the Western media.
Daesh’s staging hits a nerve because it meshes with what the West expects to see: an entity that is irredeemably anti-Western , brutish and exotic. Pirates of the Caribbean in Desert Digital camouflage, brandishing black flags. That renders the fight against Daesh – rhetorically – a far greater undertaking: A more or less palpable threat posed by a terror militia mutates into an attack on civilisation itself by the “barbarians”. As noted by Asef Bayat, Sociologist with the University of Illinois in his remarks on “Neo-Orientalism”: “In this current neo-Orientalist imagination, the Muslim Orientals are not only trapped in archaic traditions, a frozen history and irrational behaviour; they are, far from being exotic or benign, dangerous; they are threats to the cultural values, civilizational integrity, and the physical well being of the West.
By relinquishing ISIS’ self-staging to the organisation, by sharing its images and statements without critically investigating and distancing itself as far as possible – and fundamentally – from them, the West fosters the “ISIS myth”, thereby contributing directly to jihad tourism.
Whoever absorbs ISIS propaganda without reflection and fuels resentment against Muslims as a whole or does not prevent it trips into the scheme of Daesh strategists who yearn for circumstances in Europe to develop into what Donald Trump and his xenophobic fellow party members, for example Newt Gingrich, already demand for the US: immigration stoppages and ideological examinations for all Muslims who are put under general suspicion of terrorism. Such developments would fuel a spiral of mutual distrust which would likely disrupt the peace in Central Europe.
It may seem outlandish to adopt the view of political scientist Herfried Münkler who speaks of a “sullen indifference” in the face of terror attacks – however, ultimately not all attacks, especially not those committed by a lone perpetrator who goes berserk, can be prevented and we will be best able to break the spiral of terror, fear, resentment, alienation and more terror if we do not put all Muslims under general suspicion.
The myth of Daesh, the myth of dictators
The depiction of Daesh, however, has even further-reaching consequences in terms of foreign affairs. Parallel to his conception of ISIS as plain evil, political analyst Maged Mandour views “continuous attempts to whitewash Arab dictators, who play an integral role as part of the coalition fighting ISIS, by framing them as the polar opposites of ISIS, thus creating an image of moderation and civility.”
Saudi Arabia comes to mind as a distinctive example. Even though Saudi Arabia and ISIS barely differ in terms of their jurisprudence and legal practice, and even though Riyadh is currently waging a little heeded war against Yemen – a war that disregards all international conventions – the state is classified as a partner. Similarly, the Egyptian Sisi regime and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad profit from the wave of “whitewashing”, nurtured by the European terror fear.
Even though the Syrian regime stages its murders less professionally than ISIS, Assad’s fighters pose with the decapitated heads of their enemies; the regime’s journalists take selfies with the bodies of dead people and the 55,000 photographs smuggled out of Syria by military photographer “Caesar” of people who had been tortured to death while incarcerated demonstrate that the regime can effortlessly supplant the “Islamic State” in terms of its barbarianism. Stephen O’Brien, Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, has described the sieges of Syrian cities which have starved hundreds to death as “medieval”. The Syrian regime has been involved with 99% of the sieges that have cut off just under one million people and besieges 86% of them by itself, The Syria Campaign reported in June 2016. Since then, 200,000 additional people have been enclosed in Aleppo.
The understandable interest in stability in combination with a search for quick solutions has led to a form of nostalgia in the West that yearns for the return of the authoritarian dictators of the Middle East. It lies in the nature of authoritarian regimes that the respective elite targets all alternatives to their own reign and eliminates them – by supressing and pursuing the opposition, but also by ensuring that no one in their own ranks becomes too powerful. Dictatorships are therefore a temporary guarantor of stability, while in the long-term, they inhibit exactly that. The type of stability bred by a dictatorship was recently summed up in a nutshell by the Moroccan-French scholar Abubakr Jamai during an event in Berlin: “Tunisia was stable up to the minute that Mohammad Bouazizi lit his match.“
In the same vein, the discussion on Syria in which time and again the regime is referred to as a guarantor of stability is an example for the ineradicable myth of stable autocracies. During the time when large parts of the country saw peaceful demonstrations, the regime already disseminated the proclamation: “Assad forever or we will burn the country down!” – a slogan the regime and its allies remained true to by depopulating entire swaths of land or reducing them to rubble with its air force. The strategy of crusihgn the rebellion without any negotiations shows that the Syrian regime considers stability as less important – its priority is its own political survival and it is ready to go to any length, kill and destroy indiscriminately and accept destabilization. If members of the opposition – usually from the outside – are asked, “Was it worth the price the country is now paying?” it resembles a confusion of victim and perpetrator (Haid, 2016).
In his article “In Syria, the Enemy of America’s Enemy Is Still a Lousy Friend“, Idrees Ahmad, Lecturer in Digital Journalism with the University of Stirling and meticulous observer of the Syrian conflict, analyses the correlation between the upheaval in the Arab world, violence and the role of the West: “Return to “stability” might sound attractive after a decade of neoconservative chaos, but the proponents of this view forget that ISIS emerged in the first place as a consequence of US support for despotic regimes across the Middle East and North Africa. (…) If ISIS is treated as a causeless symptom in need of a quick remedy, cynical alliances to quash it will seem attractive. But ISIS is the consequence of a failed policy, and it’s the original sin of abandoning the revolution that demands redress.
Allies in the fight against terrorism
However, the region’s stability is not in itself the end of the Western discussion of how it could come to political terms with authoritarian dictatorships. At its core is the aforementioned concern that instable states in the region could attract extremists from Europe who are likely to be radicalised during their sojourn and then could be expected to launch attacks in Western countries. Whoever speaks favourably of a cooperation with Assad “[presents] a false choice between the regime and ISIS — a comparison that works to the regime’s advantage.“
The authoritarian dictatorships in the Middle East are automatically seen not only as a counter-pole to Islamism, but it is also assumed that they pose no threat to the West. German politician Gregor Gysi weighed in on the attack in Nice by remarking: “I understand the enmity to Assad. But it is not Assad who pelts France with bombs, or charges into crowds in a truck. That is why we must concentrate our efforts on eliminating the Islamic State and not on dispelling Assad at the same time (Deutschlandfunk 2016).“
Given the war of annihilation waged by Bashar al-Assad against his own population with barrel, cluster and incendiary bombs, as well as chemical weapons; given that the Syrian regime, and not ISIS, is responsible for more than 90 percent of civilian deaths in Syria, this consideration is cynical and discriminatory (The Syria Campaign 2016).
Yet even beyond that, this quote demonstrates how short political memory can be: In 1982, one of the Syrian regime’s car bombs killed one person and injured 40 more in the heart of Paris – The background to this attack was a disagreement between the antagonising regimes of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein (Tanner 1982). Never before had such a large amount of explosives been used in an act of terrorism in Germany as in the attack on the French consulate in West Berlin, it was said at the time. The 24 kg had been stored in the Syrian embassy in East Berlin (Spiegel Online 1999). Muammar al-Gaddhafi is responsible for the three victims that were killed and the more than 200 wounded people in the wake of the attack on the La Belle nightclub in West Berlin in 1986 (Obeidat, 2015).
This list of terror attacks on targets in the West supported by authoritarian non-Islamic dictators in the Middle East could easily be extended. And even if Europe has not recently experienced this trait on its own ground: the Syrian relationship with terrorist groups in particular has always been a critical issue. The regime has harboured the entire bandwidth of armed Palestinian groups. It has supported the Kurdish PKK until Turkey in 1998 threatened to intervene militarily. Until today it cultivates closest relations with the Hezbollah which has been rated a “terror organisation” by Europe and the US. If the aim is now to vindicate the Assad regime, the West has apparently lost sight of the fact that the UN tribunal in Lebanon is still investigating the role Syria played in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 – and that following the murder, dozens of Lebanese critics of the Syrian regime and witnesses of the tribunal became victims of targeted bomb attacks in Beirut or have died under unclear circumstances.
All along, the ideologies of the groups it supported were of secondary importance to the Syrian regime. After the “war on terror” was declared on Islamist extremists in reaction to the September 11 attacks, the Syrian regime offered its partnership – used by the West for the notorious “rendition flights” throughout which terror suspects were flown into states with appalling human rights records, amongst others, Mohammad Haydar Zammar, a terror suspect with residence permit status in Germany, was kidnapped and interrogated under torture in Syria. Yet as soon as in view of the Iraq War Syrian-US deteriorated in 2003, Damascus specialised in supporting jihadists, the group most feared in the West, and let them travel to Iraq. The central role played by the Assad regime in recruiting and supporting jihadist fighters after 2003, sending them or permitting them to cross its territory to Iraq, is well documented and has been evaluated by experts of the Military Academy at West Point in the so-called Sinjar Records (Fishman 2008).
Furthermore, it has been established that jihadists who returned from Iraq were imprisoned in Syria and systematically released by Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of the revolution in an attempt to lend credibility to his narrative of an Islamist revolt (Spencer, 2016). Since 1970, the Syrian regime during the reigns of both father and son continually utilised terrorism as leverage against neighbouring states and, at times, against the West, itself particularly susceptible to terrorism. However, even now there is lacking evidence to suggest that now that ISIS has brought significant parts of the Syrian territory under its control, the regime perceives it as their main enemy and combats it as such. Instead, the majority of Syrian and Russian airstrikes is still concentrated on other rebel groups (Casagrande, 2016).
That is insofar comprehensible as that Assad can only assume the role of the “lesser evil” by means of the Western fear of ISIS, regardless of the death toll and number of displaced people, for whom Assad is largely responsible, not supporting this mirage. In the words of former Dutch diplomat and Syria expert Petra Stienen: Assad is jointly responsible for the emergence of extremist groups and benefits from their existence because, compared to them, he appears to be the “nicer devil”. As long as Assad therefore does not fear an essential threat posed by ISIS to his own power, he has no reason to fight the terrorist organisation. The Syrian regime’s interest in combatting terrorism is hence oblique. Assad uses it as leverage in negotiations – as long as the West is not prepared to sign off on his political survival, fighting ISIS is no priority to him. If the West was to consent, this would certainly not mean the end of Daesh in Syria. Instead, it would be utilized as an arbitrary and readily available form of leverage during times in which Assad’s reign is questioned (Baker, 2015).
That said, advisor to the White House Phil Gordon suggested in 2015 that Assad’s resignation should be adjourned in view of the uncertainty of who would take over the rule of Syria. Views like the one voiced by political scientist Witold Mucha are also not uncommon in Germany. On the weighing up of Western countries on the best way to proceed against ISIS, he writes: “The diplomatic imperative is closely connected with the question to what extent ethnic and moral principles should be (or need to be) sacrificed when dealing with the Assad regime for the sake of politically sensible considerations in the handling of IS“ – In light of the evidence, the question should however rather be: Why cooperate with Assad if practical political reasons clearly militate against it? At no point did the Syrian regime have as much military support as it has through Russia and Iran today – in terms of resources, finances and even through the massive daily bombardments by the Russian air force. And yet, although this force is mainly deployed to target rebels who are exhausted after five years of conflict and some of whom are defending themselves from ISIS at the same time: despite heavy losses, the regime only makes sluggish progress and due to the army being weakened, even that is only made possible with the support of tens of thousands of foreign fighters.
In addition, the alliance against Daesh with a dictator who is responsible for the majority of hundreds of thousands of deaths and eleven million displaced people would be unsustainable for many local protagonists who suffer under both groups equally. Syrian intellectual Yassin Al-Haj Saleh whose family was persecuted by ISIS in Raqqa and whose wife was purportedly kidnapped by Islamist extremists in 2013 with no trace, says in an interview: “How do you want me to fight Da’esh while you are dealing from behind my back with a cliquish regime that killed 300,000 of my fellow citizens?“
What lacks from the discussion of whether Assad is acceptable as a partner to the West in the fight against terrorism is the consideration of how this would be put into practice. A partnership with Assad would mean that his regime and its extensive human rights abuses would not only have to be accepted, but would also be actively supported (together with the Hezbollah, categorised by the EU itself as terrorist).
Syria expert Tobias Schneider presented his meticulous piece of research in August 2016 on how the security forces of the Syrian regime had been eroded by Mafia-like militia structures and how they now completely elude any form of control in central regions – a phenomenon that was tolerated and even facilitated by the Syrian state since 2011 by its forfeiting of its monopoly of power. This already raises a question for negotiations as to whether a result could even be enforced in practice. Cohesion and a shared vision are lacking not only on the part of the opposition, but the regime structures have, largely unnoticed, frayed out in a similar fashion in the past years.
A Russian colonel has explicitly expressed his doubts of the suitability of regime forces. He asserts that the army is not only missing equipment and troops, but more importantly: it lacks fighting spirit and discipline. For that reason, he advises the Russian government to withdraw its support for the regime as quickly as possible: “On the one hand, it would seem easy to completely demobilize (in other words, completely disband) the Syrian army and recruit a new one. In other words, restart the process of building up the country’s military. On the other hand, the main problem is that new men are nowhere to be found in modern Syria. Any newly created army will naturally inherit all the malaises of the old SAA. There also is no definitive answer to a substantial question: who’s gonna pay for that?”
Former American special envoy for the Middle East Dennis Ross and Syria expert Andrew Tabler have captured the perspectives of such a war even more soberly in a nutshell: “More worrying is that the Assad government lacks the manpower to hold rural Sunni areas and so will rely on Hezbollah and other Shiite militias to do so. These brutal sectarian groups will most likely force the Nusra Front and other Sunni rebels to decamp to Turkey, bringing them, and the threat of militant violence, closer to the West. (…) the United States must use this opportunity to take a harder line against Mr. Assad and his allies.”
Three things are important for the successful suppression of terrorism: Firstly, the statements and the self-portrayal of ISIS must be questioned and compared to its actual conduct. The clearer ISIS’ course of action is, the more precise a strategy against the organisation can be enunciated.
Secondly, it is worth considering to what extent a matter-of-factly, less populist handling of threats from the battle against ISIS could be beneficial. As assessed by Witold Mucha, “demonization impedes an adequate analysis and therefore the connected political recommendations for action.“ The influx of European fighters has virtually come to a standstill since Turkey sealed its border to Syria. As far as the threat of ISIS in Europe goes, an ideological proximity or connection with ISIS may however be of greater importance than an actual physical presence on the ground. If the appeal for European youths is derived from the image of ISIS as the epitome of terror to Western societies, then an overrating of the organisation’s risk potential by the media and in the course of political discussions is counterproductive.
Lastly, terrorism should not be understood as a mere security question, but at least in the same measure as a political issue. It is vital to scrutinise with whom a collaboration could be formed in the fight against Daesh. Numerical advantage and a seemingly cohesive institution such as Assad’s army are questionable in terms of their military vigour, and are politically problematic, due to the probability of them harbouring no interest whatsoever in the war on ISIS, instead using the threat posed by it as a political trump card. Especially in view of the current challenge posed by ISIS, the political framework of the organisation’s origin and its conduct in Iraq and Syria are exceptionally relevant for a sensible strategy that encompasses more than mere symbolic actions. The reconquest of regions in Iraq from ISIS is a bitter experience for many (former) residents – not, as assumed by some experts, because “IS seems to provide better state services“ (Mucha 2016), but because they are put under general suspicion, because the revenge of Shiite militias plays a role, and because the Iraqi government has still not contributed to any improvement of the core issue – a just participation of the Sunni population in the governing power. The battle against ISIS in Syria can only be won with – not against – the predominantly Sunni population. The first groups in Syria to successfully make a stand against ISIS were Sunni rebels in northern Syria in the beginning of 2014. For that, they received not only less support than the Kurds in the following year, but they were still subject to fire from the Syrian regime (Landis 2014). No matter how efficiently the diminishing military clout of the Syrian regime and the militias connected to it is whitewashed: They are the worst allies imaginable in the fight against ISIS.
The prerequisite for a successful partnership in the fight against ISIS is that all parties involved rate terrorism as a problem and sustain a continued interest in the fight against it. Especially when the political survival of one partner depends on its ability to point to a terrorist threat to the West, it is safe to assume that this ally has no interest whatsoever in eliminating that menace.
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