The idea that the Islamic State (IS) does not represent “real Islam” might be well intentioned. It is also nonsense. The IS denounces moderate Islam as not representing “real Islam”. This equally, is nonsense. There is no such thing as “real Islam”.
Islam just like every other religion, indeed every ideology that claims to be a repository of absolute truth, is susceptible to schism and fracture. At least since Averroes ( 1126-1198 CE), there have been Islamic scholars who say that wherever the Qur’an is not compatible with a rational approach it should be understood in a non-literal, metaphorical manner. And just as with Christianity, there are others who take a, strict, literal or fundamentalist approach. This includes, for example, support for the Qur’an’s references to the beheading of non-believing enemies. We might like moderates to represent the totality of “real Islam”. But we cannot bend reality to our wants. One might just as well say that the Inquisition was not “real Catholicism”. All religion is human interpretation.
The IS now controls an area larger than Great Britain which is inhabited by some six million people. We fool ourselves if we think that there is no significant support for IS among this population. There are clearly people who observe Muslim rituals and consider themselves to be Muslims and who support IS. Anybody who doubts it should watch this documentary.
Despite religion’s tendency towards absolutism, history demonstrates that war is not the inevitable result of religious difference. It is true that between the seventh and seventeenth centuries and beyond, from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, Christians and Muslims were encouraged to view the “other” as infidels to be feared and loathed-hence the Crusades and the Islamic response of jihad.
But as David Cannidine points out in his history ‘The Undivided Past’, Christian and Muslim leaders also sometimes formed alliances against other Christian and Muslim leaders. And there were instances of peaceful co-existence, such as in ninth century Baghdad, the caliphate in Cordova Spain (from where Averroes wrote), in early modern Italian cities, and, perhaps most famously, in the Ottoman Empire.
Differences within religions are often more extreme than differences between them. Referred to by Freud as the “narcissism of minor differences”, prime examples are the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics and between Sunni and Shiite within Islam.
From the time of Luther’s first protests in 1517 until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Europe was torn in the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism. Their wars were seen as a battle between “good and evil” or “truth and falsehood”, with so-called heretics viewed as even more reprehensible than infidels. Christ’s biblical statement that “he who is not with is against me” was interpreted as a call to battle by both sides.
We are now witnessing a similar sectarian Sunni-Shiite rivalry play out in the Middle East. The rivalry already existed. But it has been greatly exacerbated by the Bush II, Blair and Howard led intervention in Iraq in 2003.
Blair moves from tragedy to farce in his latest argument that if Saddam had not been removed in 2003 things would have been so much worse once the Arab Spring came to Iraq. What? Worse than the 100,000-461,000 deaths estimated to have been caused by the intervention and consequent civil war? Worse than the estimated 4 million refugees, or internally displaced Iraqis, in 2007 and 1.8 million Iraqis estimated to have been displaced in 2014 alone?
Blair and other western leaders have tried to shift blame from themselves by attributing the current violence in Iraq to discriminatory policies against Sunni’s, pursued by the Shite dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki. But the exodus of Sunnis into the hands of al-Qaeda in Iraq largely predated the al-Maliki Government. It was the product of two orders made by the US led Coalition provisional Authority in May 2003.
Order number 1 was the “De-Baathification” order which removed Baath party members, or anybody “affiliated” with the Baath party, (predominantly Sunni’s) from public sector positions. The order went way beyond the estimated 6,000 top Baath Party members. It is estimated that 85-100,000 people lost their positions under the order.
Order number 2 was the dismantling of the Iraqi army. Again this order went way beyond Saddam’s Special Republican Guard. Over 500,000 professional rank and file solders were affected. The architect of these policies was the US Department of Defence, headed by Donald Rumsfeld.
The criticism of al-Maliki is essentially that, with a democratic mandate, he continued on with the sectarian policies commenced by the US and its allies, whose only “mandate” for sectarianism came from their military intervention.
In any event even without the US de-Baathification orders and al-Maliki’s sectarianism, it seems likely that the 2003 invasion was always going to lead to sectarian violence and the breaking up of the land previously known as Iraq. As John Gray has put it:
“Toppling Saddam was bound to unravel this secular state and the Iraqi state itself. Even if the American-led occupiers hadn’t made the mistake of disbanding the army and dissolving the ruling party, the country would eventually have broken up. Iraq was constructed from provinces of the former Ottoman Empire by the British in the 1920s, with the Sunni minority being the ruling group. The Sunnis had ruled since 1638, when the Ottomans took Baghdad from the Persians. The Kurds, who were included in the new state because the British prized the oil resources in the north of the country, were sure to take any opportunity to seize independence. Whatever the failings of the Maliki government, the idea that a stable federal system could develop in these circumstances has always been far-fetched. As some of those who opposed the war from the start foresaw, regime change created many of the conditions for a failed state. These are the same conditions that have allowed Isis to emerge and thrive.”
Indeed it was for geo-political reasons that the US did not press to remove Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War in 1990-91. It feared another Lebanon- a failed state torn apart by ethnic and sectarian rivalries. And if the Shiite majority was to prevail in Iraq, extremist Iran would be provided with a sister Shiite republic. Following the second Gulf War this is precisely what has now occurred and it will prove to be the longest lasting and most significant historical legacy that Bush II, Blair and Howard have left to the world.
It is not as if they were not warned. There were plenty of commentators warning precisely of these effects in the lead up to the 2003 invasion.
The invasion contributed to the Syrian civil war and the rise of the IS by upsetting the regional balance of power. ISIS is the bastard child of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. These Sunni powers want to win Syria for Sunni Islam as compensation for the loss of Iraq and the increased regional influence of Iran. Groups forming ISIS were funded by private donation from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But these private donations were likely encouraged by the governments. Turkey left its border with Syria open giving opposition groups a safe haven. Iraqi security suspects that Turkish military intelligence may have been heavily involved in aiding ISIS when it was reconstituting itself in 2011.
Al Qaeda had no substantial presence in Iraq before the 2003 invasion. The final report of the 9/11commission published in 2004 found no evidence that contacts between Iraqi officials and al-Qaeda ever developed into a cooperative relationship.
It was the 2003 invasion that led to al-Qaeda’s presence in the civil war in Iraq. After “De-Baathification” of Iraqi security forces, Sunnis were unable to get protection from Shiite militias from either the Iraqi army or the Coalition forces. Sunni leaders turned to al-Qaeda and fought with them.
Al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq was Abu Masab al-Zarqawi. He was killed by a US bombing raid in June 2006. But by this time al-Qaeda had an army of 12,000 fighters that were ruthless in their use of violence. Al-Qaeda took over parts of southern Baghdad and in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, it was able to declare the existence of an Islamic state.
US intelligence reports was that Al-Qaeda was so entrenched in Anbar society that there was no military solution. US casualties in June 2007 rose. But in Anbar, Sunni leaders started to turn against the extreme violence that characterized al-Qaeda’ governance. This violence was often indiscriminate and could be directed against anybody deemed an ‘apostate’. Al-Qaeda cut off the heads of Sunni leaders and dared their families to come and collect the bloody remains.
Sunni leaders started to turn against the extreme violence that characterized al-Qaeda’ governance. Sunni leaders who had previously been fighting US forces with al-Qaeda approached the US and indicated preparedness to fight with them against al-Qaeda. The ‘awakening’, or ‘Sons of Iraq’ movement was born. It was provided with military support by the Coalition. The movement spread outside Anbar province, fighting along side US forces whose colleagues they had previously killed. There were immediate results. In July 2007 US casualties, as well as sectarian killings, dropped sharply. By 2007-2008 there were 200,000 Iraqi’s assisting the Coalition in combatting al-Qaeda who had not been fighting with them in 2006. As a consequence al-Qaeda was routed from Iraq.
But al-Qaeda in Iraq was not destroyed. Its Iraqi fighters moved into Syria, re-grouped and became a central player in the jihadi movement against the Assad regime in that country. Following divisions and fractures, the extremely violent faction associated with al-Qaeda in Iraq formed ISIS. It now leads the IS and has subsequently moved back to control land within Iraq as well as Syria.
In addition to the movement of al-Qaeda Iraqi branch into Syria, due to war or persecution hundreds of thousands of refugees also flowed from Iraq into Syria. At the beginning of 2007, the UNHCR estimated that the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria was over 1.2 million. The size of the influx of refugees aggravated local social and economic problems fuelling the Syrian protest movement and repression by the Assad government. Iraqi refugees have since fled Syria with an estimated 200,000 remaining there in 2012.
The Saudi’s and Qatar have been playing a double game in Syria. On the one hand the Saudi’s wanted to support jihadists against the Iranian backed Assad Government. On the other hand they came to fear the development of a movement so strong it could lead to jihadist activity in their own country. The Saudis and Qatari governments are now therefore participating with the US in the war against the IS. But the damage caused by their support for extremist groups has already been done. And whether they, with Turkey, will ultimately prove reliable local allies to the US is an open question.
Just as there was no shortage of critics warning about the sectarian Pandora’s box that would be opened by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, if one cared to look, there was no shortage of reliable sources publicly stating that the claim that Saddam posed no genuine security threat to the West.
Prior to the 2003 invasion Scott Ritter, for five years a senior UN weapons inspector, stated:
“By 1998, the chemical weapons infrastructure (of Iraq) had been completely dismantled or destroyed by UNSCOM or by Iraq in compliance with our mandate. The biological weapons program was gone, all the major facilities eliminated. The nuclear weapons program was completely eliminated. The long-range ballistic missiles program was completely eliminated. If I had to quantify Iraq’s threat, I would say (it is) zero.”
Israeli military analyst Meir Stieglitz, writing in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, stated:
“There is no such thing as a long-range Iraqi missile with an effective biological warhead.”
And even if Bush, Blair and Howard genuinely believed that Saddam had WMD, there was never the slightest indication that he would likely use them against the West. The best evidence here is that if Saddam possessed WMD he had the chance to use them in the first Gulf War and did not do so. He did use Scud missiles against Israel. But they had conventional, not chemical, warheads. Saddam knew if he used chemical weapons against the West they would remove him. The harsh fact is that he only ever used chemical weapons (against the Kurds) when he knew that the West would tolerate it. Neither would Saddam ever have been likely to pass on WMD to jihadists who always regarded him as an “apostate”. The weapons would just as likely be used by them against his regime as against the West.
What Saddam did not count on was September 11 and that Washington would come under the control of a group of ideologues who would use the attack to feed their fantasy that war against Saddam could remodel the Middle East to conform to their image of the West.
An Arab Spring did eventually develop. But it had nothing to do with the intervention in Iraq. Usually led by younger urban people dwellers with frustrated democratic and economic aspirations, the ultimate results, point strongly in the direction of a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. As Paul Danahar states in his book ‘The New Middle East’ the message for decades from the Arab dictators was “Islamist extremists or me”. The tragedy is that their warning now appears to be coming to pass. As Danahar puts it “Religion, not nationalism or Arabism, is now the dominant force”.
In Egypt, once democratically elected, the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than genuinely committing to political pluralism, took steps to change the constitution in a manner that would entrench its political power. It also proved itself inept in other ways. Mass demonstrations against it resulted and the West then largely supported the military’s removal of the Brotherhood.
And here is another harsh fact- as horrible as Saddam, Gaddafi, Mubarak and the other Middle Eastern secular dictators were (and as horrible as Assad remains), at least in a geo-political sense, the Islamic State (IS) is starting to make them look like a lesser evil.
The secular dictators are forever marked by ruthlessness towards their political opponents. But they often proved to be more opportunist, or practical, in character than ideological. Deals could therefore sometimes be struck with them- like Gaddafi’s agreement to give up his own WMD. There may be exceptions, but on the whole, agreements are more likely to be struck with pragmatists than with those whose only loyalty is to a fundamentalist God. It is why, if Israel were a more willing partner, ready to take a serious stand against the West Bank settler movement, striking a deal with Fatah would have better prospects than any with Hamas.
This is not to say that the secular dictators do not engage in appalling human rights abuses. But the weight the West gives to these abuses typically waivers in accordance with how it has perceived its own immediate political interests. The West was still tilting towards Saddam at the time when he gassed the Kurds. It tilted towards him in the war against Iran. During the repression of the Shiite uprising in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War, Saddam reduced the Marsh Arab population from 250,000 to 40,000, with many deaths and 100,000 displaced within Iraq and another 40,000 fleeing to Iran. The US administration, having encouraged the uprising, stood by and watched.
By the time of the invasion in 2003, abductions, torture and killings continued but were much reduced. According to a 2002 Amnesty International report they numbered in the hundreds. Of course this is bad. But as Gareth Evans has observed, this level of abuse would not have been of the magnitude required to trigger the doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P). R2P is an international norm unanimously adopted at a World summit of the UN in 2005. It provides a conditional basis for foreign humanitarian intervention to prevent a government committing mass atrocity crimes (in contrast with human rights violations of lesser magnitude) against its own people. It also provides a basis for intervention where a government, although not committing the atrocities itself, is unwilling or unable to meet its responsibility to protect its own citizens from mass atrocities. R2P principle has been cited in support of the current intervention in Iraq.
It may all have been part of a self interested strategy to preserve his own power, but Saddam’s regime did, at various times, take steps to avert the development of overt sectarianism between Sunni and Shia in Iraq. Sunni and Shia led a fairly well integrated existence, especially in larger cities. Saddam’s Sunni dominated regime had a significant presence of Shia in the upper echelons of power. Nearly a third of all marriages were between members of different sects. Christians were not persecuted. Iraq’s Christian community was almost 1.5 million-strong under Saddam. In the years following the 2003 invasion, the number has dwindled to 300,000.
The dictators certainly often created police spy networks to hunt out and persecute opponents. But it was also often possible to live a quiet life. Unlike many of the fundamentalist movements, beyond ensuring the continuation of their own power, the secular dictators had no particular reason to seek to intrude into every aspect of everyone’s life.
It is true that, as with the secular dictators, Islamic fundamentalism comes in more moderate and extreme versions. It often has a social justice and welfare orientated projection. It is often less susceptible to corruption than the secular dictators. But, in general, religious extremism can rarely resist exacerbating religious sectarian strife and intruding into personal lives. This is a logical extension of the conviction that one’s particular brand of Islam is not merely a code by which individuals should be free to chose to live if they so wish, but is the God ordained basis for governing everybody. Why should this surprise us? We see fundamentalist churches in our own society constantly promoting laws that try to dictate to non-believers how they must live. And just look at the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto: “The Qur’an is our law…Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope”. We should do them the respect of taking them at their word.
Women’s position, for example, has generally improved more under authoritarian secular rule than under Islamist rule.
In Turkey, Ataturk stood up to the conservative clerics. Women were encouraged to become educated. They were given equal inheritance rights. Divorce could no longer occur at the whim of a husband. Either parent might receive child custody. Women were given the right to vote, could be appointed to official posts and be elected to Parliament. Monogamy was encouraged.
Under Nasser in Egypt education and employment opportunities were made available to all Egyptians regardless of class or sex. Women were encouraged to get an education and go to work as part of economic progress and development. Women were at last granted the right to vote.
The Soviet backed secular Afghani Government promoted women’s literacy programs and the ability for women to choose their own husbands. But the West supported the Mujahedin- we know the sorry result- the growth of Al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Gaddafi was notorious for his female consorts. But during the four decades of his rule, women made progress in Libya. Under King Idris, whom Gaddafi overthrew in 1969, less than a quarter of girls went to primary school. Gaddafi increased compulsory education from six to nine years, which boosted female literacy. By the time he was ousted there were more women than men at university. He encouraged women to take up jobs such as teaching, nursing and administrative work but they also became pharmacists, doctors, dentists and sometimes engineers.
The 2011 NATO led intervention in Libya was based upon the doctrine of R2P. Gareth Evans stated that NATO intervention in Libya was ‘a textbook case of the R2P norm working exactly as it was supposed to’.
But one of the criteria for invoking R2P is that the consequences of the action are not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction. Applying utilitarian “consequence tests” in relation to future events is of course always problematic because consequences are difficult to predict and because there is often disagreement over the measurement of them.
There are certainly conflicting views over the consequences of the intervention in Libya. We will never know for certain the extent of any mass atrocity which may have occurred in Benghazi. We do know that the removal of Gaddafi led to democratic elections being held for the first time in 42 years. But Patrick Cockburn says that three years after the removal of the Gaddafi the government has no real power, militias are entrenched and the state is under threat. The healthcare system appears to be collapsing, or at risk of collapse. Jihadists forces now have a deeper foothold in Libya and are involved in funnelling fighters into Syria.
Now it has come to pass that Obama and the rest of the world must try and clean up the legacy left by Bush, Blair and Howard, the foot-up given by the invasion of Iraq to Islamic religious extremism. It is a momentous task with few reliable local allies to be found.
Obama has been criticised by foreign policy hawks for withdrawing US forces from Iraq too early. But Jason Brownlee in the ‘Washington Post’ says this criticism does not withstand serious scrutiny. He says US troops spent eight years in Iraq and failed to resolve Iraq’s internal conflicts. Iraq was still not stable when the troops left in 2011 and would not have become so had they remained. The current crisis dates to the entry of U.S. forces in 2003, not their departure three years ago.
Brownlee charts the history of US interventions and concludes that the pattern is of some success in bolstering local leaderships in interventions that have lasted a year or less. But longer troop commitments, and more ambitious schemes of political engineering, have tended to end badly.
In any event, Iraq’ al-Maliki government rejected a request from the US government for US troops to stay on, in reduced numbers, beyond 2011.
Obama has also been criticised by Paul Danahar, for failing to pay sufficient attention to Syria in the lead up to the 2012 US Presidential election. Danahar says that instead of supporting more moderate elements of the opposition earlier, Obama left the organisation of opposition to Assad to the Gulf States. They threw money at the more extreme groups. Hillary Clinton has made similar criticisms. So has the US based Institute for the Study of War.
But following the hubris of the 2003 invasion, and following controversy over the consequences of the NATO intervention in Libya, surely Obama can be excused for a cautious approach towards Syria. This is especially so because the situation there is so complex. Le Monde says that to understand the crisis in Syria one must conceive of it as consisting of a three tiers: a civil war, a cold war and a holy war.
When Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000, following the death of his father, he was initially regarded as a possible reformer. But both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say that he has since failed to improve the human rights situation. Unsurprisingly, the human rights situation has become worse as Assad’s regime has cracked down on the uprising. Amnesty says that witness accounts suggest that the regime has committed crimes against humanity during the crackdown. In August 2013 the regime is accused of using Sarin nerve gas leading to the death of hundreds of children. Others accuse the rebels of being responsible for the incident.
Assad is an Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam, and the largest of Syria’s religious minorities. The Alawi were integrated into the dominant officer class of the military by the French. Many Alawi are themselves terrified at the prospect of massacre at the hands of extremists from the country’s Sunni majority. According to the Israeli’s their fears are well founded. If Assad is removed where will they go? Is petition the best option for Syria? And what of Assad’s claims that, from the start, his government has been fighting an opposition riddled with violent al-Qaeda linked Sunni jihadists?
There was a small group of secular opponents to the Assad regime during the early days of the Syrian uprising. Could stronger support for this group have averted the current crisis? This seems unlikely. It is far from clear that this group was ever potentially strong enough to topple Assad. Defectors from Assad’s army formed an initial nucleus of the Free Syrian Army. But the defectors were relatively few in number. Everybody underestimated the staying power of the Assad regime and Danahar says that by the third year the civil war had gone beyond anyone’s control, prompting Obama to comment that something was broken in Syria and would not be put back together any time soon, even after Assad leaves. And whether or not Assad’s claim that the Syrian opposition was dominated by jihadists from the beginning is true, it certainly seems to be the case now.
Even today, the so called moderate rebel groups in Syria that are being supported by the US administration co-operate with the Nusra Front. This is Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The Nusra Front is long one of the most effective fighting forces in the opposition to Assad and also is committed to the establishment of an Islamic State. It has however occasionally fought with ISIS from which al-Qaeda’s leadership formally spilt in February 2014. Patrick Cockburn says that there is “no dividing wall” between “America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies” and ISIS and the Nusra Front. The Obama administration also continues to conflate Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
At least in the short term, the war against IS will likely assist the Assad regime. Making IS weaker without making Assad stronger, or making Assad weaker without making IS stronger, appears, at least for the moment, to be an impenetrable quandary.
Noam Chomsky says that the US and Israel do not want to remove the Assad regime. He says they do not want the rebels to win, although it is not completely clear which rebels he is referring to. They are hardly a homogenous group. He says Israel could mobilize forces on the Golan Heights which would compel the Syrian Government to move its forces South reliving pressure on the rebels. But it has not done so. According to Chomsky, the only small hope for saving Syria from catastrophe is a negotiated settlement which he says would need to conclude some transitional arrangement for the Assad Government.
Obama had an honest moment in August 2014 when he commented that the US did not yet have a political strategy. It could defeat IS militarily but what would follow then? This comment was jumped upon by political opponents and the media leading Obama to reformulate his words. But the truth is that the US still does not have a convincing political strategy because none is available. It “allies” in the region, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, cannot and will not lead any ideological battle against the IS. “Degrading IS” (the reformulated “strategy”) does not tell us what comes next. But there is little choice. The murderous and expansionist IS has declared war on the West and all “apostates” (including Islamic ones). IS must be confronted despite the poor record of Western intervention in the Middle East. “Containment” probably best sums up the approach in a single word.
Whether Australia should be involved at all in wars in the Middle East is a discrete issue that would have been worthy of parliamentary debate. In fact, save where Australian armed forces are deployed for immediate self defence, Parliament should have the opportunity to debate the deployment of our troops.
There is a strong argument that Australia’s focus should be on regional security, that the ANZUS treaty is about security in the Pacific and that there should be no obligation upon Australia to participate in wars in the Middle East. In other words, Australia should not have been involved in any of the interventions in Iraq. But the ALP never pursued this argument in either of the Gulf Wars. In the second Gulf War, the Parliamentary ALP instead adopted very confusing and contradictory positions. After various iterations, it ended with the position that the ALP would support US unilateral action in Iraq provided that no more than one or two permanent members of the Security Council exercised a veto power.
Labor’s ability to criticise the 2003 intervention was also compromised by statements made by its foreign affairs spokesperson, Kevin Rudd. Fresh from a visit to Tony Blair, Rudd stated that there was “no doubt” that Saddam possessed WMD. Even if Kevin Rudd genuinely believed this, why say it, when the ALP’s public argument that it was vital that the UN weapons inspector’s be able to finish their job? Rudd’s public statements also meant that the ALP eventually had a shared interest, along with the Coalition, in the subsequent Parliamentary inquiries that shifted blame for the political decision to go to war to the intelligence agencies.
It would now be difficult for the ALP in 2014 to mount a credible “regional focus” argument for opposing Australian participation in confronting IS given it never mounted such an argument in relation to either the first or second Gulf Wars. And having participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and having thereby contributed to instability in the Middle East and the consequent rise of the IS, it would seem hypercritical for Australia to now seek to “wash its hands” of the problems that we have helped create.
The First World War was an unnecessary and damaging war much like the 2003 adventure in Iraq. The harsh terms imposed on Germany by the terms of the “peace”- the Treaty of Versailles- greatly contributed to the rise of Nazism in the Germany.
But none of this rendered the stand against Nazi Germany unjust. The West’s alliance with Stalin was an essential ingredient of the victory. The price, from the West’s perspective, was Soviet de facto control of Eastern Europe for another forty years.
We still have little idea about what the price of the stand against IS might be. It appears likely however that religious fundamentalism and sectarianism have been strengthened for the foreseeable future. Could things become worse as a result of the intervention against IS? It is always possible that military intervention can make things worse. It is just not a possibility that Bush, Blair or Howard took sufficient account of in 2003. History should judge them harshly.