Zaatari Camp, Jordan
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Zaatari Camp, Jordan
Last updated: December 7, 2015
Let people write their own history: that, too, is a way to defend oneself against ISIS

"There is no moral imperative to try to 'fix' these young but already irredeemably failed states"

Banner Icon We already may have lost Iraq and Syria – but should we care much?

The bloody final stage of a colonial drama is unfolding In the Middle East and nobody knows, obviously, how to address it. Nobody, in particular, has the remotest idea of how to effectively combat this fluid yet very real entity called ISIS and there is no reason to assume anybody is going to find a magic formula in the foreseeable future.

And so the seemingly terrible but stark probability that Syria and Iraq are already lost should now be faced.

A policy focused on non-intervention, including the avoidance of forced diplomacy, is to be adopted as the best option available. Humanitarian duties must not be neglected, but in the meantime, nothing decisive can be attained either by military or by diplomatic means.

Fortunately, Obama seems to understand some of this, considering the famous phrase Don’t do stupid stuff. He has been reviled for it, but history may judge him more kindly than his predecessor, with whom history has already harshly dealt. Don’t do stupid stuff suggests that this president, whatever his flaws, possesses the rare and laudable humility to acknowledge that some historical processes cannot be overturned, not even by the greatest world power. Hopefully he will stick to this adage – or return to it.


Meanwhile, it is useless to call ISIS and its supporters ‘’not real Muslims’’. Though it is worse to call them – and condemn them as – the genuine article. There is no “real Islam”, that is precisely the point, that is what makes ISIS and similar movements so intolerable.

To explain ISIS in this ‘’essentialist’’ manner – and to demonize the whole of Islam in the process – is far from courageous, as the essentialists claim. Rather it is superficial, if not outright lazy. By the same token, it isn’t cowardly but responsible to adopt a more nuanced position, such as: the causes of religious violence lie partly outside the faith.

Granted, the Koran is mainly about war. That is what it has in common with the Old Testament. Like Moses, Muhammad was a military leader who obeyed a war god. This is an indication that Muslims have no monopoly on terror that is justified by tradition. Ask fanatical Jewish settlers if it is permissible to dispossess and chase people off their land because of the Torah, and the answer is yes. But whoever defines this as "true" Judaism will be in trouble, and rightly so.

That is not to say that Islamic terrorism isn’t the most widespread form of religiously motivated violence. Moreover, Islamic civilization has been lagging behind for a long time. Why? Because of an interplay of geography, historical coincidence and a few general characteristics of Islam, such as egalitarianism and collectivism, which have led to theological rigidity – an explanation too complicated for essentialists, but that's their problem.

So why is Islamic extremism so vehement? Because many people in the developing world are angry. Angry at the West, for reasons that are certainly not all irrational or unfounded. Islam is the most effective catalyst of that anger. Islam has far fewer adherents in the West than elsewhere, and is therefore a binding and polarising force.


Meanwhile, ISIS also enjoys some legitimacy among Muslims who abhor the methods of the movement. Just as ideas of European populists also resonate with people who do not care to vote for them. The legitimacy of ISIS arises firstly from its ambition to unravel the Middle East of Sykes-Picot: a Middle East carved up into colonial spheres of influence, according to a secret agreement that a British and a French diplomat concocted during the World War I. The Arabs saw this as a betrayal, since they had been promised independence in exchange for their support in the war against the Ottoman Empire.

The artificial states this agreement gave birth to, such as Iraq and Syria, ISIS is now in the process of annihilating. The matter is almost settled, since Iraq and Syria were never viable without tyranny. Iraq and Syria are constructs which Iraqis and Syrians never asked for, and to which they clearly have never grown sufficiently attached to preserve.

In Iraq, only one thing turned out to be worse than American occupation and bribery: no American occupation and bribery. In Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in just a few years time and a third of the remaining population is displaced. Millions have fled both countries. The simple ramifications of these well-known facts urgently need to sink in. If the forces at play are willing to harm each other so savagely, so boundlessly, then clearly they do not deserve a common state. Clearly there is no moral imperative to try to “fix” these young but already irredeemably failed states. Quite the contrary.

Each broad ethnic or religious grouping – whatever kind of affiliation prevails – should be allowed to establish its own fiefdom, its own feudal turf, so it can mind its own business. Granted, this is a startlingly crude, even hideous solution, but one that will save lives and livelihoods.

Give communities something to build on at least. Forget concepts of non-ethnic nationalism, they do not apply here (yet). The inheritance of colonialism has not yet been surmounted and that will have to happen first. And it can only happen when interventionist policies, strategies and mentalities, even if well intended, are deconstructed.


Post World War II history teaches two things about interventions: firstly, they were almost always conducted primarily out of self-interest. Secondly, their projected objectives were almost never achieved. It makes no sense bringing together failed states, like Syria and Iraq, and failed policies, like interventionism.     

Another source of ISIS’s legitimacy is its revitalisation of the Islamist dream of a modernised caliphate. Ideally – but not in the way ISIS is going about it – this is a theocratic democracy where the people elect and check the powers that implement divine law. A utopia it may well be, but is that of any concern to the West? Let people write their own history: that, too, is a way to defend oneself against ISIS. At the very least, never fight ISIS if local actors refuse to do so, the French Islam-expert Olivier Roy correctly states.

The demise of Syria and Iraq is not worth mourning, despite all the heartbreaking loss of life. Syria and Iraq themselves were murdering machines. The world and its history are not the property of the West, let that be the lesson for once and for all to be drawn from what is now happening in the Middle East. The Western model may be the best one around, but that is no excuse. After all, the West is only willing to bestow it on others when it deems this in its interests, and no model can be imposed by force anyway.

So is there nothing that can be done? Well, there is: give peaceful activists in the region money and resources. Do it discretely. Give air support to the Kurds. But only when this is really necessary. Give refugees a safe haven. Give it generously.

This, of course, is a deeply sobering message. It is a call for humility in the face of tragedy. But realism is much to be preferred to pious intentions that are bound to prolong suffering. Not allowing people to write their own history: that is really what is at the heart of a lot of conflicts in this world. That is a deep source of anger. That is ISIS. 

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