We need to move away a poisonous, binary worldview that sees nothing but incessant warmongering, says Nicholas Chan.
In a previous article, I wrote about the overarching narrative that threatened to split the world into two civilisational halves – Islam and the West – and how harping on a particular understanding of Islam based on Isis is not helping.
Essentially, what I am saying is that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) is a secular phenomenon and it has to be dealt through secular means. I am not saying that these people are not religious (who am I to judge?), but religion is never a root cause of it. Yet, the discourse surrounding the issues, perpetuated by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, continues to put religion in the spotlight.
This week I want to talk about the consequence of this dialectical atmosphere, namely how it gave rise to a kind of emotive and entrenched mindset that seems to fuel tacit or overt indifference towards, if not endorsement of violent extremism.
Proud students of the ‘Huntingtonian’ school of thought
To clarify, my focus is not on those who gave actual physical support to these organisations, but those who seemed unwilling or hesitant to fully condemn Isis for what it is. These parties sometimes even exude a sense of apathy towards the victims of Isis, especially when they are from the “West”.
The reasons behind this type of thinking can be generalised into three categories. The first kind is the mildest response: “Isis is not my problem.” The West or America created Isis through its forays into the Middle East, so America has to fix it.
The second type takes on the garb of a conspiracy theorist. Isis will not be eliminated because the CIA and Mossad created it to demonise Islam. Often, this kind of response will come with pseudo-empirical evidence, such as how Isis fighters are photographed carrying America-made weapons, never mind that omitting when Mosul fell, 2,300 Humvees alone were lost to Isis.
Another example would be this remark made to me (actually, by a non-Muslim) that if America hated Isis so much, it could have bombed it out of existence. A possible scenario, considering America’s military superiority. The fact that it has not, means it wants Isis to be around.
Suffice to say this is another lazy, if not inhumane analysis given that Isis now occupies cities that have hundreds of thousands of civilians. While Isis might not show any remorse in conducting such genocides, America, despite all its flaws, can’t just do so.
The third is the most hostile kind. Its proponents think Islam is under siege, and as despicable as Isis methods are, it is nevertheless fighting on the frontlines for Islam. They will accept Isis out of guilt because they are not ‘fighting for Islam’ themselves. This is a case of a complete buy-in of Huntington’s thesis, where religious identities are solitary and bound by a civilisational conflict.
The argument goes, if Isis is not fighting for the West, then it sure has to be fighting for Islam.
A naive understanding of international politics
At the root of these mindsets, the contentious worldview I talked about notwithstanding, is a naïve and simplistic comprehension of the Middle East. It also signals a refusal to acknowledge the age of American hegemony is over; which is ironic, because this is what the neo-conservatives think too.
Some might argue that America’s power seems to be receding because of Obama’s non-confrontational style of diplomacy. But the fact remains that, after two invasions and a decade-long ‘war on terror’ that just peaked in terms of terrorism-related killings, the United States is now a beleaguered, disillusioned superpower forced to accept its limitations, and the dawn of a multipolar world.
This unwillingness to get a grip of the multi-paralleled, complex reality (see a ‘diagrammatic’ treatment of the Syrian conflict that reveals the panoply of actors and agents involved, as well as their interrelated and counter-reacting interests here) ushers in a Manichean worldview which dangerously creates artificial fault-lines between the West and Islam, as well as between the Sunnis and Shiites.
This makes the situation more, if not completely, unresolvable, for the desired outcome is couched in the language of ‘total subjugation” or “complete annihilation”. Ironically these are the goals of Isis, too.
What is also disconcerting about this mindset is that it fuels a sense of irreparable victimhood by tapping into historical grievances. Reductionist and counterfactual treatments of history are conveniently employed.
The ‘caliphate’ as Isis and its supporters envision it, is a direct result of such distortions; an unknowing offspring of the cynicism in the postcolonial world as a result of authoritarian rule and dismal socio-economic conditions.
Admitting local agency and the limitations of Pax Americana
The manifestations of such discontents are without question false identifications of solidarity, one that does not speak the truth of the messy actualities and the contingency-laden realpolitik of the spiralling Middle Eastern situation. Dwelling into it will foster no amicable resolution of a complex situation, for mainly three reasons.
First, it omits pivotal players in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Russia. This refusal to acknowledge America’s receding influence and ‘power’ misses out the fact that these countries now hold greater sway on the Syria-Iraq crisis than America and have to be involved in any reconciliatory projects.
Second, as a result of the rigid and anglocentric understanding of global politics, agency from local actors is greatly reduced, as if it is a board game where only superpowers such as America, Russia and China can play. For example, the externalisation of Isis – the implying of its existence that is entirely at the behest of America and oddly Israel – diminishes the capacity of organisation, propaganda and war that has been demonstrated by this protean quasi-state and ideological force.
I am not saying that I agree with the group’s methods and ideology, but this problematic worldview speaks of a lingering orientalism the world still suffers from. For example, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a researcher who has got access to leaked Isis documents, has said that the evidence shows that Isis is largely self-funded. Many will still not believe him because of racialised views that refused to give credit to local ingenuity; insisting every movement and every happening of the East is beholden to the West, or its allies.
That leads to the third point, where analysis and aspirations towards the situation gets played into a bind where people both want America to do something because of its perceived ‘omnipotence’ and want America to do nothing because it is ‘evil’.
Neither is a viable solution. For example, if America scaled back its troops stationed in Afghanistan now, the country would plunge into chaos. Similarly, an all-out occupation of Syria is also a dangerous option considering the Iraqi experience.
Taking complexity by the horns
One might ask, so what does this complex understanding of the situation lead to? First, it expands policy options, because it escapes from a binary worldview an,d takes cognisance of the multiplicity and agency of the actors involved. It also departs from an America-centric view, which may not always be the best perspective considering experiences.
The African Union mission with its successes in Burundi and Sudan, is a good example of how regional forces instead of a hovering superpower can provide successful peacekeeping services.
Second, a more informed approach in understanding the situation would provoke better verification of information and not having feckless provocateurs spreading mistruths, whether intentionally or not, that feeds into the pool of hatred.
The world needs to work harder to dismantle the current discursive dynamics, which are largely inhabited by a body of lies, and take on the world as it is – instead of a subscribing to a poisonous, binary worldview that sees nothing but incessant warmongering.
Source: The Malaysian Insider
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