Islamic State will survive – and thrive – for as long as war and chaos live on
Nadim Nassar says ending the war in Syria is a vital part of the action we must take to defeat Islamic State and the extremist ideology it espouses
Aristotle believed that nature abhors a vacuum. As we have seen in the Middle East in recent years, it is not only nature: politics abhors a vacuum too.
The political conflict in Syria, between the regime that has ruled the country for the last 40 years and its varied opponents, directly resulted in the partial collapse of an ordered society, albeit a dictatorial one. In much of Syria, where once there was order and governmental institutions, we find petty principalities briefly ruled by one opposition movement or another.
Shifting alliances, internecine squabbles and a strong determination by every faction leader to seize power for himself meant that the opposition focused on soldiers, weapons and logistics rather than on rebuilding the civic infrastructure in their area. The result was, inevitably, chaos.
Into this chaos came a new order built around a twisted understanding of Islam and a fondness for sectarian violence. This new order is, of course, Islamic State.
Before the Arab spring destabilised an entire region, the idea of a theocratic, extremist state erupting out of nowhere in the Middle East would have been regarded as ludicrous. Now, it is a nightmare which we all share: modern Islamic religious extremism, born out of the fire of conflict in Iraq and Syria, showers the entire planet with the glowing embers of hatred and religious fanaticism. These embers can catch light anywhere, and they produce a warped misinterpretation of faith that excludes, denies and even hates all others.
The consequences of this can be dreadful. As the spark of extremism spreads, the very cohesion of our diverse communities is threatened. We have seen this most recently in Paris, but we should not forget the atrocities already committed all around the world in the name of religious extremism.
What lies behind Islamic State? Firstly, it relies upon a poisonous religious extremism which only Muslims themselves can defeat, and, secondly, it receives plenty of help from other quarters – and this is a world problem.
Firstly, let’s look at the religious extremism that is at the heart of Islamic State. This extremism is fuelled by abusing the way Islam interprets and understands the Koran and the Hadith (the recorded saying of the Prophet Mohammed), and by the portrayal of Islam as being under attack. Those who incite young people to kill and to die in the name of Islam are using the Koran and the Hadith, and it is not enough merely to say that they are misinterpreting those sacred scriptures.
In addition, far too many Muslim leaders portray Islam as a victim, a victim of the West, a victim of everyone. This victim mentality is burning into the psyche of many Muslims – even those who reject fanaticism – and this gives great fuel to the extremists, enabling them to mobilise for the physical, military defence of Islam. This is the meta-narrative of the jihadis.
Due to the spread of radicalisation and hundreds of organisations like Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, it can no longer be sufficient to say that they “have nothing to do with Islam”. Everything they do is in the name of Islam! Muslims must respond to the hijacking and corrupting of their faith by the jihadis by boldly embarking on their own journey to reform and restore Islam: a new counter-narrative must be developed within Islam which gives new guidance on how to relate their scriptures to their lives today – not in a way that compromises them, but which highlights and examines the truth of many difficult passages – the very passages that the preachers of hate rely on.
The other step that Muslims must take is to learn to reject the falsehoods behind the extremists’ victim mentality. Now is the time for radical reform and renewal rather than retreat and resentment.
Secondly, we need to understand the financial and logistical engines that have enabled Islamic State to become such a major power in the Middle East and beyond. This organisation had the resources to capture Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, as well as Raqqa, a major city in Syria, and its province.
There must be governments and banking systems behind Islamic State. This expansion could not have happened without huge support – financially, logistically and militarily – from someone else. Islamic State has been importing jihadis and weapons, and it has been exporting US$1 million worth of oil through Turkey every day.
Of course, Turkey is not alone. Islamic State is greatly helped by some of the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia. The Gulf States and Turkey are strong allies of America and the West. How can they support Islamic State without being challenged? The West should be confronted about its apparent inaction in the face of their allies’ behaviour.
What can the world do to stop Islamic State exporting religious extremism and sectarian hatred? We cannot hope to begin to contain it while Islamic State is able to call itself a “state”, and it will not cease to exist while war and chaos tear asunder the communities of the Middle East. Sadly, the Syrian war has been raging since 2011, and the conflict in Iraq, started with the Western invasion of that country in 2003, has never gone away – it merely smouldered until Western leaders brought their troops home, then burst into a fire even brighter than before.
Now, nations join hands as the Security Council unanimously calls on all UN members to fight Islamic State. Does this mean the answer to warfare and violence in the Middle East is supposed to be the importation of more war and violence?
We cannot possibly justify a warlike solution before exhausting the many ways to work for a political, economic and diplomatic solution that genuinely ends the threat of Islamic State to Muslims, Christians and other minorities of the Middle East, and indeed to the world. A military “solution” will only disperse Islamic State, scattering its poison even more widely and bestowing its members with an ever-greater sense of martyrdom, victimhood and vengeance.
The nations of the world need to say that “enough is enough”. It is time to end the war in Syria, and stop the chaos and the violence; this is the first step in stopping Islamic State and its stunted world view.
Wars are not stopped when there is no one left to fight: they are stopped when the parties to that conflict realise that none of them have anything to gain by continuing to fight, and that it is time to stop, and to work together to save their country. We saw this in Lebanon after 15 years of bloody civil warfare; we even saw it in Versailles after four years of world war: dialogue stops warfare, not bullets.
Only a Syrian peace can save Syria; we need the whole world to make this a reality. When the violence stops, then we can work to re-establish stability and rebuild our communities. Without war, Islamic State will wither and die as it is denied its resources; then, its very life force will be extinguished.
The Reverend Nadim Nassar is the director and co-founder of the Awareness Foundation, an international Christian charity that works to equip Christians everywhere to form an effective counter force to the intolerance and aggression that now prevail in so many communities, and to build understanding between the faiths. www.awareness-foundation.com