The crisis of the state in the Arab region and the rise of the Islamic State

Written by Anoush Ehteshami | Published on: May 9, 2018

Islamic radical groups, such as the Islamic State, seem to have become the substitute for a failed regional order and failing domestic conditions.
 


A wall with the logo and slogans of the Islamic State that unknown people tried to erase. Mosul, Iraq, 9 May 2017. Picture by Jan Kuhlmann/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The Middle East and North Africa is a competitive, fragmented and highly penetrated regional system. However, it is a place that lacks a security system and is unique for its absence of a region-wide architecture. 

The Arab League – the region’s largest IGO – has been mobilized on numerous occasions, for a number of structural, political and ideological reasons but these efforts have failed. At the state level, the post-colonial state has failed to establish a fair model of governance. The region is dominated by authoritarian regimes and yet is also bereft of a hegemonic power able to impose its own will on the subsystem and therefore awash with rivalries. 

Thus, the region is characterized by inter-state rivalries and increasingly exposed to identity politics which is manifesting itself in inter-confessional and inter-communal conflicts. Consequently, signs of deep social trauma and crisis of identity and governance at both state and society levels are visible. 

Sub-communalization is taking place across the region, thus gradually eroding the hard won century-old national societies that independent states forcefully but carefully have put together. In addition, the region’s ‘contested’ states seem to be unravelling into smaller communities of sects, religious affiliations, tribal groups, and ethnicities. 

The MENA region is suffering from an imbalance in the forces pushing for change – the peaceful mass mobilizations and the violent nihilistic ones. This is a region, which is at once both post-modern and pre-modern. Both post- and pre-modern forces compete for power.

The regional system is vulnerable to the actions of these sub-state and non-state actors and many of its states are suffering at the hands of violent jihadi groups who have stepped into the vacuum created by the weakening of the iron grip of the central government in several Arab countries.

Modernity as the norm for much of the twentieth century – in terms of rationality as a driver of decisions, transparent institutions of governance, rule of law, reliable public services (education, health, etc.), accountable public servants, functioning state institutions, enhancement of opportunity – has been taking a back seat in driving change in the region.

Power is fluid, unevenly distributed, and does not necessarily manifest itself in terms of such traditional indicators as the size of population, territory, economy (GNP), or geography; nor does the size of military budgets, of the armed forces, or military hardware provide sufficient indicators of power and influence. Indeed, in the twenty-first century, it seems to be the smaller Arab states who are outperforming their larger counterparts; and non-state actors making waves.

Violent-Salafism seems to be one of the most challenging issues that face the region
The region is still lacking alternative political forces able to fulfill the expectations of the people and achieve development and security. Eventually, the Islamic radical groups, such as the Islamic State, seem to have become the substitute for the past political forces in doing this mission.
Thus, violent-Salafism seems to be one of the most challenging issues that face the region. Salafism in the Islamic tradition was a reformist movement. It emerged at the end of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eleventh century. All called for the return to the true Islam, where the law of the divine is represented in Quran and Hadith (the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad).

Violent-Salafism is a relatively contemporary phenomenon. It was arguably introduced in the writings of the Egyptian Sayyid Quṭb (October 1906 – 29 August 1966), who came at a time when leftist radical movements were rising in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Sayyid Quṭb resented pan-Arab policies of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and called for regime change. Qutb introduced what is known as Global Jihad and was later arrested for plotting against President Nasser and executed in late August 1966.

The Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s became the life blood of violent-Salafism in the region. Yet the milestone arguably is the Kuwait crisis in 1990-1991. The occupation of Kuwait divided the Arab world. Furthermore, American soldiers were not welcomed in the Holy Land by the Arab mujahidin of Afghanistan who established their group, al-Qaeda, just two years earlier, in 1988. As a result, the Kuwait crisis provided the opportunity for these jihadi groups to operate in the region. When House of Saud rejected Osama Bin Laden’s offer to defend the Holy Shrine, the latter vowed to attack the US and its allies.

The war on Iraq in 2003 brought about a new wave of global Jihad
The Algerian civil war (1991-2002) and the Bosnian war (1992-1995) had also their own share in the rise and the development of violent Salafism. However, the establishment of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan witnessed the birth of a new trend of global Jihad following Sayyid Quṭb’s school of global Jihad. While the Taliban, the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) and Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) had locally based agendas in Afghanistan, Algeria and France, al-Qaeda unleashed radicalism onto the international scene. Al-Qaeda began to attack the US and its allies in the world. The first attack was on the US army residence Gold Mohur hotel in of Aden in 1992, followed by the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993, and the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar al-Salam in 1998. The most disastrous attacks were the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington, DC.

The war on Iraq in 2003 brought about a new wave of global Jihad. The occupation of Baghdad was a major turning point for the pan-Arab and revolutionary forces in the region one that compares to the defeat of 1967 and the Israeli occupation of Beirut in 1982. 

The collapse of the Iraqi state provided the space where Jihadists can operate and attack the US and its allies in the region. Al-Zarqawi, an ex al-Qaeda member in Afghanistan, travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2002 and established his network with the Jihadists there. In 2003, he and his followers began to attack the Americans and the Shiites. They called themselves Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād (The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad, initially established in 1999 by al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan). In 2004, the group pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and changed its name to Tanẓīm Qāʻidat al-Jihād fī Bilād al-Rāfidayn, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). 

The group played on sectarian tensions between the Shiite and the Sunni communities inside Iraq. It was calculating that if they attack the Shiite, which they did, they would retaliate by attacking the Sunnis, which they did. The Sunnis would then seek protection from al-Zarqawi and his followers, which they also did. This has been the group’s usual strategy since the days of al-Zarqawi’s leadership. By doing this, it would gain Sunni sympathy and it did so quite dramatically (see al-Zarqawi letter to Osama Bin Laden, 2004).

Al-Zarqawi was killed in an American air strike in June 2006. His death, though, did not decrease the group’s vision of statehood. The Egyptian militant Abu Hamza al-Muhajir took over the lead. Later he will pledge allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the leader of what later became known as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), arguably to give the group an Iraqi flavor. Yet, as soon as the Sahawat were established by the Iraqi government and the US and composed of Sunni tribes that had cooperated with ISI, the Islamic State was driven out of the Sunni areas in 2006.
The civil war in Syria helped ISI to expand and flourish again. The armed conflict between al-Assad and the opposition, which started a few months after the peaceful protests in 2011 turned into what many Syrians now perceive as a sectarian war. The chaos attracted ISI. The group began to control areas in Syria between 2012 and 2013. As soon as it controlled Raqqa in 2013, it changed the name of the group to the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS). And once Mosul fell under their control in the summer of 2014, the group began to call itself the Islamic State (IS).

Although IS has lost most of the territory it controlled in Syria and Iraq, it has not been defeated.
IS transformed the Islamic Jihad within a short space of time. What al-Qaeda could not do in years, IS did in months, in terms of political and military successes and in terms of recruitment. This was partly due to the use of technology and social media, but also to the adoption of offensive Jihad, or Jihad al-Shauka, rather than defensive Jihad, or Jihad al-Nikaya as in the case of al-Qaeda, thus attracting scores of young people worldwide. 

The difference between the two forms of Jihad is that defensive Jihad aims to deter impairment, offensive Jihad on the other hand, features the work of Machiavelli in terms of land-control, the ends justify the means, and most importantly, fighting the near enemy – essentially any local or regional group that opposes the jihadi group or refuses to pledge allegiance to it.

Although IS has lost most of the territory it controlled in Syria and Iraq, it has not been defeated. The group rose on the aches of the regional disorder and the failure of the state, and these fertile conditions have not changed. Furthermore, violent Salafism acts as a catalyst for the entrenchment of other sub-state actors, like the Shiite militias, Iran’s proxies in the region, mainly Hezbollah in Lebanon and recently operating in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq. These Iranian-backed militias pose threats not only to the security of those countries they are operating in, but also to the stability of the entire region.

Leadership is still lacking and no solutions for the many regional problems are in sight. Meanwhile, with the lack or weakness of alternative forces able to fulfill the expectations of the people in the region, Islamic radical groups, such as the Islamic State, are appealing to the masses, and seem to have become the substitute for a failed regional order and failing domestic conditions. Thus, violent Salafism is a phenomenon that will continue to shape the politics of the region, irrespective of military offensives against its different adherers.

Anoush Ehteshami is professor of international relations and head of the school of government and international affairs at Durham University. His many book-length publications include Globalization and the Middle East: Old Games, New Rules (Routledge, 2007); (co-author) Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives (IB Tauris, 2007); (co-editor) The Middle East's Relations with Asia and Russia (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004); The Foreign Policies of Middle East States (co-editor) (Lynne Rienner, 2002); (co-author) Iran's Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era (Rand, 2001).