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The root causes of ISIS' emergence must be addressed

There were feelings of both relief and satisfaction when footage was aired of US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighters retaking the final enclave of the ISIS “caliphate” in eastern Syria late last month.

 

The five-year nightmare of a widespread, distorted version of Islam mixed with a style of brutality that became the trademark of ISIS has come to an end, leaving behind it scorched earth in every territory it had controlled. But satisfaction, or even celebration of ISIS’s defeat, should not lead to triumphalism and complacency. ISIS was, at the end of the day, its own worst enemy and, while its fighters wrote the death warrants of so many people in the cruelest manner, by their behavior they also wrote their own death warrants.

The defeat of ISIS provides at best a hiatus, not a long-term solution to the root causes of its emergence; there is no guarantee that it, or a similar organization, will not rise from the ashes. Questions regarding how ISIS emerged in the first place, and why it enjoyed any support at all, are still bewildering.

 

Moreover, how was it allowed, within a very short space of time, to capture and control more than 34,000 square miles of territory and rule over some 8 million people? And what could be the attraction of such a gruesome, murderous organization for the tens of thousands of people from within and beyond the Middle East who joined it, including more than 3,400 Westerners?

It would be wrong to treat ISIS as just a tragic anecdote that is now confined to history. Delving only into its extreme puritan, reductionist, apocalyptic ideology, as fascinating as that may be, while ignoring the conditions that created the space and the atmosphere for such an organization would be an exercise in futility. Such an extreme movement does not evolve into a theocratic quasi-state that manages to sustain itself, if only briefly, with frightening resilience in the face of much more powerful forces, unless there is a wider context that enables it.

It should come as no surprise that the two states in which ISIS emerged and established itself were Iraq and Syria. Both suffered from extremely repressive regimes with no respect for the most basic of human, civil and political rights, and which for different reasons collapsed or at least lost control of large parts of their territories.

 

When big international powers contemplate future military interventions and the lure of regime change as their major objective — and let us hope they will not — they should consider the link between the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the emergence of ISIS. The US’ pursuit of regime change while knowing nothing of the historical, cultural, political and social terrain opened the gates of hell for ISIS to emerge.

 

Without the US and its allies’ invasion of Iraq and the havoc it wreaked there, while completely oblivious to its delicate religious-tribal social fabric, we would probably never have heard of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. This is not to say that Iraq and Syria were not in need of radical reforms, but that such changes should have been locally led, not foreign-imposed.

It was not only its brutality that made ISIS an enemy that had to be eliminated, but also its pretension of carrying out its project in the name of Islam, potentially tarnishing an entire religion of 1.8 billion adherents, who had nothing to do with ISIS’s most extreme version. To supply no adequate response would have risked religious wars and destabilized other countries. Moreover, this fanatical organization’s use of social media might have given it short-term sadistic satisfaction and rallied support from those who harbor so much hatred of the West, but it left the countries of its victims — those who were so gruesomely beheaded or burnt alive — no choice but to use their full force to do whatever it took to crush it.

There are also some positives that can be taken from the way ISIS was dealt with until it was eventually defeated at its last stand in Baghuz. In contemporary international affairs, there are not many issues in which the level of international cooperation and determination to address a common threat was as great as this.

 

The anger ISIS provoked by its enslavement, raping and killing of women and girls, and its grisly beheading of foreign journalists and aid workers, not to mention many other atrocities, united large parts of the international community.

 

It was not only revulsion, but also a determination to eradicate this pathological phenomenon that united large parts of the world. Furthermore, this should also be a lesson for those foreign powers who intervene in the region in the diversity and complexity of the Middle East, and the transformative potential of working together with so many of its inhabitants, who hunger for reform.

Whether or not we rise to the array of challenges in the wake of its disintegration will determine whether or not ISIS — or a successor organization — will rear its head once more. To ensure it does not, there is a need for a theological and political, social and economic reflection and a search for solutions. It would be too easy and short-termist to concentrate on punishing those who joined ISIS without addressing the deprivation, oppression, lack of opportunities and social mobility, and unaccountable governments that created the opening for an ideologically extreme minority to make their psychopathic program attractive to some and even prevail for a while.

There is a huge task ahead of addressing the massive trauma inflicted on those who lived under the so-called caliphate; a task that requires not only resources, but also great sensitivity. It also requires dealing with the perpetrators of such heinous crimes, and finding the balance between adequate punishment and rehabilitation. It will take a long time to heal the wounds inflicted by ISIS’s brief and brutal reign, but we have an opportunity to consider that unfortunate episode in a holistic, context-sensitive way, and so address its root causes for the benefit of future generations.

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