ISIS in Iraq and the need for Interpretation and Precise Concepts

As I write this, ISIS forces are advancing towards Samarra, and at the latest word being repelled by the Iraq army. In recent days they took control of Mosul and much of the province of Niveneh. They have released prisoners from the jails at Tikrit, and kidnapped the Turkish embassy staff.

There are two interpretations that I have heard of what is happening in Northern Iraq. One is conspiratorial: the Iraqi leadership has basically staged, or at least allowed, this insurgency to take control of part of the country because chaos benefits them. Chaos is an open door for corruption, for more aid, and to increase their power insofar as it relies on the perception that they are the only ones that can bring security. This interpretation sees ISIS in the same light: they are not genuine in their intentions, they are a band of elite powerful figures who benefit from chaos and who use ideology to control people, while basically lying to them about their “plan” to set up a state. The other interpretation is that ISIS is an independently powerful entity, which while it might make some secret agreements with Assad and Malaki, is basically genuine in its interest to create a state and is willing to use any degree of force, corruption, and ideology to achieve this. This interpretation sees Malaki as much weaker – as the commander of a military unable to control Iraq, and crucially exposed to the possibility of a military advance that might come all the way to Bagdad. 

Whichever interpretation is correct, it perhaps doesn’t matter too much to the people living inside the hell in this moment. People are displaced, reports suggest 500,000 people have left Mosul, a city with a population of 1.8 million. To put this in perspective, the Zionist colonization of Palestine initially expelled somewhere in the region of 700,000 Arabs from Palestine (closer to 850,000 if you include internally displaced refugees). The refugees who have left Mosul, which include perhaps the great majority of the Christians, Assyrians and other minorities who I’ve been told make up 1/3rd of the city. They probably hope to return when things settle down, although I’ve also read reports that this might be the end of the Christian presence in Mosul, a presence which has been dwindling in the context of repeated Islamist insurrections since the American occupation of Iraq created a context where Islamist militants were able to flourish and gain legitimacy as an “anti imperial” force.

In Mosul today, people are gathered in their homes, afraid to go out. If you go out, and are stopped by an ISIS member, and you can’t answer a question he asks you about Islam, you might be shot on the spot. We are talking about outright fascism here: if you are not a member of the correct group, you are entirely outside the sphere of moral consideration.

And yet, on twitter, if you search #PrayForMosul, you will see, mixed in with the genuine expressions of care and concern, statements which express brutal islamophobic sentiments:

Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 2.23.23 PM

In fact, what is happening in Mosul, reflected on Twitter, is a perfect example of how antagonism towards fascism easily tends towards xenophobia itself. Are the only ones in Mosul who have to fear from ISIS the Christians? This thinking that ISIS, because they fight in the name of Islam, is friendly to and represents all Muslims is unbelievably racist – a fact that is recognizable in the above tweet, but I think it’s also implicit in the barrage of tweets that specifically call for the defence of Christians, or call for the special consideration of Christians, i.e. as more valuable than other Iraqis:Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 2.29.11 PM Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 2.30.07 PM Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 2.31.02 PM

I am concerned about the Christians in Mosul. I’m concerned for everyone who has to fear from ISIS in all their areas of operation, including of course Syrian Revolutionaries who have been kidnapped and killed by ISIS in areas of liberated Syria which ISIS has invaded. But I don’t think that because they are Christian, western countries have some special obligation towards them, as Christians, which they don’t have towards the Muslim populations of Iraq (and Syria).

The fact is, it’s easy for people to slide into racism when Islamists act like fascists. But this is no excuse. For serious people who feel moral concern towards those who live in parts of the world which have been continuously exploited by power centres such as imperial Britain, Europe, and America (a sentiment which is very understandable and I believe commendable especially if those people feeling the concern benefit from living close to those power centres) there is an obligation to understand the events in the most accurate way possible, because inaccuracy is a major means by which imperial exploitation can be justified, facilitated, and apologized for. If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t need Edward Said.

The people in Mosul are not Islamists. Prior to the American invasion of Iraq there was basically no ISIS or al-Qaida there. The fighters in ISIS don’t come particularly from the local area, they are a trans-national fighting group. The culture is not characterized by religious extremism, a fact unsurprising because since independence from the British  Iraq has always had a secular government.

There seems to be very little that average citizens in Western countries can do to stop ISIS. The Iraqi state is problematic for many of the same reasons – it also plays on and attempts to increase sectarian tensions, it also ferments chaos to benefit itself, but I think it deeply unlikely that at some level, the opposition of the Iraq state against ISIS must be genuine. This is because, in the larger imperial calculus, the failure of the Iraqi state to put down Islamist insurrections will force power centres to re-evaluate their policy of delegating authority to “allied or indigenous” proxy-forces to maintain security.

The problem is not a new one, but it looms larger now that the United States is shifting its counterterrorism strategy away from using American armed forces directly, and toward relying on allied or indigenous troops and security forces supplied and trained by the United States. President Obama proposed last week that a $5 billion fund be set up to finance such efforts.


The process of shifting from direct imperial intervention to investing military power in allies is the extension of the process of colonialism through the transformation of de-colonization. The fact that the Iraqi state can only exist at the behest of American military aid (and this applies equally to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi, the Gulf states, and many other American client states and even non-state entities like the Palestinian Authority) shows that power has not shifted very far away from the centres towards the periphery. The challenging of this process, the breakdown of the effectiveness of this process, might lead either to the power centres becoming more intimately involved in the periphery (manifest re-colonization), or allow new actors to emerge insofar as those actors are co-optable, controllable, and do not threaten their control and exploitation of neighbouring areas.

How should we understand the emergence of ISIS in the ruins of war-torn Syria and the precarious new republic of Iraq? On one analysis, they might appear to be anti-colonial because they are fighting the American/Iranian backed Iraqi state, literally fighting against American weapons. But they can’t be anti-colonial because they don’t care about the indigenous population. In Fallujah they were forced to compromise with the local groups, but from how they are acting in Mosul it appears that these compromises only came from a position of weakness. ISIS are fascists: they use fascist levels of violence, and they declare any person who fails to meet their standard of community membership (religiously defined) outside the sphere of moral consideration. That’s a fancy way of saying they ask you a question about Islam in the street, and if you can’t answer it, they shoot you. They’ve also committed unspeakable atrocities in Syria, which I prefer not to look into because I know they will just make me very depressed (but I have trusted friends who have looked into these things).

I will suggest that we should understand ISIS as fascist colonizers, embarked in a state building project, with no clear “mother country” (the Zionists also did not have a “mother country” when they embarked on their colonial project). Moreover, as in Fanon’s description of Colonization as brutal domination of the native by the settler, secured with extreme violence, they do not gain control of the local population from recognition but from fear of being subject to extreme violence.  They do not have “legitimacy”, they have guns. They are using this direct violence and fear to impose a social structure on local populations with force.

We can not afford to be confused here. We cannot afford to avoid calling some Islamists fascists simply because the Zionists will exploit it and use it to advance their islamophobic rhetoric. We can not allow the need to criticize islamophobic notions like “islamofascism” become a block against understanding real fascist practices and ideologies taken up by islamist groups. We should call ISIS “Islamist fascists”, not “Islamofascists” because the former is an accurate designation of what they are, and the latter is a slur that seeks to equivocate between “Islam” and “Fascism”. We need concepts like this so that we do not simply equivocate between all of the political Islamic movements in the world today – we need a concept of “islamist fascism” such that we can clearly articulate why or why not any particular Islamist group is or isn’t fascist. And we should clearly state and act out our principled opposition to fascism. We also need a concept of “islamist colonization” because we need to distinguish between those groups which use political Islam to embody the general will of the local population, a will which in a pious area is likely to take on an Islamic language, and those groups which come from elsewhere to impose their particular interpretation of Islamic culture on the local people by force.

One thing above all: we must not forget that ISIS has risen in the context of the lack of revolutionary solidarity with the Syrian revolution. When you oppose Western arms supplies to non-fascist armed opposition in Syria, which includes groups which use the language of Islam, you are opposing giving arms to people who are fighting fascists. I think the basic principle is this: it is progressive to send arms to non-fascists when they will use those arms to fight fascists, whether those non-fascists are socialists or liberals or even Islamists. This is, I believe, the same principle at work when people argue that the U.S.A. had a “progressive character” when fighting the Nazis.

People are afraid of the question of weapons. It is so common to hear people today say that only non-violent resistance works to bring progressive change. But when you need to stand up to fascists who have guns, maybe you actually need guns. Non-violence only works if the enemy you are fighting has limits to the amount of violence he is willing to carry out on you. I could try to make the argument myself, but I think I’ll defer to Normal Finkelstein on this point:

I argue that the violent revolutions of the Arab Spring did not begin as such, rather they were forced to become violent. I further argue that this transition from nonviolent to violent was inevitable under the former Libyan and current Syria regimes, and that to expect the Tahrir square model to survive beyond a certain degree of violence inflicted on the demonstrators is naive  Denouncing any use of violence in popular uprisings of the Libyan and Syrian kind, is to expect the demonstrators to bite the bullet and head home when things get too ugly, or to continue chanting “Silmiya! Silmiya!” at the mercy of a merciless iron fist. The subtext of this denouncement, which every oppressor understands very clearly, is that sooner or later, if enough pressure is applied, the will of the people will yield.

If we are really honest about what arms are, I think we have to say that they are simply technologies of violence.  An arm is a technology that lets you do something (inflict violence) which you otherwise could not. The distribution of weapons is a distribution of technology (and vice versa, hence Saddam buying video game consoles for military application). A state which makes its own weapons is more independent than one that relies on other states (i.e. France’s nuclear weapons are strategic and do not depend on any foreign power in terms of their development or potential use. same for the Israelis). New technologies change what is possible, which is why historians identify the developments of farming and metallurgy as key drivers of social/political change in history. Taking this seriously means recognizing that new technologies of violence change the possible sets of relations between people. It makes a difference if the fascists have weapons or don’t have weapons. Without weapons, communities can resist them without weapons, with weapons, communities might need weapons to resist fascists.



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