The intense debate taking place across the world in recent months about the precise nature of and motivating forces behind ISIS is impressive and useful, but still incomplete. It will nevertheless allow all concerned to have a more accurate understanding of what this group is all about and why it attracts adherents from across the world. This is critical to developing a policy to defeat it. There is hope and despair here.
The hope is that the world is slowly grasping that ISIS is not a one-dimensional phenomenon that reflects intense Islamic religiosity, economic deprivation, social dislocation, anti-modern sentiments or any other such single ideas. The birth, incubation and growth of ISIS reveals the multiple reasons for how it has been able to reach its current condition of controlling territory and waging mini-wars on several fronts.
What remains unclear is the lack of evidence that any serious efforts will be made now and in the years ahead to tackle what I believe is the single most important underlying reason for the ISIS phenomenon: the modern legacy of mediocre and authoritarian governance systems in Arab countries. A few thousand nutcases and lost souls who travel from Western lands to join ISIS are important case studies for psychologists and political sociologists who need to focus more on why some of their minority and immigrant youths routinely become alienated and radicalized. This is a sideshow, however, and not a core element in the battle to defeat ISIS.
The damage that has been done by ISIS to Arab countries started decades ago and was the work of homegrown Arab extremists. This suggests that we need to probe deeper into the dynamics of Arab societies in the past half-century or so if we want to grasp how this movement came about. Such an effort would quickly reveal a series of interlocking reasons, cutting across disciplines and sectors, comprising political governance, police brutality, military-run states, economic disparity, social frustrations, cultural denials, educational mediocrity, and profound and chronic indignities caused by massive unmet needs in basic services (jobs, housing, medical care, water, public transport, reasonably priced food and other such vital human needs).
For decade after decade, tens of millions of ordinary Arab men and women put up with the gnawing realization that they had no real rights as citizens of their states. They could neither complain about their homegrown subjugation in any credible manner that promised a redress of grievance, nor could they participate meaningfully in any sort of political process that allowed them to contribute measurably to resolving the problems that plagued them or to promoting better conditions in their societies. Most Arab citizens were not only deprived of basic human and citizen rights – they were also deprived of the right to do anything about their lamentable condition. They were simultaneously vulnerable and voiceless.
This litany of domestic conditions has always been the primary driver of discontent that pushed Arabs to challenge their prevailing political orders and seek to change their social-economic conditions. The challenge of Zionism and the legacy of Western, Russian or Iranian interference in our region are relevant elements in the total picture of mass Arab discontent and attempts at corrective actions.
However, they are secondary to the fundamental problem of mass humiliation of Arab citizens by homegrown mismanagement and authoritarianism.
With the exception of the brief Arab nationalist moment that was mainly directed externally against Israel and the West, the majority of local, national or regional movements that challenged Arab governments included significant Islamist dimensions. So it is no surprise that yet another movement anchored in religion has emerged in the form of ISIS.
Defeating ISIS requires a combination of military forces that are now slowly being mobilized, alongside the much more difficult task of addressing the underlying domestic conditions that are anchored in a web of government incompetence, insensitivity and brutality that has prevailed for many decades. This is probably the main reason why young men, and just a few women, have become so disgruntled with their life conditions, and feel so hopeless about the prospects for change, that they gravitate toward radical ideas that promise them everything for which they yearn and that they are denied in their lives. This includes order, power, community, voice, respect, basic needs, and an organizing philosophy of life and the afterlife.
If ISIS and other such movements are to be defeated, and not reappear in new forms that are shaped by the same underlying drivers of discontent, we need to see tangible signs of change in the way Arab societies are governed. Those signs, I fear, are still missing from the array of forces being lined up to fight ISIS.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.