Holy war and liberal peace
Europe’s vaunted liberalism doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to the post-Spring Arab world
It may be a coincidence arising solely in the English language, but it is curious to consider what the high goddess of the ancient world would think of her contemporary namesakes. The group that now goes by the name of ISIS is a collection of brutal but agile Sunni holy warriors fighting for control of parts of Iraq and Syria. Were they to see a shrine to the ancient Isis, mother god to the Egyptian pharaohs, they would most certainly destroy it. But were they to consider their heaps of gold and booty, they might be convinced that the deity of magic is in fact on their side.
In Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria conducted a model example of a new sort of warfare: asymmetric blitzkrieg. In the space of less than a week, a little over 1,000 fighters seized control of this and a further three cities, displacing an estimated half a million people in the process, and scoring a notable victory over a national Iraqi army that is said on paper to employ 270,000 active personnel and possess gleaming hardware. And it was in Mosul that ISIS enjoyed the intercession of Isis, removing close to half a billion US dollars from the branch of the central bank, including gold bullion.
Putting to one side the inevitable strain on human relations caused by the handling of a sum of money not distant from the GDP of an island state, ISIS instantly ascended from rump player in war-torn Syria — where even al-Qaeda has repudiated it — into a geopolitical menace. Its audacity, its apparent ability to control and pacify the areas it rules, its virulent sectarian Sunni character, its hatred for Shiite theology and now its sudden projection into the realm of ultra high net worth all mark it out for fleeting notoriety, probably to be followed by some form or other of ill-conceived military retribution.
Those in the seats of Middle Eastern power and diplomacy, whether in Europe, the United States or neighbours such as Iran, would probably acknowledge that this unannounced eruption into world affairs owes itself to deep discontents. They could well point to the US military intervention in Iraq — the cities seized by ISIS also saw the brunt of fighting in that conflict — or the feeble ethno-sectarian state created in Iraq, or the factory for monstrosity that is Syria as it begins its fourth year of war. However, whichever origin of the ISIS phenomenon is chosen, it will recede into the footnotes as choices are made whether to attack by land or air, manned or unmanned, through the UN or outside it, with Iran or without.
There is much in this likely procession of events that should give the West pause for thought. As the big wars of the post-September 11 era are succeeded by these smaller polyps of jihadist revolt, a ritual response has formed. The less Europe and the United States can do to alter the underlying conditions that have given rise to the array of non-state armed factions and fundamentalist splinters, the more faith is placed in giving military assistance of some sort or another to the governments of the affected countries. For one, this makes limited military sense: the failings of these states, in Iraq as in Yemen, Mali and Nigeria, are very often the reasons why the jihadists are fighting. For another, it has become increasingly unclear how the West’s understanding of itself is connected to the way it acts when abroad.
Above all, Europe’s vaunted liberalism appears to have taken an extended vacation when it comes to the post-spring Arab world. Within the borders of the European Union, basic freedoms and equalities remain irresistible articles of faith. When populist politicians do emerge, as they did from left and right in the recent EU elections, they invariably claim to be rescuing democracy and freedom from the clutches of bureaucrats and bankers. When the far right in the Netherlands argues against the presence of Muslims, it purports to defend personal and sexual liberties from the dark shroud of the Niqab.
Yet when Egypt elected the former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with 96.9 percent of the vote a month ago, European governments appeared most reluctant to respond with heartfelt liberal longings or reminiscence of the youth revolution they once cheered on. After all, el-Sisi did not merely bend the rules of electoral decency by imprisoning 16,000 opponents. He also advertised himself with television spots documenting his ideal Egypt, in which alarm clocks ring in the dead of night, and people haul themselves out of bed in darkness to go to work. “You want to be a first-class nation?” he is recorded to have told a journalist. “Will you bear it if I make you walk on your own feet? When I wake you up at 5 in the morning every day?”
In all respects, Europe seems to have reckoned that its deep liberal affinities are best preserved within its tightly controlled borders. In Egypt and Libya, the case for political liberalism appears to have been confounded. In the Arab world, Africa, and of course Latin America, economic liberalism has lost many of its attractions, largely because free-market dogma all too often finds itself in the hands of the most rapacious political cliques.
The last liberal effort to reshape the world had an even shorter shelf life. Popularized by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, liberal imperialism, meaning the military-led export of liberal states, is now regarded as expensive, lethal and prone to toxic side-effects. Either it is like Isis, the mother of pharaohs. Or it is the mother of ISIS, destroyer of Iraq.