Dr Yaqoob Bangash’s article The Paris wakeup call, argued for a ground offensive to be launched against Islamic State (IS) saying that it resembled Nazi Germany. I strongly share his sentiment of outrage against killing of innocent people and am alarmed by the pace at which IS is spreading its influence, but I believe that knee-jerk reactions to complex situations only worsens them. The author of the piece is a dear friend and would forgive me, I’m sure, for wading into his territory — history — to argue that only those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it. At the same time, I wish to caution against a cavalier use of history to make unsound analogies.
Is the IS like Nazi Germany? In terms of its xenophobic, bigoted outlook, its use of barbaric means of executing anyone it deems as ‘the other’, and being led by a megalomaniac as the article pointed out, these two certainly share much. However, I point to two fundamental differences between them. The first is on the issue of statehood. Despite being governed by a barbaric regime, Nazi Germany was an internationally recognised state, with formal inter-state alliances during the Second World War. On the other hand, Al-Baghdadi and his followers have capitalised on the vacuum created by a fragile Iraqi state and a war-wrecked Syrian state, by using sheer violence to usurp territory and declared himself Caliph.
IS is not recognised internationally as a legitimate ‘state’. Arguably, Al-Baghdadi’s rule is not considered legitimate to begin with, even among people inhabiting the lands controlled by IS. IS is not standing distinct from Iraq or Syria, it is feeding off the rebellion in Syria and the vacuum in Iraq created by (surprise, surprise!) the Iraq war of 2003. Its borders are fluid, changing constantly, particularly as the Syrian state grows weaker and loses territorial control with each passing week. IS is at best, a non-state actor which has now gained control of some territory.
Second, Germany in the 1930s and the international political environment of that time, cannot be compared so simplistically with the Middle East today. For one, the method of war-making has changed considerably during this time, as have its rules, actors and challenges. Ground troops with an allied force worked against Germany in the Second World War when borders were clearer and not so porous and the recruitment into the Reich’s ranks was limited to Germans. The global and regional political reality within which IS operates is far more complex. The author argues rightly that IS is ideologically driven, and yet, that is precisely why his solution for taking away IS’ territory wont achieve its purpose — ideas have no territorial boundaries.
Furthermore, ideologies, cultures, attitudes towards various people and identity formation, all of which are at play here, develop within a historical context. To say that modern extremism such as that of IS, emanates from a ‘particular ideology (which)…does not need the crutches of historical wrongs’ is to reduce our understanding of IS to such an absurd degree that it obfuscates the real origins of the problem.
Deploying ground forces might make IS weaker, or, create an even bigger backlash among radicalised Muslims who do identify with its ideology within the region, and in other places around the world. We already see disturbing reports of radicalised Muslim youth in European states joining IS. In fact, recent investigations in Paris have turned up European Muslims as alleged terrorists.
Seeing how the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and that in Iraq in 2003 played out, I’m willing to put my money on the second possibility instead of the first. Therefore, use of ground troops would be like trying to treat the symptoms rather than the causes of a disease.
Deploying ground forces might make IS weaker, or, create an even bigger backlash among radicalised Muslims who do identify with its ideology within the region, and in other places around the world. We already see disturbing reports of radicalised Muslim youth in European states joining IS.
Furthermore, the grand alliance which is proposed, runs into two problems. First, whether they admit it or not, another long-drawn and potentially unsuccessful war in the Middle East is far too costly for European countries and US. France has begun airstrikes against IS, but boots on the ground is not being considered as a logistically realistic option. In fact, while all agree that IS must be dealt with decisively, there is fair amount of disagreement over how it should be done — and the suspicions US and Russia have of each other make the task even more difficult. Muslim states, unfortunately, have their own dirty politics to consider. We see regional power play at work in Syria already and to the extent that the origins and rise of IS is deeply linked with the Syrian crisis and failure of state rebuilding in Iraq, I’m not too optimistic that we will soon see a unified front against IS.
But let us move closer to home. There are increasing reports that IS is gaining a foothold in Pakistan by establishing a network with local militant outfits and using former TTP fighters. Before Pakistan can join or mount a campaign in the Mideast, it must do some serious in-house cleaning. IS is not merely ‘there’, as Dr Bangash rightly says. It is very much spreading its influence here in Pakistan. So, what can be done?
Internationally, it might be useful to track the money trail which is financing IS and block it; while also tracking who is supplying arms to these fighters. Last year, New York Timesreported that there seems to be a circular flow of arms in the region where arms supplied to the respective proxies of global powers seem to have changed hands. For Pakistan, though, the creeping spread of IS influence has to be combated by our security forces unequivocally. A localised response to the threat here has greater chances of success than engagement in a more nebulous war in another land.
The second question is what do Pakistanis make of the Paris attack? Dr Bangash is alarmed by those who grieved differently than his expectations. By arguing that people are not robots and so react differently to different events (and so it is alright if Paris merits a stronger reaction than other attacks), I would imagine the author would be able to understand why, precisely because of his own logic, some in Pakistan reacted differently.
On this, I invite some critical self-reflection by everyone instead of emotive bandwagoning. There is absolutely no question that the loss of innocent lives must be condemned unequivocally. Regardless of the religious, ethnic, racial, national (or any other) identity of the victims, the killing of innocents is reprehensible and there can be no second opinion on this. (Or there can be, but one would be a lousy human to go down that path).
However, in this very moment, a sense of justice would demand that this notion of the sanctity of life extends to all of humanity. To say that we should respond only in the moment and mourn the ‘some’ who are ‘highlighted more’ undermines this fundamental notion of extending our human sympathy universally. Soon after the attack, we saw Facebook inundated with French flag filters, conversations about why didn’t we mourn Beirut (ironically, once known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’), which had been hit two days earlier, and also a slew of I’m-Muslim-but-not-a-terrorist posts. Apologies flooded, along with charged emotive defenses of Islam as a religion of peace.
All these reactions indicate more clearly than ever before the need among Muslims, in particular, to understand why is it that violent religious extremism is emanating so virulently and visibly from among their co-religionists? The fact that everyone responded differently to the Paris attacks shows that the issue of worthy and unworthy victims of terrorism will only deepen a sense of injustice within the Muslim world. For the Lebanese, the wound was still fresh. Why were our deaths not mourned with flag filters, some people asked? Others counter-argued that now was not the time to compare past grievances or death counts. Yet, a flag is a deeply political symbol of nationalism. And political symbols are contentious as is their nature.
With a national flag up, why are we surprised that people questioned France’s current foreign policy or its laicism that has alienated some of its population? I do not for a moment believe that there is an inherent ‘clash of civilizations’ such as that which the celebrated political scientist, Samuel Huntington famously (and erroneously in my view) wrote about. Yet, with each passing incident where condemnation of the killing of innocents is not proportionate, we face the frightening prospect of inadvertently fuelling the prophecy of Huntington. And in doing so, we are playing right into the hands of extremists in both camps.