The Wider Appeal of ISIL and Sunni Grievances

By Juan Cole

al-Quds al-`Arabi [Arab Jerusalem] reports on the appeal of ISIL to Salafi hard line Sunni Muslims.

In a worrisome development, radicals throughout the region are rallying to the so-called “Islamic State,” which is actually just a bunch of armed thugs and brigands.

Some of the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan have announced their loyalty to ISIL leader Ibrahim al-Samarra’i, who styles himself caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Two or three Lebanese Sunni troops have defected from Beirut and announced for ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra (the Succor Front, i.e al-Qaeda in Syria).

The Ansar al-Shariah or so-called Helpers of Islamic Law in Libya, a terrorist organization, last week announced allegiance to ISIL.
Those groups inspired by the lightning spread of ISIL into Sunni Arab areas of Iraq since last June often see themselves as persecuted minorities. The Taliban in Pakistan are rural fundamentalists of Pushtun ethnic heritage, while the dominant group in Pakistan is the Punjabis, many of whom are Sufis or religious liberals and a minority of whom are Shiites. The Pakistani Taliban live in rugged, mountainous resource-poor regions and have been alternatively neglected and harassed by the Pakistan government.

In Lebanon, many Sunnis are resentful of the leading political and military role of the Shiite Hizbullah. Likewise in Iraq, Sunni Arabs chafed under the government of the Shiite Da`wa Party (Islamic Call or Islamic Mission), which imprisoned them arbitrarily, repeatedly bombed their villages, and generally treated them in a humiliating way. They also suffer from high unemployment under Shiite rule. The Shiite government in turn is viewed by them as a gift from a hated American military occupation.

In Libya, fundamentalists were persecuted under dictator Muammar Qaddafi a major massacre committed against them at Abu Salim prison. (Those who wonder whether he should have been overthrown should remember that he provoked his own overthrow.)

Still, al-Samarra’i cannot possibly hope to capitalize on this surge of popularity among the lunatic fringe (he is not popular with mainstream Sunni communities because of his barbarity). He has the world against him and likely will be driven back underground or killed, like his predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Radical groups are mostly locally oriented, seeking more power and wealth in their own countries, a struggle that will preoccupy them long after al-Samarra’i is dead and buried. ISIL is just a flavor of the month among the insurgents. But non-Sunni governments should take note that in this era of social mobilization, it is unwise to push large Sunni populations to the wall.

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Related video added by Juan Cole

CNN: “ISIS advances put U.S. allies ‘against a wall'”

12 Responses

  1. Well, it’s unwise to push local Sunni populations as long as elsewhere far-right Sunni aristocratic families control trillions of petrodollars to spend on radicals to prove that they deserve the thrones of their respective monarchies more than the current occupants, or those monarchs in turn are pressured to spend on radicals for the same reasons of credibility and to get their own young troublemakers to go fight somewhere else. The problem is not in the “unsuccessful” countries, but in the “successful” ones that we do not dare confront.

    • Well said. But confronting those “successful” populations qualifies as heavy-lifting so long as the west needs crude as badly as it does, or wants to stroke its ego by taking on scary moslem boogey men [Saddam was a monster but wouldn’t even make a top 10 top priorities list today or a top 5 right after 9/11; Yet we found the blood and treasure to go on that dalliance], or the US has an eye for what the NSA called “full spectrum dominance” internationally.

      Once we have nuclear fusion and a sober, enlightened Aristocracy in the US, maybe then we can see causes like the one you mentioned addressed instead of only managing symptoms. At this point, i’m expecting to see fusion first.

  2. In a worrisome development, radicals throughout the region are rallying to the so-called “Islamic State,” which is actually just a bunch of armed thugs and brigands.

    This is reminiscent of the old question: “How can you vote for such a crook?” And the answer: “Because he is our crook.”

    There are some good people in the Middle East, but it is the bad guys who are center-stage with the dominant roles, and that includes Western would-be colonizers.

  3. “often see themselves as persecuted minorities. The Taliban in Pakistan are rural fundamentalists of Pushtun ethnic heritage, while the dominant group in Pakistan is the Punjabis, many of whom are Sufis or religious liberals and a minority of whom are Shiites. The Pakistani Taliban live in rugged, mountainous resource-poor regions and have been alternatively neglected and harassed by the Pakistan government.”

    This is mostly untrue. They’re delusional about being persecuted, but not as a minority. They know they’re a majority in a Sunn Islamic (or non-Islamic according to them) republic, despite whatever their grievances from the center, that used to exploit them for militancy in Afghanistan (which was embraced), but got tired of Pak’s double games.

    Its more religious driven and less Pashtun nationalism as seen in Swat (hardly deprived, and Pashtun Malala Yousafzai can give a different take that contradicts the above article points) and relationships with Punjabi (and other Pak religious extremist ethnicities) and non-Pak terrorists. Also its a myth that Pashtuns alone have sympathies or support the Taliban (even Al Qaeda). It includes some Punjabis and Urdu speakers too (Jamaat-i-Islami). Some of it is politically anti-US driven, and nostalgia for when the Taliban kept Afghanistan stable while being in denial of their atrocities. After what TTP did, the sympathies for overall Taliban are decreasing, but was sizeable before.

    You’re talking about only one part of the modern Punjab middle class about religious liberals and Sufis. Punjab has a strong conservative stronghold (debatable on how much as compared to the North) and this should also include Sindh Barelvi and Tableeghi-jamat, despite their Sufi origins and Pir system practices (still not as close to violence as their counterparts). Modernism shouldn’t be confused with liberalism. A lot of conservative religious nationalism (military is made up of mostly ethnic dominant Punjabis) drove regional religious extremism and sectarian militancy due to a shared affinity of Pakistani Deobandism and Ahle-hadith, which is widespread along with Wahhabi adoption and now some Salafism – pretty much all sorts of Sunni fundamentalism. South Punjab alone proves that along with other minority intolerances.

    Govt neglect, if not hegemonic mistreatment, also includes the Shia Turi tribe and Gilgit-Baltistan region, previously majority Shia (Ismaili and Twelver), apart from the sectarianism of anti-Shia sectarian cleansing, such as the atrocious crimes against Hazaras and other religious minorities (Ahmedis, Christians, Hindus), who have serious grievances, but haven’t gone insane in adopting wholesale violence in a majority Sunni population.

    Also there is still support for Mullah Omar as caliph, and not all of historic and current Pak’s militants were of poor resource deprived backgrounds, but middle class as well.

  4. I’m not as optimistic about Al-Baghdadi’s or Da’esh’s demise. He’s way ahead of Zarqawi, and perhaps the Taliban. Had he not declared himself Caliph, he probably would have been slightly more popular and liked as a ‘winner’ despite his undermining of all Syrian rebels.

    Not mentioned are Sunni grievances against the US and the West. Be it a majority or minority pushed to the wall, moderate Sunni populations have a current global ideological crisis that is infecting their communities and unfortunately have to be more guarded against Islamists (including from converted radicals), who sometimes get a pass (Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan comes to mind).

    Even the original successful Arab spring nation of Tunisia face a Salafist onslaught despite having had an Islamist political party rule.

  5. The problem is amplified because the natural human gut response to “bad people being recruited from minority XXX” is to hate against minority XXX. That usually leads to the oppression getting worse rather than better, and for more and more members of XXX joining the “bad-guys team”. Its an old conflict escalating dynamic, but not one thats easy to break. This is particularly the case when mass politics operates with a level of debate characterized by sound bites.

  6. “(Those who wonder whether he should have been overthrown should remember that he provoked his own overthrow.)”
    There is a Persian proverb “az mast ke bar mast” from a poem by Naser Khosrow.
    Meaning, what happens to us is our fault and from us. Because, no other is responsible for us.
    An advice mushy middle will do well to remember.

  7. It’s easy to condemn the excesses and barbarity of these radicals, but one misses the central impetus – the West’ invasion of Muslim lands with their armies and their unprincipled support for Israel and brutal Arab dictators. If the West would DEMAND the end to the land grab on the West Bank and DEMAND the Shiite suppression of Sunni rights on Iraq and the Sunni suppression of Shoa rights in Bahrain, support for ISIL would wither away. Unfortunately the West has tunnel vision and hasn’t a clue on how to win over tha ‘Arab street’.

  8. “But non-Sunni governments should take note that in this era of social mobilization, it is unwise to push large Sunni populations to the wall.”
    From a practical point of view the above advice is correct. However, theoretically; a) where the non-sunni government is that of shiites (like in iraq), this pushing to the wall can be seen as a natural consequence of what sunni government had been doing for years to the large-shiite population, b) in a longer-term, it is equally dangerous to push the large shiite population, or for that purpose, any segment of the population to the wall, like in Bahrain or Saudia Arabia.

    Regards
    Azeem,
    Islamabad, Pakistan

    • Azeem,

      Good points. As I remember there were issues with the disenfranchised Shiite populations in the Gulf States during the Arab Spring.

      At any rate, majority governments have to make a special efforts to bring in minorities. If you have a couple of more or less equal candidates for a job the minority should get it.

      This makes sense not only from a political point of view but also a psychological one. Different frames of reference are invaluable when making policy decisions.

  9. Azeem’s comments are well-taken. The Shia and Alawite populations of Iraq, Syria, and the jazeera have been severely oppressed and reduced to grinding poverty for centuries, yet they have not resorted to such barbarism. There are other factors at play: Wahhabism is an ideological element that has been dismissed on this blog but is essential to the logic of Daesh. The foreign policy goals of several regional powers also converge to make Daesh useful for various reasons.

    But Dr. Cole, you are suggesting that Daesh is a flash-in-the-pan as Zarqawi was? Ironic considering Daesh grew out of the movement Zarqawi started. What lies in store after this current flash-in-the-pan is defeated?

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