The rapid advance of Islamic State (Isis) through Iraq has produced panic in the west – not all of it irrational. In part this comes from a dawning recognition of the scale of the disaster that western intervention has inflicted throughout the region. By dismantling Saddam’s regime the west broke the Iraqi state. There were no jihadist groups operating in Iraq before regime change. Now the country has been torn apart by one of them. The same is true in Libya, where the overthrow of Gaddafi has produced a complete collapse of government and an “Islamic Emirate” was recently declared in Benghazi. Grandiose schemes of regime change aiming to replace tyranny by democracy have created chaos, leaving zones of anarchy in which jihadist forces can thrive.
Western intervention played an important role in the rise of Isis. By backing the Syrian rebels against Assad – another secular despot – the west gave the group an impetus it would otherwise not have had. With jihadist forces including Isis being funded from Saudi and Qatari sources, there was never much chance of a “moderate opposition” taking over in the event of Assad’s defeat. A radical Islamist regime, another failed state or some mix of the two were – and remain – the likeliest upshot. As things stand, there is not much the west can do to disable Isis in any lasting way. No one can seriously believe that this now self-financing, media-savvy and militarily skilful organisation will be snuffed out by a bombing campaign. At the same time the prospect of being sucked into an unending ground war is deeply disturbing.
There are other reasons for the west’s panic. A 21st-century caliphate that advertises the methodical practice of savagery on the internet fits into none of the ruling narratives of modern development. There are some who say that Islam finds difficulty modernising because it has always been a religion of conquest. But Islam is hardly alone in having used violence in the service of faith. To view Isis as expressing the core of one of the world’s great religions is to endorse Isis’s view of itself, which Islamic religious authorities across the world have rejected. Violent apocalyptic cults can be found in many times and places. If you are looking for a religious prototype for Isis, there are some plausible candidates in late medieval and early modern Europe.
As Norman Cohn showed in his path-breaking study The Pursuit of the Millennium, first published in 1957, medieval Christendom abounded in millenarian movements, some of them violent, aiming to cleanse the church and society of corruption and usher in a new world. One example is the theocratic regime briefly established by the radical Anabaptist and self-proclaimed messiah John of Leiden in the German city of Münster in the early 16th century. Imposing mass baptism on adults, expelling or executing any who would not convert, burning all books aside from the Bible and coercing women into polygamy, Leiden’s Kingdom of God practised a type of repression with few precedents in the medieval world. It’s not hard to see similarities with the caliphate that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in Mosul in June.
At the same time there are clear parallels between Isis and modern revolutionary movements. For one thing, Isis’s violence is carefully orchestrated. Using terror in a strategic and pedagogic fashion to instil fear in its enemies and obedience in the communities it conquers, Isis is following precedents that go back to the mass executions of the Jacobin Terror, the early Soviet period and the systematic slaughter practised by the Khmer Rouge. In addition, Isis is engaged in state-building. More ambitious than other jihadist groups such as al-Qaida (from which it began as a spin-off nearly 10 years ago), Isis has captured territory covering about a third of Syria and a quarter of Iraq, where it is constructing a state using methods similar to those that founded the totalitarian regimes of the last century.
But Isis also has some things in common with the transnational criminal cartels that operate in the dark shadows of 21st-century globalisation. Robbing banks, seizing oil wells and practising extortion, the group has amassed wealth on a scale that no other jihadist group has come near matching. This is not just a terrorist organisation at work, or an irregular army of the kind that has featured in many national insurgencies.
So what is Isis essentially – violent millenarian cult, totalitarian state, terrorist network or criminal cartel? The answer is that it is none of these and all of them. Far from being a reversion to anything in the past, Isis is something new – a modern version of barbarism that has emerged in states that have been shattered by western intervention. But its influence is unlikely to be confined to Syria and Iraq. Isis is already attracting support from the Taliban in Pakistan, and there are reports that a caliphate has been declared by Boko Haram in a town in northeast Nigeria. In time – if only to confirm its superiority over al-Qaida – Isis will surely turn its attentions more directly to the west.
It would be easy to take the view that having blundered so disastrously, and so often, the west should withdraw from any further involvement and let events take their course. But having helped bring this monster into the world, the west cannot now turn its back. In ethical terms such a stance would be little short of obscene. It is the west, after all, that is chiefly responsible for creating the anarchy in which Isis is able to pursue its hideous experiment in state-building. To leave the Yazidis and other persecuted groups defenceless in the face of an imminent threat of genocidal massacre would be a crime as bad as any perpetrated in the course of earlier interventions.
No doubt some – believing that western policies in the Middle East have always been shaped by cynical geopolitics – will reject any talk of ethics as hypocrisy. Arguing in this way, however, assumes a capacity for realistic and consistent decision-making in western governments for which there is no evidence. The reality has been a succession of gruesome fiascos.
The challenges posed by Isis are daunting. Military action can achieve little if there is no accompanying political settlement. No one has explained how political solutions can be reached or enforced where the state barely exists and government is in tatters. Can the west learn from its mistakes and set itself more limited and defensible goals? Or are western governments bent on repeating their past follies? We should find out fairly soon, if Isis continues its terrifying advance.
John Gray is the author of False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia, and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern.