Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State

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“Our Syria is colorful, No to Daech and its blackness”

We must be careful when speaking of Islamic fundamentalism or Islamism in an European context, to not fall into the mainstream orientalist and racist atmosphere against Muslim communities in Europe. We have to fight against orientalism and racism and show that Daesh [ISIS] cannot be understood by reading the Koran or by going back to Islamic history. Trying to find reasons for ISIS in the religion doesn’t make any sense. It’s a form of essentialism.

At the same time, I think it’s a duty to be careful not to fall into orientalism in reverse, in other words to consider Political Islam as the popular culture of the people of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and also to suggest that any kind of Muslim believer is therefore an Islamist, both are wrong. For example, we often hear the media say that you have the liberals, the left and the Muslims. But the liberals and the left can also be Muslims.

Sectarianism has been claimed to be something that has existed throughout history in the MENA. It is suggested that contemporary hatred between Sunni and Shi’a is because 1400 years ago they had a dispute and what is happening in Iraq, Lebanon or Bahrain is a consequence of this. Therefore, sectarianism has been considered as a remnant of past history, preventing the modernisation of these countries, whilst also being something that is rooted in the people of this region. I disagree strongly with this interpretation. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any kind of religious discrimination before, but the way you understand sectarianism today is by understanding that it is a product of modernity.

Sectarianism has not only been used by Islamic fundamentalist forces, but very often by authoritarian regimes in the region. An example of this is the Syrian regime. A lot of people, in Western media but also helped by the counter-revolutionary monarchies of the Gulf, take an essentialist perspective and see the Syrian revolution as a Sunni uprising against a regime run by the Alawite Muslim minority. This is not an Alawite regime, it is a regime built on different basis of power. It does have a quasi dominant component of Alawites in the military and security services in the composition of their leadership, but it is also based on the Sunni and Christian bourgeoisie and large sectors of the middle classes of Damascus and Aleppo. The regime can be caracterised as a bourgeois, clientelist, military regime that has used sectarianism and even Arab chauvinism to divide people. Some analysis of the Syrian uprising considers Sunnis as oppressed and Alawites as privilidged, but the second most impoverished area of Syria was the Alawite mountains. The first was the Kurdish majority region in the North East region.

It is important to understand the rise of ISIS and other fundamentalist groups with the strategy of the Assad regime. While this latter was saying the revolution was a Sunni Islamist fundamentalist uprising and constantly crushing democratic, secular activists, three months after the uprising started, Assad liberated all of the Salafist and reactionary groups from prisons. The whole majority of the leadership of different Islamic fundamentalist battalions were inside prison at the beginning of the revolution.

We can’t understand ISIS without also coming back to the history of Iraq. ISIS can’t be understood in reading the Koran, as some essentialist and racist people try to claim. The leadership of ISIS are mostly ex-Baathist military commanders. I would categorise this organisation as a totalitarian organisation with a military dynamic. It’s not based on a popular movement but on military domination and complete repression to impose its power, not on any kind of power from below.

The reason for the establishment and growth of ISIS stems various reasons. Firstly, from the policies of Saddam Hussain. Even though it was a so-called nationalist regime it used sectarianism, for example calling Shi’a the fifth column of Iran, imposing harsh chauvinism against Kurds, and so forth. Of course, 10 years of economic sanctions after 1991 completely destroyed the Iraqi social fabric and Iraqi society. And the British and American invasion destroyed this further causing a humanitarian catastrophe. American and British imperialists brought back to Iraq and collaborated with the worst fundamentalist, reactionary and corrupted forces. The policy of the US was to enforce a sectarian political system, like in Lebanon. Furthermore, trade unions were repressed, neoliberal policies were implemented and so forth. There were also interventions from regional actors, like the Gulf monarchies who funded and funded Islamic fundamentalist groups inside Iraq. And on the other side, there was the role of Iran in assisting the Maliki government and also Hezbollah intervening inside Iraq.

Between 2011 and 2013, a popular movement in Iraq, mostly based in Sunni populated areas, with national and democratic demands, was completely crushed by the Maliki government. They were accused of being terrorists. As soon as you’re against the regime, you’re accused of being a terrorist. In Syria, Egypt, Iraq, it’s always the same.  ISIS was able to expand out of the frustrations of a small section of the Sunni minority.

In June 2014, a coalition of different Sunni reactionary forces – Baath, tribal forces and IS – were able to take Mosul. But it wasn’t a popular uprising as they said. A popular uprising would not have resulted in 500,000 people leaving Mosul directly. It was a complete military takeover. In the beginning it was viewed by some as a liberation because the Iraqi army was considered as corrupt, sectarian and oppressing the people of the city. But as soon as ISIS crushed the rest of the coalition, it became deeply repressive. This has been the case wherever ISIS expanded. It has been based not on a popular movement from below, but on a military perspective with harsh repression.

Counter-revolutionary forces, whether being authoritarian regimes or Islamic fundamentalist forces, have used sectarianism to divide the people. The struggle against sectarianism is part of the class-struggle. The role of the left is to create an independent, large, democratic and progressive force to face these two counter-revolutionary forces.

Joseph Daher

Resume of a speech delivered in the conference “The Arab Uprisings Four Years On – Revolution, Repression and Resistance” in February 2015

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