Thinking Aloud: Lynch on Islamism in the IS Age

Mar. 23, 2015 by Darius

I came across an interesting piece on ISIS and the way it has changed what it means to be Islamist today by Marc Lynch, professor at George Washington University and director of GW’s Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science.  There were too many interesting observations to be able to do Lynch’s article justice as a news story with a pull-out quote and quickie analysis so I’ve excerpted the parts I found most compelling and added some of my comments as well.

Lynch begins by going over ISIS’s recent accomplishments and the proto-state it has built.  However:

“It has become common to present the Islamic State as something unique in world history, an exceptionally ideological actor with unprecedented state-building capabilities and an uncanny ability to inspire new followers and recruits from around the world.  Yet, the Islamic State is hardly the first insurgency to seize territory and seek to govern it through the exploitation of local resources and the attraction of external support. … Controlling territory and behaving like a proto-state are, after all, entirely conventional insurgency behaviors.  As Megan Stewart has found, since 1945 roughly one-third of all insurgencies have provided health care and education, and ‘once an insurgency acquired territory, nearly 49 percent would ensure that the civilian population received education or medical care.’  Nor are the other key features of the Islamic State especially distinctive. Many non-state violent actors have deployed extreme, public violence for strategic purposes, whether to intimidate local populations and foreign enemies or to maintain the morale of its members. The indoctrination of members into an esoteric code of beliefs is a mainstay of insurgencies, from the Marxist-Leninist movements of the Cold War to Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers to the personalistic cults in many African rebellions. Perhaps the most novel element of the Islamic State is its ability to attract foreign fighters to its cause.  However, as David Malet has shown in exquisite detail, even this has precedent in past insurgencies and could prove to be as great a weakness as an advantage as travel to its territories becomes more difficult and local populations grow resentful of foreigners.”

It’s valuable and important to see ISIS put in its proper context.  ISIS may make snazzier videos than anyone else, but it’s an insurgency and behaves like other insurgencies.  Its goals and means of achieving those goals are not without precedent.  (Readers of this blog may have recognized some of ISIS’s methods and motivations presaged in my post last week reviewing Robert Fisk’s book about the Algerian civil war, for example.)

Lynch moves on to the root cause of ISIS:

“Radicalization is driven less by Islamist ideas than by failures of both governance and popular uprisings and the elimination of nonviolent alternatives. The Islamic State gained traction, recall, in a distinctive regional political environment shaped especially by extensive public regional mobilization in support of a sectarian Syrian jihad and the July 3, 2013 military coup in Egypt that brought down the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi. The coup and subsequent regional wave of intense repression of the Muslim Brotherhood ended an extended period of the open political participation by mainstream Islamist movements, discrediting the idea of such democratic inclusion for the foreseeable future and marginalizing the advocates of mainstream political strategies. The regional environment after the failure and perversion of the Arab uprisings is deeply hostile to any public role for non-violent Islamists and highly conducive to radical movements of all flavors.”

The Brotherhood tried to demonstrate that Islamism could win at the ballot box.  That win was stolen by remnants of the regime.  If change can’t be achieved within the system, disgruntled people go outside the system.

Lynch pointed some fingers:

“It is a potentially fatal flaw in the emerging strategy that the Arab world’s autocratic resurgence and proxy wars are constantly replenishing exactly the pool of potential extremists which the counter-IS strategy hopes to drain. The Islamic State’s appeal beyond Syria and Iraq should be understood within the political context of the advantage of the chaos and poor decisions that followed the Arab uprisings. The failures of attempted transitions toward democratic governance, along with the region-wide repression of mainstream Islamists and secular activists, have been a strategic gift to al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremist trends.  The failure of almost all of the Arab uprisings, with the sole and partial exception of Tunisia, has badly undermined the idea of the possibility of peaceful political change. … None of the underlying drivers of those protests have been resolved and many – from personal insecurity to economic misery – have deteriorated.  Focusing on Islam to the exclusion of these vital issues of governance, democracy and economic opportunity will guarantee failure. Encouraging or tolerating repression in the name of counter-terrorism will only fuel the grim cycle of repression, protest and radicalization. Put bluntly, the anti-Islamist campaign being waged by Egypt and the Gulf states that combines fierce repression with the promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam is likely to badly fail: The Islamic messages will have no resonance with intended audiences, while abusive autocracy will continue to drive alienation and rejection of an illegitimate order.  The indiscriminate crackdown on Islamists of all stripes … is likely to change enduring features of their organizations, ideologies and strategies. The crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its repression across the region has radically debilitated its organizational structure and discredited its ideology.  That some of its members are now turning to, welcoming or inciting violence is hardly surprising given the political context….  What is clear, though, is that whatever firewall the Brotherhood once offered against violent extremism has now mostly crumbled, with the ideological underpinnings discredited and the organizational structure disintegrated. … This plays out differently in diverse national contexts of course. In the Gulf, as Kristin Smith Diwan demonstrates, the regional crackdown is closing down long-standing channels for public engagement and political influence for mainstream Brotherhood movements, which already face challenges from Salafi movements in attracting youth.  In Syria, as Raphaël Lefèvre observes, the Brotherhood has floundered as other more radical insurgency factions have taken the lead. …  Few Islamist movements are likely to remain unchanged by the events of the last few years.”

Lynch, finally, comes out and says what has been obvious for years: states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt are not partners in fighting extremism, they are catalysts and causes for extremism.

By closing off all avenues of public and religious discourse except for toadying to the regime, these governments have curdled dissent into radicalism.  The Brotherhood had to go not because it was a terrorist organization or even whispered of terrorism but because it was a legitimate political threat to the corrupt and dictatorial regimes that run the Middle East.  Not for the first time, US “allies” put their regime’s survival ahead of sound regional anti-terror policies that would save tens of thousands of lives.  And then cash their aid checks.

You can read Lynch’s entire piece at:

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