If you haven’t seen Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake on iPlayer yet, I urge you to check it out. Some of Curtis’ other series have seduced me with word and image until I think ‘Yes, that’s wonderful – but is it true?’ But Bitter Lake plays out with clarity of cause and effect – a complex web of history in Afghanistan and the broader Middle East, but driven by clearly-defined forces of economics, politics, war, Western utopianism… And if one is to identify a prime spider at the centre, giving birth to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, it’s Saudi Arabia – two-faced Saudi, pallying up to the West on one hand while spreading the most medieval brand of Wahhabism through funding of religious schools across the Sunni world.
The roots of ISIS are multifarious and tangled, and some of them were born of generations of Western adventurism in the region – old empires, new oil, and still newer Neoconservative aspirations to make the world more like Middle America. But it would be masochistic to think that only the West is to blame for ISIS – many other roots wind their way back, via the Saudi promulgation of extremist Wahhabism around the Sunni world in recent decades, to the teachings of Abd al-Wahhab in the dusty nowhere of Najd in the late eighteenth century, all the way back to specific exhortations of Koranic scripture, that if taken literally…
What are the worst things being done in the world right now, due to explicit adherence to religious texts? The Old Testament is filled with many bloody exhortations, and we all how much blood was shed by Christendom in centuries past – but as far as I’m aware nobody is being tortured, or killed, by Jews or Christians literally applying these commandments today. Our recent misadventures in the region were driven by many likely forces – the Neocon project, vengeance for 9/11, a genuine if naïve aspiration to make the world a better place, Rumsfeld’s desire to flex the Pentagon’s muscles, money, oil and so on – but adherence to religious scripture wasn’t one of them. Yet ISIS are committing their atrocities in explicit, literal, word for word application of Koranic text. Al-Maeda Verse 33 is one example:
The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.
There are imprecations like these in the Old Testament – but who is literally gouging out an eye for an eye in the 21st Century?
Words influence thoughts and actions. We reassure ourselves by saying that ISIS aren’t real Muslims, are twisting and distorting their faith – but it could be argued that they are the most faithful executors of their scriptures. We know how racists are jumping on the Islamophobe bandwagon to boost their squalid little agendas – but we can’t allow apologists for ISIS to smear any critique of scripture-based words or deeds as racist. Islam is an ideology, a belief system, like Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism (or indeed socialism, capitalism or liberalism) and people of any race can join. It is composed of words, which influence thoughts and feelings, which in turn influence actions. And within its vast and varied congregation, from liberal to mainstream to severe, Islam has space to accommodate the interpretations of Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Warning, I’m going to resort to the N-word. Nazi is an entirely appropriate term for Islamic State – both ideologies proclaim godlike infallibility, unquestionable by evidence, doubt or reason. Both see the rest of humanity as subhuman, and fit to be colonised, enslaved or killed. Both cultures actively encourage systemic cruelty – the more egregiously brutal you are, the more likely you are to be promoted.
The key difference is that the Islamic Caliphate – currently – packs nowhere near the state actor punch of 1930s Germany. But, in a world currently weary of interventionist adventures, and with the UN Security Council permanently stalemated, it’s possible that the Caliphate could eventually be granted the space, in this vast bloody playground bounded by Israel and Iran, and the time, to get within reach of nukes.
Andrew Murray 2015