It would also be helpful to learn something about ISIS, but I’ll get to that.
Years after reading Armstrong’s helpful introduction to Islam, one thing continues to stick with me, even haunt me. Armstrong argues that the Islamic world of the Middle East has been thrust into the modern world in a very short time and in an extraordinarily exploitative fashion. Western Europe took centuries to enter into modernity and the gradual transition happened organically; it was not imposed from the outside. In the drive to impose western institutions in the Middle East and Africa, European and American powers have created a tinderbox of economic and social upheaval that began in the late 19th century and continues to the present.
When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011 in Tunisia, initially I was hopeful because the protests represented a bottom up movement by ordinary people, many of them of the millennial generation. In the end, those protests have had mixed and uncertain results; in Syria and Libya, they’ve led to civil war.
As we’ve watched the Syrian Civil War played out in near daily nightly news images, we’ve also been party to ISIS. Images of the beheading of westerners and the immolation of a Jordanian pilot and the brazen terrorist attacks in France, have established ISIS as the latest thing to fear and the impetus for testosterone laced diatribes from presidential candidates.
But just who is ISIS and how did ISIS happen? For a gripping account of the answer to both those questions, I’d highly recommend Black Flags: the Rise of ISIS by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Joby Warrick.
Warrick begins the story even before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, chronicling the rise of an number of relatively insignificant persons who would later rise to prominence in Islamist terrorist networks. When the US invaded Iraq, the chaos left in the aftermath of that invasion gave cover to radical islamists and sharply polarized the country between the former Sunni majority ruling class and the new Shi’ite ruling class with ties to Iran. The US invasion of Iraq was sold as a way to stabilize the region and get rid of a bad guy (Saddam Hussein). Instead the US dramatically destabilized the region and provided opportunity for the radical Islamists to gain foothold.
One of the most shocking threads of the story is how often high level members of the US administration, all the way up to the Vice-President and President, ignored the intelligence of our own CIA agents on the ground and the counsel of our allies in the region. Time and time again, those quarters cautioned against intervention. The Bush administration’s deafness to caution and its hellbent determination to invade Iraq helped to create the quagmire that opened space for the terrorist network that has become ISIS.
Warrick also makes it clear that ISIS is not Islam. Even the most fundamentalist Islamic clerics have denounced the tactics and brutality of ISIS as antithetical to Islam. The leaders of ISIS are disenfranchised thugs using a thin veneer of Islam to provide cover for their brutality and raw power grab. (By the way, that makes even more despicable the stereotyping of American Muslims and Syrian refugees as people to fear simply because they are Muslim.) Mainstream Christians have no trouble denying that radical Christian sects have anything to do with authentic Christianity. We ought to be able to give our Muslim neighbors the same benefit of the doubt.
The majority of Americans have bought the propaganda of the American war machine, accepting the premise that when the country goes to war, it’s always righteous and the only way to express patriotism is to support both the policy and the troops. The American public has been sold a bill of goods, has accepted a bundle of lies, and wrapped its acceptance in a cloak of patriotism.
But that’s not patriotism; that’s raw nationalism. If we care about our country, we’ll point out the cost of war. We’ll point out that armed intervention coupled with an arrogant refusal to listen and heed counsel insures that everyone loses. The only ones who win when the US goes to war (as it has nearly continuously since the mid-1950s) are the politicians who get to pad their egos and the military industrial complex that reaps obscene profits.
And who pays? Warrrick writes that the Iraq War cost the American taxpayers one trillion dollars in direct costs and another trillion in indirect costs. The greater cost is the 4500 American soldiers who died, the 20,000 or so who were wounded, and the deaths of as many as 25,000 Iraqi civilians.
The US still acts like the world’s colonial master and still demonstrates shameful hubris with respect to countries in the Middle East and Africa. We don’t live that part of the world; our cultural and political institutions and culture are vastly different from those of the Middle East. Still we think that we can impose our own version of order and democracy, paying little attention the leaders of sovereign countries, even when those countries are our friends and allies. The United States of America was founded on the notion of self-determination. Is that notion only good for us? Others around the world are not smart enough or civilized enough to exercise that same right? Our does our own self-interest trump that right?
Read Black Flags. And prepare to be angry. It’s not a nice story.