The Italians got this one right. Last week, The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor helpfully collected tweets that Italians put out after a murderous video issued by the Islamic State, or ISIS, warned: “Today we are south of Rome,” one militant said. “We will conquer Rome with Allah’s permission.”
As the hashtag #We–Are–Coming–O–Rome made the rounds in Italy, Rome residents rose to the challenge.
Their tweets, Taylor noted, included:
“#We–Are–Coming–O–Rome ahahah Be careful on the highway-Ring Road: there’s too much traffic, you would remain trapped!”
“#We–Are–Coming–O–Rome hey just a tip: don’t come in train, it’s every time late!”
“#We–Are–Coming–O–Rome You’re too late, Italy is already been destroyed by their governments.”
And “#We–Are–Coming–O–Rome We are ready to meet you! We have nice Colosseum plot for sale, Accept Credit Cards Securely, bargain price.”
ISIS’ murderous ways aren’t a joke, but the Italians’ mocking of ISIS is rather appropriate. While we agonizingly debate ISIS’ relationship to Islam, we’ve forgotten a simple truth about many of the people attracted to such groups. It is the truth uttered by Ruslan Tsarni on CNN after his two nephews, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were accused of the Boston Marathon bombing. They were just two “losers,” he said, who resented those who did better than them and dressed it up in ideology. “Anything else, anything else to do with religion, with Islam, is a fraud, is a fake.”
There’s a lot of truth in that. ISIS is made up of three loose factions, and we need to understand all three before we get deeper into another war in Iraq and Syria. One faction comprises the foreign volunteers. Some are hardened jihadis, but many are just losers, misfits, adventure seekers and young men who’ve never held power, a job or a girl’s hand and joined ISIS to get all three. I doubt many are serious students of Islam or that offering them a more moderate version would keep them home. If ISIS starts losing, and can’t offer jobs, power or sex, this group will shrink.
ISIS’ second faction, its backbone, is made up of former Sunni Baathist army officers and local Iraqi Sunnis and tribes, who give ISIS passive support. Although Iraqi Sunnis constitute a third of Iraq’s population, they’ve ruled Iraq for generations and simply can’t accept the fact that the Shiite majority is now in charge. Also, for many Sunni villagers under ISIS’ control, ISIS is just less bad than the brutalization and discrimination they received from Iraq’s previous Shiite-led government. Google “Iraqi Shiite militias and power drills” and you’ll see that ISIS didn’t invent torture in Iraq.
The U.S. keeps repeating the same mistake in the Middle East: overestimating the power of religious ideology and underappreciating the impact of misgovernance. Sarah Chayes, who long worked in Afghanistan and has written an important book – “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” – about how government corruption helped turn Afghans away from us and from the pro-U.S. Afghan regime, argues that “nothing feeds extremism more than the in-your-face corruption and injustice” that some of America’s closet Middle East allies administer daily to their people.
The third ISIS faction is composed of the true ideologues, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They have their own apocalyptic version of Islam. But it would not be resonating were it not for the fact that “both religion and politics have been hijacked” in the Arab world and Pakistan, creating a “toxic mix,” says Nader Mousavizadeh, who co-leads the global consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners. The Arab peoples have been mostly ruled by radicals or reactionaries. And without the prospect of a legitimate politics “that genuinely responds to popular grievances,” no amount of top-down attempts to engender moderate Islam will succeed, he added.
Islam has no Vatican to decree whose Islam is authentic, so it emerges differently in different contexts. There is a moderate Islam that emerged in decent political, social and economic contexts – see Indian Islam, Indonesian Islam and Malaysian Islam – and never stood in the way of their progress. And there are puritanical, anti-pluralistic, anti-modern education, anti-women Islams that emerged from the more tribalized corners of the Arab world, Nigeria and Pakistan, helping hold these places back.
That’s why ISIS is not just an Islam problem and not just a “root causes” problem. ISIS is a product of decades of failed governance in the Arab world and Pakistan and centuries of a calcification of Arab Islam. They feed off each other. Those who claim it’s just one or the other are dead wrong.
So, to defeat ISIS and not see another emerge, you need to: wipe out its leadership; enlist Muslims to discredit the very real, popular, extremist versions of Islam coming out of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; stem the injustice, corruption, sectarianism and state failure now rampant in the Arab world and Pakistan; and carve out for Iraqi Sunnis their own autonomous region of Iraq and a share of its oil wealth, just like the Kurds have. I know: sounds impossible. But this problem is very deep. This is the only route to a more moderate Arab Islam - as well as to fewer young men and women looking for dignity in all the wrong places.