Robert Whitcomb: The Islamic State's soothing 'system'

  The Islamic State being set up in parts of Iraq and Syria (still usually abbreviated in our press as ISIS, from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria'' -- now being given a simpler, more ambitious name) challenges the idea of the nation state as we in the West know it. The mostly young men who are the ISIS shock troops want to help swiftly impose the will of the ISIS on a swath of territory from Morocco to Pakistan in an extra-national empire that would justify its dictatorship by religion. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS chief, would be its “caliph” — supreme leader.

  In such utopian (or dystopian) schemes, ideology and theology are used to excuse what mostly ends up as just a power drive, often married to sadism and greed. The ISIS version of Islam promotes a totalitarian view of society in which all human activities are said to come under 7th century Koranic rules. It’s particularly attractive to frustrated and often psychopathic young men seeking the opportunity to dominate others while finding clarity amidst the unsettling ambiguities of life. One thinks of the Nazis and Bolsheviks. (If only the World Health Organization could address the problem of crazy people seizing power. Unfortunately, however, psychopaths run some U.N. member nations.)

  Broad strains of Islamic culture encourage mercy, tolerance, charity, open-mindedness, hospitality and learning. But too often, violent and reactionary bigots have hijacked the name of Islam, as such people did, mostly in the past, Christianity. (Historian Bernard Lewis’s book What Went Wrong is a useful look at the Muslim world’s troubled encounter with modernity.)

  The followers of ISIS and similar groups seek to address their economic, existential and even sexual anxieties and drives by embracing the kind of desert barbarism found in much of the Old Testament, albeit with modern devices. They seem desperate to avoid the stress associated with having to think and act for themselves. An all-encompassing “system” takes them by the hand.

  Part of the problem is that, other than Turkey, Iran, Israel and Egypt, the Middle East lacks “real countries,” and thus the calming sense of national order and belonging that applies in, say, the United States and Europe. Iraq, Syria and so on are collections of tribes, some ethnically based, and religious groups (mostly Sunni and Shia) within borders drawn by European colonialists. (Yes, overcrowded “real country” Egypt is a mess.)

  Sending back lots of U.S. troops won’t help. America cannot afford to occupy large swaths of the Mideast, where we’re generally not wanted anyway. Note, meanwhile, that ISIS has armed itself with large quantities of U.S. weapons and other equipment it seized when it took over much of western and northern Iraq. We left the stuff there for the “Iraqi government” (which mostly means Shiites) when we left at the end of the “American war” there. ...

  From time to time, the United States may have to use drones and perhaps even commandos to attack “Islamic” criminal enterprises to save civilians from being massacred and to block attacks on the U.S. and our allies.

  But in the long run, starving such groups of money may be the best strategy. This would include stepping up surveillance (sorry, National Security Agency foes) of international money transfers that benefit these criminals and cracking down on the Saudi, Qatari and other Persian Gulf Sunni individuals and groups that support these terrorists in the face of our too-mild complaints. After 9/11, the United States did a fine job in tracking terrorists’ money flows; we will have to ramp up again.

  More generally, we can cut the cash that goes into the Mideast from oil and gas sales, much of which ends in the hands of dictators and terror groups (sometimes effectively one and the same). Places that depend on extractive industries (see Russia) tend to be more corrupt and dictatorial than those with diversified economies. Another reason to turn away from fossil fuels. The hope is to marginalize the Mideast until the passage of time, modern communication, humanitarian aid, wider travel and trade can moderate its worst aspects and encourage these tyrannies to become “normal countries.” To a point. We're in for a long struggle,

  None of this is to say that the secular Western nation state is perfect. We’re commemorating this summer the opening of World War I, which drew in a Europe that in June 1914 seemed poised to climb yet further onto the broad sunlit uplands of progress. Part of the tragedy of young Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was that the archduke was a reformer whose rise to the top would probably have meant a more democratic and humane central and eastern Europe. That mild empire, in any case, was generally better than what followed. Terrorism tends to beget more terrorism and worse tyranny. Things can get worse very quickly.


Robert Whitcomb ( is overseer of New England Diary,  a former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal and a former finance editor of  the International Herald Tribune. He is a Fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.