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Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou Headshot

A Basketball Guide to Middle East News

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I'm a lifelong lover of basketball and a diehard fan of the Boston Celtics, so it's always a bittersweet moment when the magical Celts are eliminated from NBA playoff competition and I'm forced to choose another team to support in the run to the championship. Full disclosure: I was thrilled to watch the San Antonio Spurs, dedicated to hoop fundamentals and committed to team ball, administer a 4-1 drubbing to the celebritized Miami Heat, en route to the Spurs' fifth championship banner a few nights ago.

Tertullian might ask bitingly of the previous paragraph, "What do the couple of weeks of NBA championship basketball have to do with the past two weeks of horrifying violence that is breaking states, erasing borders, and quite possibly, foreshadowing to the final eradication of Christians in the Levant? My answer would be, "A lot -- if you remember the legendary phrase of the late radio announcer and voice of the Celtics, Johnny Most."

One of Most's patented expressions was "fiddling and diddling, daddling and doodling," which he coined to describe the repetitive dribbling by NBA point guards who slowed the game down, waited for the team to set up its half-court offense, and in the process, oftentimes perplexed fans and coaches expecting a rush to the basket. But serious hoopsters and, especially, listeners fluent in Most's phraseology, came to realize that there was an essential difference between ball-hogging daddlers-and-doodlers versus savant fidders-and-diddlers. The latter group were, in fact, master tacticians, unrivaled strategists, floor generals, who were reading the defense, patiently waiting for the right moment of opportunity to direct a play that would decimate the opponent and bring victory to the team whose guards never lost sight of the final objective.

Here's where basketball brings chilling clarity to the linkages and connections between seemingly disconnected events that have been playing in the countries of the Levant. Anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge about the Middle East, the ability to read a map, and more than a nano-second of focus on the carnage in Syria over the past three years, recognizes that the steady advance by the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) over the last 10 days in Iraq is part of that jihadi group's focus on a longer endgame. Of course, it's been shocking to watch the incompetent, corrupt government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliqi and the feckless Iraqi Armed Forces, an ugly montage of paralysis and defection, facing the relentless onslaught by ISIS as it moves from Mosul and Tikrit towards the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Reportedly, over 500,000 Iraqis have tried to flee their homes over the last week, fearing the spread of summary executions and extra-judicial killings for which ISIS has already taken credit via gruesome photos posted to YouTube. Shiite Muslim supporters of the sectarian Maliqi regime have taken flight to avoid the revenge of Sunni-led ISIS forces; moderate Sunni Muslims are rushing to escape the do-or-die demands to conform to sharia law that will come from their Sunni cohort in the ISIS, an inevitability reflected in what's already underway in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria; and meanwhile, the terrified Christian population, a 300,000 demographic remnant of the 1.5 million-member community trapped by and abandoned to the failed state and Islamic fratricides unleashed by the Bush 43 administration's "Operation Iraqi Freedom," now confronts a final denouement enabled by the Obama administration's calculated exit from the Iraqi quagmire.

Make no mistake: ISIS has been fiddling and diddling for the past three years in Syria, and now, with the game winding down, they're looking for the victory, before moving to the next round. ISIS is aiming to capture Baghdad, the first step to the group's stated goal of re-establishing the caliphate in the city where the Abbasid Dynasty ruled as caliphs over an Islamic theocracy for 500 years. Incidentally, the Abbasids succeeded the Ummayad Dynasty, which had ruled as caliphs in their capital city of Damascus, Syria.

Tertullian and Johny Most would have understood the connections, they would have read the signals, in a series of developments in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, which point to the possible direction of things to come in the Levant. Johnny Most and Tertullian would have realized that ISIS has been planning and waiting, setting up the offense and reading the defense. ISIS has been patiently mobilizing supporters from the seething Sunni resentments born of al-Maliki's Shiite sectarianism in Iraq. ISIS has moved boldly into Syria to establish their Sunni warrior bona fides, taking on al-Qaeda's local branch, the al-Nusra Front, as Islamist weaklings, and meting out crucifixions for Shiite heretics and Sunni non-conformists, while using kidnappings and imposing protection-money demands on Christians. All the while, ISIS has been capitalizing on sympathetic connections within the now-fully-revealed Islamist regime in Turkey, to set up rest and reconnoitering camps on the Turkey-Syria border. And now, ISIS has undertaken a borg-like capture-and-control of Iraqi territory, all towards the group's declared goal of proclaiming a new caliphate in Baghdad, an intermediate win as prelude to the next round.

While ISIS has been fiddling and diddling, the chattering classes and elected officials in Washington have been spinning and dissembling, resorting to blamesmanship to assuage their panic over the human calamity and geopolitical cluster unfolding in the Levant. Although largely ignored, minimized and dismissed by the world, the plight of Christians being cleansed from the lands of Christianity's origins has been a compelling harbinger of things to come. There have been other important signals, too, including this week's announcement by Turkey's secularist CHP (Republican Peoples Party) and fascist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) that their joint nominee to contest Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey's presidential elections in August is Ekmeledding Ihsanoglu. He is the former Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the 57-member-state, international organization that describes itself as the collective voice of Islam and whose mission is the protection of the global umma, or community of Muslim believers.

The notion of a new Islamic caliphate has been a lightening rod in the cross-over discussions involving policymakers and scholars. Skeptics from the Middle East have been concerned understandably that the subject is freighted with neo-Orientalist attitudes and neo-imperialist designs, and critics in the US scholar-practitioner community have worried justifiably about the neo-conservative and neo-liberal ideological posturing and policy blowback embedded in the topic. However, considered skepticism and principled criticism need not foreclose historically-informed analysis and prudent policy planning, especially when ISIS is fiddling and diddling, daddling and doodling, in preparation for the game-changer to which they declare to aspire--a new Islamic caliphate in Baghdad. That's an outcome that would be hugely detrimental for Muslims in the region who have already demonstrated that they are desperate for a meaningful alternative to the twin burdens of secular and religious authoritarianism, and likely, would be fatal for Christians and other vulnerable communities throughout the Levant.

There's no reason to assume that simple statements about a new caliphate will produce an ISIS victory. However, it's the underlying assumptions of such a model, namely, the rejection of rule-of-law equality and freedom for all citizens, as well as violence as the preferred mode for achieving the goal, that should preclude convenient and contemptuous dismissal of the caliphate conversation. In the meanwhile, I'll continue working for peace in the Levant and watching the Celtics' NBA draft picks, hoping for some miracles on all counts.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she will be Co-Chairing the new Study Group on the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.