THE BLOG
10/13/2014 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

ISIS: A Cognitive, Systemic Failure

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As we watch the Middle East seemingly tearing itself to bits in an orgy of violence, many observers are disbelieving: how can this be happening? How did it become such a mess? It apparently shocked all by its unexpectedness. Is this just another intelligence failure, they ask?

No, it is not an "intelligence failure." It is far worse. It is a cognitive and intellectual failure of the system itself. In fact, the signs of this impending "madness" have been out there -- "hiding" in the open, as it were -- for the last 25 years. You did not need "secret intelligence" to tell us where we were heading; you just needed cognitive openness: the ability to "read" the direction that events were taking.

The Western perceptual failure stemmed directly from trying to understand the Middle East from one primal viewpoint. And it just happened that that viewpoint was skewed. It was so skewed in favor of the forces that have now emerged as the spectrum of fired-up Sunni extremism; so "invested" was it in this tool that this viewpoint could not even conceive that these "apostate-beheaders" would one day turn on the hands that fed it and view them as "apostates" too. For so long, this state has been a U.S. (and British) ally, and U.S. belief in the leadership of the Sunni world has been so ingrained, that the whole "system" became perceptually skewed too.

"The signs of this impending 'madness' have been out there -- 'hiding' in the open, as it were -- for the last 25 years."

Even now, "the system" has trouble in conceiving that with which it is dealing. Ostensibly, the West is at war with ISIS. That seems simple enough but in practice America has placed itself at the apex of several "wars." There is the war against Wahhabist ISIS, but there is also a "war" between Wahhabist ISIS and Wahhabist Jabhat al-Nusra; and between Wahhabist Saudi Arabia and Wahhabist Qatar. In short, there is a "war" for the leadership of Wahhabism (now the leading dynamic) and of Sunni Islam itself.

Then there is the "war" being waged by Turkey to become the "Emir" of Sunni Islam (at the expense of Saudi Arabia) in Syria and in the lands now occupied by ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. And finally, there is the "war" declared by Egypt, Saudi and the UAE on "all Islamists," which presently is being played out in Libya. Phew ... And America, Britain and France want to interpolate themselves into all these Sunni-on-Sunni, theological and secular-theological "wars"?

But how did it become such a mess? In fact, it need never have come to this. There was indeed a concerted Islamic effort (at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th) to mesh Islam into the contemporary modern world. But this Arab Renaissance failed, and it was events that took the nascent Islamic movements in a very different direction (and not some inherent quality to Islam).

To fully understand, we need to be aware that for the whole period from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1920s, Islam was being assailed by the many European projects of secularism and liberal market capitalism. Just to be plain: the intrusion of secularism into the region was never somehow benign or neutral. In Turkey, Ataturk was pure "Jacobin" in his attitude towards Islam. He intended to incapacitate it -- he hated Islam, calling it the "putrefied corpse." Persia and Egypt practiced belligerent secularism too.

Islam was hanging in there, but only by its fingernails. And then came the hammer blows of Ataturk's dismantling of the Islamic "nation" (the Umma) and Caliphate.
The aftermath to this secular act of Turkish iconoclasm (from the Muslim perspective) saw the introduction of Islamism into the region (the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928-9). What was so significant was that Islamism at this time was founded as a reaction against the "Arab Renaissance" -- against exactly the type of secularism typified by Ataturk. It was deeply defensive in posture and construed directly to compete and ultimately prevail over secularism and socialism.

But the crucial move here was that -- in order "to compete" with the appeal of secular Western modernity -- Sunni Islamism became literal. It severed the links to the (non-literal) historic discourses and intellectual traditions of Islam, and its religiosity increasingly became an externalized, very visible, almost secularized, outer projection. One associated, on the one hand, with public social good works, and, on the other, with an emphasis on the external and literal aspect of texts, law and the setting up of a very visible manifestation of Islamic "identity" (for example, in the wearing of Islamic dress and public display of piety).

This framework was pursued with an eye to its socio-economic appeal and as the best route for the achieving of secular power. The Muslim Brotherhood was the prime exemplar of this orientation. In their campaigning in Egypt in 2012, for example, the movement asked to be judged alone by its socio-economic achievements.

But this initiative too folded. Tayyep Erdogan had groomed this orientation as his vehicle for restoring the Turkish "historic mission" and Turkish influence across the Sunni world (at Saudi Arabia's expense). But the Saudi and UAE's sponsorship of the Egyptian coup against President Morsi and the all-out war to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood (and Turkish aspirations) has also destroyed the one element of Sunni Islamism that was not wholly literal and which did adhere to the notion of the sovereignty of the people.

The only Sunni Islamist current "left standing" in the wake of the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood was one which (in contrast to the now broken Brotherhood model) had instead immersed itself more with how to issue the "call to faith" to societies who in their slumbers (and consumer and material preoccupation) had completely forgotten Islam and inadvertently had become apostates.

This current -- symbolised by Abdallah Azzam, a colleague of Bin Laden in Afghanistan -- saw armed vanguardism and jihad as the necessary, and mandatory, wake-up call to Muslims sleep-walking through modernity. Although Azzam was not himself Wahhabist, the literalism and armed vanguardism inherited from early Sunni Islamism became cross-pollinated in Afghanistan in the late 1980s by Wahhabist notions that those Muslims who refused the "call" to "awake" must be killed. A massive output of Wahhabist literature and the founding of educational religious institutions and satellite channels exclusively devoted to this orientation fed this cross-pollination. It was in effect a veritable "Cultural Revolution," funded by Saudi Arabia (as part of its attempt to establish Wahabbism as the main source for Sunni Islam).

But the huge significance of this "cross-pollination" was completely lost to Western view. Afghanistan was the "jewel in the crown" of President Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher's foreign policy. No one wanted this "success" to be questioned (I well recall this from personal experience at that time). Far from prompting a moment of reflection, the West plunged on with its Saudi allies, using its forces of fired-up Sunni Islam in the pursuit of Western interests.

Even in the wake of 9/11, little changed. In fact, some of the deepest prejudices of Saudi Arabia -- some rooted in 18th century antipathies, such as Abd al-Wahhab's abhorrence for the Shia -- were absorbed by Western states and taken for their own. Their anti-Shiiite narrative became our "Axis of Evil." Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi, Hezbollah, President Assad, Iran -- effectively the "Axis of Evil" -- none were a true threat to the West but they all were objects of Gulf antipathy absorbed by us.

"The West plunged on with its Saudi allies, using its forces of fired-up Sunni Islam in the pursuit of Western interests."

And so it continued, up to the present. When Prince Bandar spoke of his instructions from King Abdullah on his appointment to take charge of getting rid of President Assad, he said that "he would follow his monarch's instructions, even if it meant hiring "every SOB jihadist" he could find. The West looked aside (systemic failure again) and, for a number of years, actually assisted in training and facilitating the passage of foreign fighters -- including jihadists -- to Syria. Prior to the metamorphosis into ISIS, Norwegian defense analyst Thomas Hegghammer noted in 2013 that "the West [was effectively] support[ing] the same side of the conflict that the Sunni foreign fighters are joining ... [many] effectively commute[ed] to jihad" -- a "freedom of movement," he noted, that Islamist foreign fighters had not enjoyed since the Afghanistan war in the 1980s.

It seemed, however, that President Obama understood something of the adverse consequences to this lop-sidedness when he spoke of the need to re-equilibrate between Sunni and Shiite, adding that this alone would not serve to solve all the region's problems, but it might drain away some of the poison. But the dynamic of customary habit seems to have prevailed. He now has been drawn into a multi-faceted war, which essentially centers around the nature of Sunni Islam itself and in opposition to an "idea" -- that of the Sunni Caliphate.

Scott Ritter, who has deep knowledge of the region, has written:

"The key to [any American] victory over the Islamic State ... means coming to grips with the reality that the 'Caliphate' is more than an artificial construct of so-called 'terrorists.' The notion of a Caliphate has been a vibrant part of the Sunni Arab world since the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate after the First World War. ... The notion of an Arab Caliphate is not a new phenomenon fabricated from thin air by the radical jihadists of the Islamic State. Rather, it has existed in the psyche of the Sunni Arabs of Mesopotamia and the Levant for more than a century.

The essence of the successes enjoyed by the Islamic State to date centres not on any wide-spread embrace of their radical vision, but rather the fact that their movement gives voice to a dream that has long been dampened by the forces of the West and their autocratic regional allies. The Obama administration has stated that the recent strikes against Syria are but the beginning of a more comprehensive campaign to defeat the Islamic State. But bombs and missiles, while adept at blowing up concrete and creating martyrs, have never been successful when it comes to eradicating ideas...

Void of any competing ideology, it is hard to see how this new war on the Islamic State will ever succeed in supplanting the visionary dream of a Sunni Arab Caliphate that resides in the hearts and minds of so many Sunni Arabs living in Syria and Iraq today. On the contrary, it is likely that this campaign will succeed only in fanning the flames of the radical Sunni fringe, empowering them in a way nothing else could."

And this represents the essential strategic flaw: (Wrongly) imagining that a Sunni "terrorist" movement can only be overcome by Sunnis. The U.S. has turned again in its monocular fashion to its "indispensable ally" who can do nothing to help. The U.S. is too heavily invested in radicalized Sunni Islam in many, many ways -- whilst shunning those in Syria and Iraq who are actually fighting ISIS and who (at least) might better advise it.

It would take a veritable American "Bismark" to steer American policy through this mess. How can America hope to mediate in any way in this hopeless nexus of complicated Sunni theology and Caliphate idealism? The truth is that Sunni Islam has fallen off its wall, and all the king's horses and all the king's men, will not easily put it together again. And, is this in any way an appropriate task for Americans and Europeans: to try putting together the parts of a deeply dispersed and fractured Sunni Islam?