The Middle East is no stranger to conflict. After a deceptive period of relative internal stability under the iron hand of despotic rulers, the region has fallen victim to the very fundamentalism that it allowed to breed in its midst and exported to the world. That fundamentalism has now reached a point of dangerous anarchy in the violent avatar of ISIS.
To be sure, other extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood, are certainly no paragons of virtue, but in terms of wholesale brutality and aggression, ISIS has had no peer. This has become painfully evident to Iraq and the rest of the Middle East over the past few weeks and could be construed as the harbinger of worse times to come.
At the same time, however, the Arab nations are also witnessing a different trend -- one of moderation and repudiation of the extremist violence that it has accepted if not welcomed in the past. Movements that began as resistance against autocratic regimes have now morphed into full-blown armies of terror that want to enforce anachronistic sectarian and religious principles on a people that are increasingly looking to transition away from those things. For the Middle East, ISIS represents a past that it desperately wants to leave behind.
During the recent Gaza conflict, for example, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab nations showed their distaste for the tactics of Hamas by refusing to side with the group despite their sympathy for the Palestinian people. In the case of ISIS, not a single Arab nation has expressed any objection to U.S. airstrikes against the terrorists and almost seem to be relieved at American intervention.
This tacit support is both novel and suggestive. It suggests that the Middle East now clearly recognizes the dangers of extremism, and is afraid of that violence spreading to fracture the entire region. New reports indicating that ISIS has killed 700 tribal members in Syria as it moves from the north against Syrian rebels while Assad's troops corner them from the south show that this scourge will not be contained. Ironically, and illustrating how volatile the situation is, forces loyal to Assad have also launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in the city of Raqqa.
What is also important to recognize is that ISIS is not the only agent behind a change in the Middle East but the latest in a chain of factors leading up to this point:
- The first was the Arab Spring, which ushered in democracy and secularism in ideals if not exactly in practical terms. That major shift has continued, albeit meanderingly, since that time.
- The second factor was the realization by Arab nations that their future prosperity lies in meaningful economic development, which in turn requires freedom from tribalism and religious dogma, the introduction of modern thought and education, and cooperation with their favorite historical enemy -- the West.
- The penultimate piece that is helping to complete this puzzle is a desire for self-preservation by the ruling factions in the region, who can see that it will be impossible to maintain stability and spur development of any kind in the presence of fundamentalism.
- The chaos wreaked by ISIS, and its wider regional implications, has confirmed this last fear and therefore may be the final factor that helps to move the Middle East away from feudal beliefs. Up till now, there has been a false sense of community in the region built around religious fervor, but that façade has cracked open under the attack of ISIS militants.
That does not mean that the Middle East will suddenly turn into a utopia of democracy or secularism but there is potential for real progress.
Of course, it would be easy for the world to adopt an isolationist stance and let the region solve its problems on its own, but that would be a mistake since without the world's help, the Arab nations will be unable to cement this new dynamic by themselves.
Defeating terror groups like ISIS and reinventing the political and social constructs in the Middle East will take a concerted effort by the international community, but will be worth it for the ability to create peace in those lands, as well as in the rest of the world.
Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He is also the author of two thriller novels, available at www.sanghoee.com.