Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

How can Islamic State ever end?

American sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer tells Stefan Weichert that only a political solution can defeat the Islamic State group

Al-Ahram Weekly

The American University in Cairo hosted a prominent visitor last week when Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of sociology and global studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, gave a guest lecture titled “How will ISIS end?”

With considerable expertise on the topic in both Iraq and Syria, Juergensmeyer drew a full house for his lecture. He began with a short review of the Islamic State (IS) group, also known as ISIS, and its history in Iraq and Syria.

Iraq is divided in three areas in the current crisis, with Shia to the east, Sunnis to the west and Kurds to the north. Each of the three groups played a part in the current instability, the creation of IS and its spread to Syria. Juergensmeyer went on to present the audience with two solutions for removing IS from Iraq and Syria.

Plan A is integration, where the governments in Baghdad and Damascus, with support from Russia and Iran, integrate Sunni groups into the political environment. This would satisfy Sunni groups in these areas and remove their support for IS, which would end the IS presence, he said.

Plan B would see the Sunni group gets its own country in the area that IS controls today, with support from the US, Russia and an Iranian-Turkish-Saudi alliance. This would eventually lead the moderate Sunni tribes to remove IS, because moderate Sunni leaders only support IS because of their fear of the governments in Baghdad and Damascus, Juergensmeyer argued.

Al-Ahram Weekly met with Juergensmeyer after his lecture to discuss his analysis on the future of IS.


Why would Sunnis in western Iraq and eastern Syria support IS?

I interviewed refugees from these areas and some of them knew people who joined IS and in some cases it was simply for money, they said. These areas have unemployment percentages of 40 to 50 per cent. It was not possible to get a job anywhere before IS came to power. They have a lot of administrative positions; everything from people collecting money and people working in offices to policemen on the streets.

So there are a lot of positions without any required religious ideology. That is also the case in the army, where there is a need for people to do the laundry, for example. There are many things you need when you are running a society that do not have anything to do with violence. It’s just a job, and if these people can get a job, they might stick with IS.


What role does religion play for IS?

In general, I would say that many movements characterised as religious movements are still basically movements driven by power and anger of being socially excluded, or are an attempt to reclaim power. Religion became a framework or ideology in which such movements are expressed, and I think that this is true with IS. It doesn’t mean that religion has nothing to do with it.

But it doesn’t mean that IS is the product of religion, and it means that keeping the focus on religion, as the core problem, would be a mistake. The problem is the marginalisation of the Sunnis in western Iraq and eastern Syria. That’s the problem and religious ideology is a rallying cry. It is the symptom and not the cause.


Do you think that the US and Russia understand this complexity?

There is no military solution to IS. It will have to be a political solution, where the concern of Sunnis in this region is taken care of. But yes, I think there is an understanding within government administrations. But politicians make decisions based on political reasons. Foreign policy is an art, which takes several perspectives.


You talked about a Plan A and a Plan B in your lecture, and how it involves Russia, the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Would it be possible for these players to coordinate?

Yes, if they thought it was necessary and if it’s in their interest to do so, and I think it is in the interest of the US, Russia and Iran. I think that both Russia and Iran have a lot at stake. Iran doesn’t want a terrorist country right next door to it, so it doesn’t want Baghdad to be destroyed, and if it should happen, they don’t want the new government to be very anti-Shia.

For Russia, it is also in their interest, because they have problems with Chechen rebels and they don’t want to see a group help or support terrorism within Russia. Also, they don’t want anyone to threaten Syria, which is their only real ally in the Middle East. So they both want to control or contain IS, but to solve the problem they would have to put pressure on the governments in Damascus and Baghdad for more Sunni political participation. If they did that, things could change dramatically overnight.


So that’s Plan A. What about Plan B?

That’s different. That would mean that these players would need to support Sunni tribal leaders in creating a new country — a “Sunnistan”. But Syria and Iraq don’t want to do this because they don’t even want to give legitimacy to the Sunni population in their existing country.

If Russia and Iran feel that it is necessary to end the conflict, they could put pressure and make a difference. However, that brings me to Plan C. Well, Plan C is not really a plan. Plan C is just to make the existing situation evolve or devolve, and de facto allow a kind of “Sunnistan”, although not legally recognised. It would be allowed to exist by Baghdad and Damascus because they are not strong enough to destroy it.

With Plan C we would see Sunni tribal leadership rise up to the IS leadership and basically force them to take a more moderate position or overthrow them. But that might take years. Plan C is more or less the situation as it is now. IS will be removed over time, because this romantic interest in global war will diminish over time. Young people will realise that they just are being used as cannon fire, and they are already starting to not join.


Which plan do you see as most likely?

I would like Plan A most, but I think the most successful would be Plan B. However, because I know how foreign policy works, I will say that the most likely is Plan C. And if we do nothing, which actually is not in the self-interest of any of the countries, we will see all the refugees continue coming to neighbour countries. But because it will cost so much, in terms of political capital, to put the needed pressure on Baghdad and Damascus, I don’t know if these key players are ready to do this.


You said that IS is under pressure. Are they losing already?

Yes. We can also see that they are losing territory, but you have to take into account that the 20,000 warriors left in IS are ready to give their own lives. It would take 100,000 troops to combat them because it is an extremely powerful force to have one guy in a truck demolish a whole regiment of soldiers.

So even though they are weakened, because of the bombing campaign by Russia and the US, they are still strong, and there will be no military solution. You need a political one.


In your lecture, you said that IS attacked Paris because the group was weakening. Thus, the attack was seen as a way to recruit more soldiers. Will we see more terrorist attacks around the world if IS is losing?

It’s quite possible, especially if they can see that they are successful in getting recruits. Also, they hope that they can get the Europeans and Americans to send troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria, because they think that they can win that battle.


Do you see the problems in Syria and Iraq with IS spreading to other countries?

No, I don’t think so. However, there are groups who take on the name of IS, like Boko Haram. But that is simply because the name is known as Islamic extremism, like we saw with Al-Qaeda some years ago.

For these groups, it gives them the aura of being an international movement when they call themselves a part of IS, which of course is nice for IS too, because it gives them the public image of being an international movement. There are groups in Libya and Morocco that are directly tied to IS, but I don’t think that it is realistic that this can spread further.


Factbox: Mark Juergensmeyer

Professor of sociology and global studies, affiliate professor of religious studies, and Kundan Kaur Kapany professor of global and Sikh studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Mark Juergensmeyer has written a number of books on religion and violence, including Thinking Globally about Religion, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, and The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State.

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