“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigour has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” A quote many would consider a classic from the former president, and certainly one that resonates with the times we live in. Although the line was given in Roosevelt’s first inauguration speech in the context of the Great Depression, there is no doubt that the it is fitting for the modern period: one where the threat of terrorism lurks everywhere, and one where no bastion is truly safe.
And it has been a chaotic year indeed. The fighting in the Middle East rages on incessantly; the US, UK, France and other regional allies continue to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State, with Russia also launching its own. But even as ISIS has begun to lose ground, its global influence shows no sign of recession; after expanding itself into North Africa and launching many terrorist attacks internationally, Europe is now gripped with an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty as security forces conduct raids everywhere from Brussels to Athens. The United States does not find itself much more secure, with its frequent mass shootings.
In response to the threat of terror worldwide, world leaders have begun to adopt aggressive rhetoric, to the point where it is dangerous. Barack Obama, after claiming to be hitting ISIS ‘harder than ever’, stated pointedly to the leaders of ISIS: “you are next”. Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidates have all varied in their response; Ted Cruz has vowed to carpet-bomb civilians in the middle east if elected, while Donald Trump decided that banning all Muslims from entering the country “until we better understand the problem” would be the best solution. Meanwhile, the far-right is making gains in Europe as citizens demand protection from the threat.
But what, exactly, is the threat? And why has it occurred? In the end, this is the question that leaders must face. Wars used to be much simpler; two governments would take their militaries and start bashing each other. Now, however, the enemies we face lurk in the shadows, faceless and nameless, hidden amongst the crowd of ordinary people.
Leaders tend to define the enemy as those who adhere to jihadist ideology; as such, everything is branded as “radical Islamist terrorism”. In particular, many of these jihadists stemmed from the Islamic State. Yet how many of us actually understand ISIS? A group that has embraced theology so thoroughly, we perhaps have no hope of ever truly understanding their worldview, but have world leaders made enough of an effort to understand their motivations? We often brand them as ‘crazy’– but why? What drives them?
I myself am no expert on the Middle East, but in this post, I would like to delve a little into a bit of history. The explanations that I offer are oversimplified, and in some cases, perhaps inaccurate as well. However, I believe that they do help shed some light for understanding ISIS and why they are committing the threats of terror that they are. Let us look at the roots of their hatred.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement
We turn back to 1916. The Ottoman Empire, long known as the sick man of Europe, had only a few years left to live. Britain and France, who were eventually to emerge victorious from the Great War, began to draw up plans about the future. Ottoman influence was no more; who was to get the Middle East?
In the end, the British and French negotiations, written up by Mark Sykes and led to the following: the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire that laid outside the Arabian peninsula would come under both British and French influence. France received Syria, while Britain received Iraq; modern Israel became an international zone. In a colonial age, this was not something so out of the ordinary to do, and it should perhaps not have had the ramifications it did.
However, the borders that Britain and France chose to draw were not done in consultation with locals. Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot declared “I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk!” Ignoring the human geography of the Middle East was far from a good idea. In fact, the random partitioning of the Middle East into Iraq and Syria had managed to bundle together Sunnis and Shias, two opposing religious branches into one country, along with cutting the homeland of the Kurds, an ethnic group, in half, splitting them into both Syria and Iraq. These borders are artificial and only existed for the convenience of the British and the French; they are hardly natural. As an advisor to US President Woodrow Wilson said at the time, “They are making it a breeding place for future war”.
Far from an ideal situation, indeed, and it helps explain the instability that has wrecked Iraq. It can be imagined using a metaphor of a boiling pot; without something to press it down, the pressure inside would eventually have built up and the whole thing would burst. Without a Saddam Hussein or another sort of dictator to keep the peace in Iraq being all the warring groups, and with the ongoing meltdown of the Assad regime in Syria, the two countries have exploded into flames. The warring groups inside are now let lose, and the borders have now become porous. The border between Iraq and Syria has all but disappeared, and Kurdistan is de facto independent in the north of Iraq. ISIS has essentially redrawn the map of the Middle East.
In addition, the Sykes-Picot agreement has also become a symbol towards which natives can direct their resentment of the West against. It represents the worst that the West had to offer: interventionism, imperialism, and a lack of respect for the local Muslims.
An article from The Atlantic, ‘What ISIS Really Wants’, written by Graeme Wood, explains the fundamental beliefs that underpin ISIS in a very readable way. Although a rather long article, it is well worth the read. Wood makes the following arguments, based on his research:
- The Islamic State is a caliphate. A caliphate is an Islamic state with a caliph- a person considered to be the political and religious successor of Muhammad. A caliphate must have territory, and must constantly make war to expand this territory. Believers of the faith should immigrate to the caliphate.
- The apocalypse is near. The End of Days is approaching soon, but before that the forces of Islam would come to a final clash with the “Romans”- perhaps the West; eventually, this leads to a sacking of Istanbul, and a final showdown with the anti-Messiah. They believe they must draw the West into the fight.
- They have a strong belief in their version of Islam. They believe in jihad, in sharia law, and they are very extremist.
Personally, I find the ideological context fascinating. Their mindset seems to be rooted in the Middle Ages, with the Crusaders and the Byzantines still fighting. The last caliphate was the Ottoman Empire itself; simply by restoring it is a look back to the past.
Wood concludes that:
That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.
In the Shadow of Terror
In a way, understanding such abstract concepts that underpin ISIS does not help us as ordinary people, far removed from the reins of power. However, it is still important to understand the motivations of the terrorists that ISIS claim they control. We think they’re crazy, but why do they act in such a manner?
I hope that this post has helped to shed some light on the motivations of these men who lurk in the shadows. They create fear, but at the very least having some understanding of the rationale of a small minority of Muslims helps to make them more human in our eyes. Their resentments are perhaps genuine. Their taunts and threats are dangerous, but we must not overreact. Banning all Muslims will not help. Carpet-bombing all the civilians will not help.
These are dangerous times. They are a little like the “barbarian at the gates” moment. But in the end, we must remember: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.