ISIS and the West: Where Hubris and Humiliation Collide(d)?

By Wajahat Qazi


As the battle for Mosul rages on and as ISIS morphs from a “proto –state” and bricks and mortar militant outfit — which , in many ways, redefined modern insurgency — into a loose network with capability to strike within the West, the questions that may be revisited are: what led to the creation of ISIS? Who created it? What conditions led to its germination and then consolidation? And what will be its future?
A conventional but sterile explanation would identify the ISIS as the progenitor or even progeny of Al Qaeda; that, the militant group evolved from Al-Qaeda. Another layer of explanation would hold that the ISIS was incubated and created in and by the vacuum accruing from the United States’ omissions and commissions in Iraq and perhaps even Syria: the “War of Choice” – a pre-emptive hostile takeover of Iraq under the guise of “democratization” which turned asunder the political and governing equations of Iraq. Additionally, it might be asserted that the United States’ counter insurgency (COIN) approach incubated the ISIS. These explanations are partially correct ones: they do not tell the entire story.
It may be more accurate to state that the ISIS appears to be essentially embedded in the modern history of the Middle East. And that the structural conditions that accrued from the US invasion of Iraq hastened the militant group’s emergence and consolidation. What do these broad, general explanations mean?
The Middle East – a rich and a fertile region in terms of both its ancient and medieval history, especially in its Muslim or Islamic avatar- and defined by a certain political fluidity and political decay in the early 17th-18th centuries and later was subject to the assault of Western Imperialism. The assault was military, intellectual and discursive in nature. What ensued was both trauma (collective) and a soul-searching among Muslims. The answers were sought in two idioms: secular nationalism and Islamism?
The former meant an attempt at creating secular and modern structures to rejuvenate the region and its character against the Imperial assault. And the latter meant looking deep into the vitals and roots of Islamic history and seeking answers to the Muslim predicament there. If an assessment – retrospective – is made about both secular nationalism in the Middle East and Islamism, there ensued a dialectic between the two which stands unresolved to this day.
But secular nationalism – which bred the authoritarian deep state in the Middle East – was buttressed and supported by international powers, especially the United States, it continues to be supported still even though a degree of ambivalence characterizes this support.
In this historical melee and condition, came the attacks of September 11 on the US Homeland. The United States , as the apogee of unprecedented power – a condition that came to be known as unipolarity – wounded and naturally grieved at the attack, sought retribution on the source of the attack, Afghanistan, where the Taliban were hosting and giving sanctuary to Al Qaeda.
The country with allied support mopped up the Taliban and instituted what it called a “counter terror”(CT) strategy against the Al Qaeda. But this was not the end. There were no full stops to this war. The United States, under the sway and influence of neocons, embarked on its war of choice in Iraq. International law and multilateralism were abrogated and given short shrift, and the United States instituted a “coalition of the willing” to pursue its agenda of regime change in Iraq. In both retrospect and prospect, this regime change was a neo-imperial adventure brought about by great hubris and pride in the United States. In the nature of a double whammy, so to speak, War on Iraq – ostensibly aimed at broader democratization of the Middle East and shoving secularization down the throats of Arab Muslims – was a sequel to the previous imperial maraudings of the region and its peoples.
It is here that hubris met and collided with humiliation. The result and the consequence was the ISIS- a militarized, brutal and horrible reaction to the region’s problems and its detractors. Collapsed state structures and the vacuum thereof, the sectarian balance with the balance of power shifting to Shiites in the region, the discrimination and suppression of Sunni’s coupled with and overlain by historical grievances and humiliation with a contemporary ingress — the US invasion of Iraq and the country’s counter insurgent methods — appear to have risen to the conditions which begat the ISIS. The aim here is not to merely apportion blame or justify ISIS’ rise but to tease out the reasons , genesis of the formation of the group and draw lessons thereof.
Now that ISIS is on the defensive, the questions that may be posed is: Is ISIS an aberration? Will it, the militant groups survive? What form will it take? And, most importantly, what will the form and shape of politics in the Middle East?
ISIS might not survive in its proto state and bricks and mortar form; it will, in all likelihood, mutate into a network albeit with broad capabilities and capacities to strike elsewhere. But this does not mean that the philosophy or idea(s) that appear to animate ISIS will die.
Contemporary Middle East is a fecund region for the proliferation of groups like the ISIS, precisely because of the reasons delineated in this essay. But what give sting and impetus to these propensities is the role and approach of outside powers and certain dynamics peculiar to the region. If outside powers engage with the Middle East in an insalubrious idiom defined by power, power politics and hubris, this can only hasten the regions descent into anarchy and violence and creation of groups like the ISIS.
Moreover, the internal dynamics of the region, which, as on today, appear to have assumed the nature of a hiatus or pause in terms of the confrontation between Islam and authoritarian secularism, is another determinative dynamic that will decide the nature, form and shape of the region.
Islam is a lived reality in the region; it has been so for centuries. This reality can neither be overlooked nor can it change. It is not ephemeral or transient. Changing it or seeking to alter this reality at the altar of triumphalism , secular modernity is a mug’s game which will not only yield diminishing returns but also can be counter productivity. The region and its peoples — especially Muslims- do not need outside interventions- military or non-military — aimed to alter their existence, and faith. Yes, Muslims need to and must align themselves with the modern world but only in the idiom of synthesis of reason and faith, with faith central to the synthesis.
This can constitute a pedestal for a dialogue between Civilizations and thereby peace in the Middle East and the world at large. But for this dialogue to be enduring and long-lasting, the West must disavow its triumphalism and refractory missionary activity to turn other peoples to its faith in modernity. Modernity can take multiple forms. Let the Middle East gyrate to its own dynamic of progress and modernism and let value relativism in international politics take over value exceptionalism. It is in these paradigms that peace and prosperity resides and it is here that conditions propitious for the rise of ISIS might wither. All other routes can only regress the region and its peoples.


—Wajahat Qazi is on Twitter @Wajahatqazi, and he can be contacted at