Firdous e Bareen
September 9, 2014 § 4 Comments
I thought I’d write about Isis since it seems to be pub hour for international political journalism. I should add the caveat that I know very little about Syria and less about Iraq, and so my writings are likely to be uninformed and wide of the mark. But that doesn’t seem to matter these days, it’s pub hour. I’ll fit right in.
I’m not entirely convinced Isis really exist.
I don’t mean that in a conspiracy theory, flat-earth, 911-was-an-inside-job, Prince-Philip-is-a-lizard kind of way. Of course Isis really exist in some sense. But I’m not sure they do all that much existing.
Not In Rivers, But In Drops
I quote Adam Curtis far too often. I am aware that he is not without his flaws, and that quoting his documentaries is only one step above quoting Vice magazine and several staircases below quoting an actual academic (heaven forfend). But I did find his argument in “the Power of Nightmares” about the non-existence of Al Qaeda in any substantive form to be compelling – regardless of how often it is misunderstood by idiots.
Essentially Al Qaeda became a brand, like frosted flakes or knife crime, and it became the case that there was a strong vested interests for the media, the coalition of the willing, and the terrorists themselves to pass off every attack and atrocity, every event and action both successful and unsuccessful, as being by or against Al Qaeda. And to do this they didn’t really need to lie as Al Qaeda is such an amorphous and ill-defined organisation that virtually anyone can be covered by the shadow of the ludicrously large umbrella that the term “Al Qaeda associated” throws up. All that was required is that we not look too closely for deeper truths, for anything approaching insightful analysis. This is something we got pretty good at during the war on terror.
I am no expert on Isis, but my understanding is that they are nowhere near as amorphous as Al Qaeda and that, to return to my original point, they do exist. They are a fairly conventional military force, which will probably end up being the reason they lose. But how big are they really? And how much of what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria is really down to Isis and to what extent are they merely the sparks shooting out of a flaming log – highly visible certainly, but tiny and not where the heat is coming from?
The Economist estimated Isis’s size as 6,000 or so fighters in Syria, and a similar but smaller number in Iraq. So in all likelihood its army is about the same size as that of Fiji, and probably not as well equipped.
Isis are of course much more active on social media than the Fijian armed forces. They are also much better at using terror as part of a media relations strategy as the War nerd writes in a typically gruesome recent blog. They are also operating in a political vacuum, and 10,000 crazies can do a lot of damage in a political vacuum – for a bit. But the point remains, they are small, and probably too small and too unstable to stick around for long. Probably.
So a more interesting question to ask is whether anything has really changed in Iraq and Syria since Isis came along. In other words how has the situation changed as we’ve climbed this mountain?:
In Iraq, in the areas they control, most certainly things are different. Although “Isis controlled” is a sobriquet which the media is quick to bestow on a town but which the town will often not merit. It is also worth taking something of a historical perspective. Is the situation in Iraq now as fragmented and anarchic as it was in 2006 when the Iraqi insurgency controlled much of the country, Muqtada al-Sadr controlled much of the rest, and there were 30,000 (IBC) to 300,000 (Lancet) dead? I would argue it is not. As for Syria: pre Isis Syria was a catastrophic failed state wracked by civil war with roaming feral gangs of murderers and fundamentalists competing with each other to spill the most blood. Isis have caused about as much damage in Syria as a tornado in a scrapyard.
But what has changed fundamentally since Isis came along, is we now have a narrative we can all get behind. We have a prism through which to see things. Our story, which previously was confusing and required concentration to follow, finally has goodies and baddies, or rather baddies and worsies. And this means that a lot of stuff that was previously considered to complicated to be news is now all over our front pages.
This is what I mean when I say Isis don’t exist: of course they exist, but they are also a narrative device, and the narrative device is growing out of all scale to the tiny group of rather sad 4 Lions wannabes they are named after. The situation in Iraq and Syria is doubtless bad, but the idea that it was substantively better before, or that these bad things weren’t happening previously, is misleading. The major change has been that Isis have given us a language in which to discuss these things.
Some of the things that Isis have done would definitely be news regardless of this narrative device. Taking control of Iraq’s second largest city, however briefly, is massive. Although it did also happen in 2004 and 2008 with less fanfare, and by groups we have now forgotten about.
Similarly the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff were such craven acts of barbarity that they would have got headlines at any time and place. Although again it is worth noting that 102 journalists were murdered in Iraq between 2003 and 2013 and 7 in Syria, while at least 36 internationals including 10 Americans have been captured and executed by Iraqi insurgents in that time. This doesn’t detract from the tragedy of Foley and Sotloff’s deaths, but it does place them in context. It is also worth noting that twelve other western journalists have also been kidnapped by Isis and subsequently freed. This difference in treatment could be because those countries and employers have different attitudes towards ransom, it could be because Isis really hates Americans. But it is possible that the narrative itself, and those who perpetuate it, also share some of the blame for this change of tactic. Could it not also be that the tactics changed because the new media narrative is becoming increasingly thirsty for blood, blood Isis is all too happy to provide?
In a sense this is the heart of Curtis’ “power of nightmares” thesis – the idea that terrorists, counter-terrorists, and the media end up inadvertently colluding with each other, validating each other, and perpetuating each other, due to the nature of their symbiotic yet parasitic relationship.
Our more immediate problem is that the Isis story has now taken on a life of its own, and a life to which the facts are increasingly being bent to fit. So non stories like Isis’ hoax attempt to make FGM compulsory (a clear case of picking the wrong Orientalism out of the hat), or the desperate situation on that mountain top that turned out to be not so desperate, get waved on to the front page without much scrutiny. Meanwhile there is no room in this new narrative to point out such inconveniences as the fact that it was only a year ago we were talking about arming Isis’ allies and bombing Isis’ adversaries in the Syrian civil war.
But above all we are being misled as to the novelty of all this; a situation which is utterly horrible, but which has been more or less the status quo for the last several years, is being presented as something new and dangerous and requiring our urgent attention. And I just don’t believe it. Certainly not the new bit, probably not the dangerous bit, and as for urgent attention, urgent attention to what end?
In the Absence of Truth
Utter cliché though it now is, I do love Maslow’s hammer. When all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Unfortunately the subset of things which it is constructive to hit with a hammer is actually pretty small, and the vast majority of things outside the set are things that a hammer is just going to make more broken, messier, and more fragmented. Not to mention the fact that when you wave a hammer around you tend to hurt people.
This of course is what’s spurring my worries about all this manipulation of narrative, the sneaking sense that what we are seeing now is the interventionist right’s attempt to rehabilitate the idea that we should always be declaring war on the people we don’t like; to undo some of the damage that was caused to this idea by Iraq, Afghanistan, and last September’s failed attempt to drum up support for an invasion of Syria. Fortunately this time even the neocons seem unsure as to who we should be declaring war on, or how. Granted America is dropping a few bombs, but not even I really mind that – much as I think precision targeting is a myth (the more accurate our weapons have got the more civilians we seem to accidentally kill) if you are going to drop a bomb on anyone (and that seems to be non negotiable) it might as well be on a murderous fascist driving a Humvee through the middle of the desert.
So the lies are troubling but ultimately don’t, in my view, warrant a particularly different response. Imagine a doctor who has just found out that her patient, whom she thought had cancer, is actually the victim of a plot by the international capitalist hegemon to cause their cells to divide uncontrollably. She’d be annoyed but she’s still going to treat them for cancer, because that’s what the symptoms demand.
It is easy to be wise after the event but that Russian proposal for a Syrian ceasefire in June of 2012 is looking pretty good right now. It looked quite good at the time, but America wanted Assad’s removal to be a precondition for talks and Russia thought that was putting the cart before the horse. This was back in the olden days when we cared two hoots what happened to Assad; it all seems rather quaint now. Of course that is not to say Russia’s role in events hasn’t been entirely despicable, but simply to suggest that so has everyone else’s, and Russia just might have been right that one time. Of course it’s a bit late to do anything about that now.
The west could always stop funding and backing Saudi Arabia, who remain the primary source and supporter of fundamentalists, fascists, fanatics and fruit loops in the region. That would, at a stroke, make the world a far better and safer place as well as bringing to an end perhaps the biggest and most dangerous of all foreign policy hypocrisies. That might improve the situation in Iraq and Syria ten years from now.
Until then I can’t really see that there is much more to do than wait it out and accept it is going to be horrible. Depending on your personality you may either take comfort or derive further despair from the fact that the situation isn’t really any worse than it was before you’d heard of Isis, and is still more-or-less better than the situation in the Central African Republic, the DR Congo, or any number of other places that decent people don’t like to think about too much.
Firdous e Bareen is the name of a track by the sludgy post rock band Isis. They most certainly do exist. All the subtitles are named after Isis tracks too. Firdous e Bareen was also the name of a historical and potentially mythical Persian pleasure garden where the Hashshashin (or Assassins, as their name was anglicized) would take new potential recruits. They would drug them and bring them to the gardens while they were asleep and then when they awoke they would imagine that they had died and gone to paradise. Thus they would think their orders were the voice of god, and would know no fear because they would think that they had already died. Which is a great story, although the logic falls apart if you think about it at all.
It is worth noting that the brazen nature of the murders carried out by the Assassins was once one of the most feared things about the middle east; their raids were thought to be among the key destabilizing influences in the region – stirring up Sunni Shia animosity, rattling empires, and altering the path of the crusades. These days the Assassins are mostly remembered as stoners and characters in fairy stories and their branch of Islam, Isma‘ilism, is considered to be one of the most liberal and progressive. It is worth noting that Rita Hayworth was an Ismaili. It is worth noting that for the extra web searches it will bring alone. It is worth noting all this, it isn’t worth reading too much in to it.