To understand the progress of ISIS, a rag-tag militant group raging across the Middle East, it’s not a bad idea to take a look at the circumstances that made such savagery possible. Nationhood has not served the area well and ISIS builds upon ancient tribal cultures that cannot help but feel disenfranchised.
Like a forest that has been artificially prevented from the periodic burnings nature provides, the Middle East has long been accumulating tinder on its metaphoric forest floor. That build-up occurred because of its centuries of neglect of the common man and his hopes for a future—not a better future, but any future at all. It only awaited a spark to ignite an inferno no fire-fighters could control.
That spark was provided by a Tunisian street-vendor by the name of Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi on the 4th of January in 2010. Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that was inflicted upon him by a municipal official and her aides.
The municipal authorities (as is usual among the poor) repeatedly ignored his complaints. His self-immolation was a catalyst for Tunisians taking to the streets in pent-up anger and the birth of what has become known as the Arab Spring. Two others followed his lead and those three were immediately hailed by Arab commentators as "heroic martyrs of a new Middle Eastern revolution."
Public anger and violence intensified after his death, leading Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down on 14 January 2011. His twenty-three years in power collapsed within ten days. Demonstrations and riots throughout Tunisia quickly spread across the Arab world in the manner of an out-of-control and very dangerous forest-fire.
Speaking of fire-fighters, a quote from moralist-humorist George Carlin might not be amiss: “If crime-fighters fight crime and fire-fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?” The Middle East is awash in freedom-fighters, which ISIS claims to be.
That’s my point. A revolution against injustice cannot possibly be repaired or constrained by the very national governments that committed the injustice. Not those in Saudi, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Tunisia and across most of Africa. Certainly not in Egypt, where the first democratically elected president in its 5,000 year history lasted less than a year before the military put democracy out of business and on trial. The message behind that travesty was (and is) crystal clear.
It’s much the same across the entire Middle East, where national governments hang on by brute force against a rising tide of such injustices. You can include Israel and Iran (both non-Arab states) in that category if you care to.
A great deal of the blame attributes to colonial powers that drew national boundaries over afternoon tea and without any thought or concern given to ancient tribal associations. Those who grab power and territory care not a whit for antiquity. This is true of ISIS as well, as they destroy ancient historic sites in a frenzy to obliterate all that lies in the past.
Shia and Sunni were arbitrarily split both by artificial borders and military intervention, with no proper Kurdish nation ever allowed into existence. After meddling for several hundred years and properly screwing things up, the colonial powers left and sulked home. But as they left (or were thrown out) power-vacuums occurred everywhere and political power-struggles began.
Nature loves a vacuum and so does politics.
But getting back to ISIS, Western powers have no viable place in that dangerous and un-winnable game, no matter their desire for what serves (in their own interests) as peace. The vacuum left in their wake was quickly filled by unsustainable hierarchies. As the walls come tumbling down it’s beyond their power (or ours) to put a fallen Humpty-Dumpty back up on his wall:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again (1797)
For the West to ally itself with Saudi or Jordanian kings, let alone the tyranny of Egypt or Israel, is to side with brute-force against the Tarek Bouazizis of the Arab states. Are we really proud of how our guns and money have been squandered supporting the powerful against their poor and unrepresented? We’re currently in this mess on the wrong side of history, without an end-game.
An Arab League exists and it’s more their business than ours to settle the issues of their area, but do they do it? With the exception of Syria it’s not their boots on the ground, it’s ours. They cleverly used the United States and various mercenary forces as proxies, with the loss of oil and influence as a threat. We can buy oil more cheaply on the market than the $3 trillion cost of unending military intervention. We will never successfully influence the ancient adversaries in their wide and growing civil wars.
The spot in which we put ourselves is simply unsustainable. I am a great fan of unsustainable as an adjective, using it as a measure of advancement over time. The brutal national forces we support against ISIS, al Qaeda and its various offshoots are simply unsustainable and we will wear ourselves out in an ill thought-through attempt to sustain them.
If you remember, this very war between the West and Islam was Osama bin Laden’s first and major goal.
Innocents are dying in huge numbers, as innocents have always done. Those who flee, drown in the Mediterranean or waste away in refugee camps as we refuse them immigration. Obviously Europe cannot absorb all African and Middle Eastern refugees, but the circumstances that enabled this ultimate chaos are largely of Islamic animosity—a scene set by twenty centuries of neglect, mismanagement and greed.
Those circumstances continue today and I wish I had a solution to offer other than the West getting the hell out and letting the region reconfigure itself. To allow these deaths is to turn our backs on their misery in favor of drones and armaments that support brutal national governments. All because they sell us oil or are momentarily useful in the parlor-game of power politics.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men . . .