Arab Regimes' Crackdowns Only Feed ISIS's Fire

Praying in the New Mosque, Istanbul. Flickr/Brian Jeffery Beggerly

Paranoid overreactions fuel extremism.

Islamic State’s losses on the ground in Syria and Iraq will have repercussions beyond the battlefield. The caliphate’s selling point as a viable alternative government with a triumphalist narrative is being undermined with each setback that the jihadist fighters face; they have already lost Fallujah, and the campaign to liberate Mosul from their grip is on the horizon. However, dealing a deathblow to the idea behind Islamic State will be impossible in the Arab world so long as the only alternatives to extremism are hollow state narratives. As ISIS compensates for its losses by implementing a new strategy that focuses on destabilizing Arab governments to boost recruitment, the time may be ripe for a new and comprehensive approach to political freedom, counter-radicalization and regime stability.

The dilemma regarding political freedom in the Arab world is one of tension between two competing responses to (and potential causes of) unrest: freedom and repression. On the one hand, with radicalism on the uptick, now seems as good a time as any for Arab regimes to double down on blanket repression in the Middle East. After all, the rise of ISIS in Syria did not originate in calls to jihad, but rather in calls for freedom and justice, and the extremists demonstrated their ability to simply ride upon the coattails of popular currents (of course aided by the brutality of a ruthless regime). On the other hand, it is impossible to fight the concepts behind radical groups like Islamic State without opening up the marketplace of ideas and allowing for some degree of nonviolent political change. In today’s Middle East, the lack of credible alternatives to the state-sponsored narrative, and inability to use nonviolent methods to achieve political change, have cleared the playing field for radical and violent ideologies.

The old cliché goes that in Egypt the government is not accountable to the people, but the people accountable to the government. The Arab Spring demonstrated that those living in Arab republics (and, to a lesser extent, the monarchies) view the state narrative with cynicism. However, even before the Arab Spring there were indications of cracks in the legitimacy of the state-controlled religious establishments. For example, despite the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia’s fatwa that the presence of foreign troops was allowed on Saudi Arabian territory during the first Gulf War, there was still a major backlash against it in Saudi public opinion known as the sahwa (“awakening”). Public anger was stoked by the unofficial preaching of more radical religious figures that circulated via cassette tapes. This was a clear sign that the Saudi religious establishment had lost the respect and fear of the populace as well the ability to control the information it consumes.

Capitalizing on the frustration of youth throughout the Arab world after the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver on its promise of change, ISIS appealed to Sunni Muslims with a narrative of victory and brutality that helped the jihadist organization draw in manpower beyond anyone’s expectations. ISIS created a sense of identification and emotional meaning among its supporters, and has succeeded in bringing young people from all over the world to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq. Tens of thousands of radicalized Muslim men and women from around the globe were inspired by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s message and poured into the self-proclaimed caliphate.

The motivation of the group’s jihadist footsoldiers (or lack of concern for their own lives) meant that Islamic State could take on forces many times larger than it, and its successes snowballed. For example, in June 2014, despite being outnumbered by the Iraqi Security Forces by a factor of thirty, the jihadists took over Mosul in Iraq, looted hundreds of millions of dinars from its central bank, and captured billions of dollars’ worth of military supplies. This victory propelled ISIS forward by improving its arsenal, giving it the financial wherewithal to fund salaries four times higher than groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and most importantly marked ISIS as a fearless and triumphant brand.

Two years later, however, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is in danger of becoming obsolete.

The failure of Islamic State to abide by its own slogan to “remain and expand” has serious ramifications for the group’s image. The triumphant stature disseminated throughout the Muslim world via new and traditional media is harder to sell to potential recruits while the group is in retreat. ISIS battlefield performance may already be affecting its internet presence, as its social media traffic has plunged over the past two years. For example, pro-ISIS Twitter accounts in 2014 had about five times as many followers as they do today. Likewise, the decline of the Islamic State is probably a contributing factor for the reduction new recruits to ten percent of the peak numbers (in addition to more extensive measures recently taken by Turkey and other countries to stem the flow of foreign fighters). As a result, there are reports that the group is so short on manpower that it is unable to consistently impose sharia in its territory, thereby neglecting a major aspect of its narrative and what allows it to classify itself as “Islamic.”