Newsflash: Time Is Running Out to Defeat ISIS

"A brutal battle against nationalist identity is being waged by ISIS, and a response is needed before it is too late." 

Turkey’s recent decision to permit American warplanes to use the Incirlik base to launch air attacks is a much needed shot in the arm for the Obama administration’s battle against ISIS. But alone it is unlikely to be the game changer the United States hopes for. Any strategy is doomed to failure if it ignores that ISIS is not merely killing people, but also killing the ideas that have served as the region’s defense mechanism against Islamic extremism for the past several decades. While the U.S.-led coalition is focused on rolling back ISIS from territory it has captured in Iraq and Syria, it is missing the fact that this group’s strategy is to systematically destroy the idea of the nation and nationalist identity as the organizing principles for the Middle East. And ISIS is playing out this strategy in Syria and Iraq, currently the soft underbelly of the Arab world, where national bonds have already been weakened by colonial legacies and civil wars. Unless ISIS’s strategy is countered, it is quite possible that the ideological carnage could spread more widely throughout the region, weakening even stronger countries with more coherent national identities, like Turkey and Egypt. While the United States can’t fight the ideological battle directly, by using military and diplomatic means it can buy the time necessary for regional leaders to marshal a response and launch a more effective ideological counterattack. If this doesn’t occur, it is possible that the ideological damage inflicted by ISIS could become permanent, even if the group itself is eventually defeated.

What is striking is that ISIS’s strategy comes right out of the playbook used by the West nearly one hundred years ago. At the highest level, ISIS’s strategy is to reverse the historical turn that occurred when the Ottoman Empire, the last recognized Islamic caliphate, was brought to its knees in part by the rise of Arab and Turkish nationalism, and the exploitation of this new phenomenon by the British and French. It would be fair to say that nationalism was one of the most potent weapons used to bring down an already decaying Ottoman Empire. ISIS is now turning the tables, using political Islam and the lure of a new caliphate as weapons to undermine the current weakened nationalist order in the Arab Middle East. It is tapping into a belief that the pre-nationalist Islamic era represents the glorious halcyon days for the Arab world, while the later era in which secular nationalism flourished was one of decline and foreign domination. And these ideas aren’t just propagated through ISIS’s slick communication strategy, but are also integrated into a military strategy that is aimed at destroying any vestiges of nationalist identity. And by so doing, it is leaving large swaths of the region ideologically defenseless against the ideas and depraved practices of ISIS.

To fully grasp the significance of what ISIS is doing, it is important to unpack how the battle this jihadist organization is waging is different from earlier rivalries between Islamic groups and secular nationalists in the Middle East. In the past, political Islamic movements, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, competed vigorously with their secular-nationalist counterparts over which group had the legitimacy to spearhead the struggle for self-determination and independence from colonial rule. The Brotherhood attracted followers starting in the 1930s, not by challenging the idea of Egypt as a nation-state, but by positioning itself as more authentic and uncompromising in opposing foreign interference than its secular-nationalist competitors. Followers didn’t necessarily view support for the Brotherhood as a repudiation of nationalism, but rather as a tilt towards a purer expression of nationalist principles. The competition between nationalism and political Islam wasn’t won or lost primarily on the basis of ideology (religion vs. secular nationalism) but rather by which was the best receptacle for political ambitions.

In contrast to these earlier Islamic movements, the ISIS phenomenon is more ideologically menacing in that it isn’t just competing with nationalism for legitimacy, but is actually waging a regional war against it. Given the Arab world’s ambivalent relationship with nationalism historically, ISIS has some comparative advantages in this ideological battle. In other words, it isn’t just ISIS’s strength, but also nationalism’s vulnerability, that is allowing it to flourish.

Nationalism in the Arab World: A Checkered Past

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