Friday, August 8, 2014

The Islamic State May Run The Risk of Pushing Away Sunni Muslims

     Though it does not appear so now as the previously hesitant United States has officially authorized and used military force against the Islamic fighters, there are some indications that the Islamic State may fizzle or lose support among large Sunni Muslim populations.  Some experts believe that the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) has stretched itself too thin in some areas and runs the vulnerability of counter attacks.  While this may be true, IS maintains strongholds in Western Iraq and Northern Syria.

     In terms of turning away large groups of Muslims, IS, like many similar terrorist organizations, are opportunists.  They capitalize on crises or social divisions around them.  To begin with, their predecessor - al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) - was formed at the start of the Iraq War initiated by the United States in the early 2000s.  AQI was able to rally certain Sunni groups to their cause using the ugly face of western aggression.  Fast forwarding to the conflict in Syria, IS, along with other terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, took advantage of the waning security situation and evident vacuum created by the civil war (more on this below), among other causes.  Today, in Iraq, IS has been able to capitalize on the Sunni alienation perpetrated by Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki.  Maliki's disaffection of the Iraqi Sunni population enabled IS to take advantage of a displeased faction who would be sympathetic to a liberation force that would look out for their interests.

     Central to the discussion of IS's success and why they may face potential opposition from Sunni Muslims, is why experts say IS is more extreme and worse than al-Qaeda, a previously unfathomable proclamation.  One of the key reasons many believe IS is worse than al-Qaeda is their slaughter of fellow Muslims.  Osama bin Laden warned against killing civilians because it would push some away from the goals of al-Qaeda - Muslim civilians especially.  According to reporting by Slate's William Saletan, who cited documents seized by American Special Forces at the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was killed,  "[bin Laden] called for guidelines that would instruct jihadists to avoid 'unnecessary civilian casualties.' Mass bombings in mosques and other public places, he lamented, had resulted in 'the alienation of most of the nation from the Mujahidin.'"  Bin Laden also warned against excessive force and brutal rule.  "Bin Laden was a theocratic fundamentalist, but he cautioned his allies to avoid the “alienation from harshness” that was “taking over the public opinion,” wrote Saletan.

     Even more intriguing is a letter from a leader of al-Qeada in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, to the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2012 published by the New York Times in which al-Wuhayshi stated, "You have to take a gradual approach with them [citizens] when it comes to their religious practices. You can’t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don’t even know the basics of how to pray. We have to first stop the great sins, and then move gradually to the lesser and lesser ones." This statement points to an acknowledgement by al-Qaeda that brutal tactics will turn moderates and supporters away from them.

     IS had overstepped their bounds when they tried to expand into Syria, which conflicted directly with al-Qaeda's official Syrian entity, the Nusra Front.  This defiance of orders to remain exclusively in Iraq as al-Qaeda's Iraq affiliate from al-Qaeda's core leader Ayman al-Zawahiri led to IS's expulsion from the terrorist organization.  In reporting conducted by freelance writer Rania Abouzeid, the Nusra front went through the "proper" channels and orders from core al-Qaeda leadership to establish themselves in Syria.  A fighter with the Nusra Front familiar with the situation told Abouzeid that "Zawahiri had given strict instructions not to reveal" the Nusra Front was affiliated with al-Qaeda until they could "show [their] values, deal with people well."  To Saletan's point, Abouzeid also stated, "[bin Laden] told Somalia’s al-Shabaab to hide its ties to his organization because 'once it becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you.'  Bin Laden knew al Qaeda had an image problem. In another 37-page document released after his death, he talks about starting a 'new phase' to win the trust of most Muslims, whom he acknowledged despised his group."  The Nusra Front initially was fearful to not "do what [its] parent organization in Iraq had done, imposing harsh Islamic dictates on local communities and antagonizing them until they rose up against al Qaeda and formed Sahawat, or Awakening Councils, which, with U.S. help, expelled the group by force."

     IS has imposed strict rules in the territories they occupy currently forcing non-Sunni's, which include Shia Muslims, Christians, members of the Yazidi community, and other "non-believers," to either convert to Islam, pay a tax if they refuse to convert, or face death.  Part of the reason IS has been able to take territory so easily in Iraq is because for the most part, they were overtaking largely held Sunni areas.  This changed early this week when they inflicted an embarrassing defeat against Kurdish fighters.

     The Islamic State has, for the most part, united Sunnis around their battle cries to look out for their interests in the face of Maliki's exclusive regime because their frustrations have festered for too long.  However, IS is a brutal army that is intent on killing those who do not subscribe to their goals of establishing a caliphate (though IS, as their name denotes, has already established a self-proclaimed caliphate.)

     Two areas in which the Islamic State can lose Sunni support is with their declared caliph - Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the conditions of the territories they control.  As the Caliph, Baghdadi would be (is) the supreme voice and leader for all of Islam, something many Muslims may not feel sympathetic to.  As to the conditions of their territory, according to more documents obtained at the Abbottabad compound written by bin Laden, "If a controlling force, that enjoys the support of the majority where it has taken control, fails to provide for the basic needs of the people, it will lose their support and will find itself in a difficult position that will grow increasingly difficult with each passing day."  Slate's Saletan wrote, "ISIS pays no heed to this guidance. Its founding literature says that for people who fall under its dominion, 'improving their conditions is less important than the condition of their religion.'"  There have been reports of wide spread food and power shortages in IS held territory.  The United States and allies must capitalize on these shortcomings to replicate similar amicability as they did during the Iraq War with the Sunni Awakening. 

     As Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, wrote recently, "Islamic State uses a much looser understanding of takfir [the practice of jihad or excommunication, one Muslim declaring another an unbeliever] than al-Qaeda, which means that it is more willing to kill Muslims—a fact that is reflected in its battles with other militants."  Fishman noted that Sunni "tenuous alliances" with IS in Iraq and Syria can be broken.  It is the job of the regional governments and international allies to hasten this fracture.  The Islamic State seems to be on a ruthless tear right now but there are glimmers of hope and indications that Sunnis may turn against them if they continue their current practices.      

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