Spotlight West Asia

Rise of the Islamic State: Implications for the Arab World

15 Dec, 2014    ·   4778

Ambassador Ranjit Gupta writes that there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of the rise of the Islamic State

Ranjit Gupta
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow
Though it is going to take a long time to defeat the Islamic State (IS), and it must be defeated, some silver linings of the very dark cloud the IS represents are beginning to be hazily visible over the horizon.

Since the proclamation of the IS, strange things have begun happening in West Asia. The IS is not only against the Shia governments of Iraq and Syria but also of Iran; it is even more against the Sunni governments of the Gulf monarchies, in particular, Saudi Arabia, apart from the US in particular and the West in general; it is also fighting against al Qaeda and its clones and affiliates. The IS is against everybody. It has no allies.

It has thus succeeded in bringing about a heretofore difficult to imagine scenario: countries, entities and regimes traditionally antagonistic and hostile to each other find themselves engaged in a common war against a common enemy. Thus, we have the rather strange spectacle of seeing the US and Iran; Saudi Arabia and Iran; Saudi Arabia and Shia-ruled Iraq; the Assad regime and those sworn to overthrow it – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the US and assorted Islamist extremist groups, and, Kurdish factions perpetually at loggerheads with each other and with the governments of the nations they are part of – all of them in the same camp warring against the IS.

This could have some very positive consequences in a region where hostile and conflictual relationships are endemic:  

First, after the fall of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein-ruled government, sectarian and ethnic fissures came to the fore in Iraq in a manner that had never been the case before. Sunnis have been the traditional ruling element in Iraq throughout history, but since 2003 they have not only been deeply alienated but also deliberately humiliated. Therefore, the involvement of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds in the common fight against the IS is very encouraging and could be cathartic and therapeutic. This bodes well for Iraq’s future since it had begun to appear that its being partitioned along sectarian and ethnic divides was becoming inevitable.

This enforced togetherness may finally persuade regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia and their respective allies to work together in the common and shared interests of fighting to eliminate Islamist extremism and sectarianism.

A third potentially significant consequence is that this will ultimately help to promote disenchantment of the average Muslim, particularly in the Gulf region, whether he is Sunni or Shia, with sectarianism and Islamist extremism, and make them realize that these ideologies are very dangerous for all Muslims.

The fourth potential consequence is that as the war against the IS progresses well, combined with the possibility of a deal between Iran and the P5 on the nuclear issue, all this may lead to real possibilities of a negotiated political solution to the civil war in Syria, which otherwise seems impossible to envisage.

The fifth flows from the fact that the intense rivalry between the IS and al Qaeda for control of the global jihadist movement is already causing intra-jihadist infighting and this can be expected to escalate throughout the region and this augurs well for the defeat of pernicious extremist and jihadi groups.

One consequence of the derailing of the Arab Spring has been the enormous strain on GCC unity, primarily due to Qatar taking a very different stance as compared to other GCC countries in relation to various Islamist groups. This was hampering the fight against the IS. The GCC Summit held in Qatar last week appears to have resolved the differences.  

The IS experience should also make Arab regimes and their Western patrons finally realise that pandering to religion for short-term geopolitical gains only creates Frankenstein monsters that devour their own creators. The reality is that the leaders of the Arab world have long been in denial about their own responsibility for their problems; the outside world is constantly blamed. The fact is that in the post-World War II era more Muslims have been killed by Muslims than by all others put together. As per the Country Threat Index, among the 10 most dangerous countries in the world, 9 are Muslim countries and 6 of them are Arab countries.

These facts have to be squarely faced. Time has come for very serious introspection. The emergence of the IS has created that opportunity. Lasting peace in the Arab world will be possible only if an ideological battle is waged and won within Islam to change the poisonous mindsets that have enveloped much of the Arab world. Some positive indications are already evident in new approaches by GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both domestically and otherwise.

Arab countries being overwhelmingly Muslim countries, political Islam must be given space and legitimacy to function in domestic political processes; banning or prohibiting political Islam only leads to radicalisation of those elements of society that are more religiously inclined than others. Wide-ranging political reform processes must also start now, concomitantly with the execution of the war against the IS. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, has demonstrated that a new path is possible.