We saw in Parts I and II what Pilger thinks the root causes of terrorism are. Now for his supposed solution, and what we can do about it.
His proposed solution is two-fold. First, call a truce:
‘Across the world, from Northern Ireland to Nepal, those regarding each other as terrorists and heretics have faced each other across a table … A truce – however difficult to negotiate and achieve – is the only way out of this maze; otherwise, the atrocities in Paris and Beirut will be repeated. Together with a truce, the leading perpetrators and overseers of violence in the Middle East — the Americans and Europeans – must themselves “de-radicalise” and demonstrate a good faith to alienated Muslim communities everywhere, including those at home.’
Second, end arms sales to Israel and recognise Palestine:
‘There should be an immediate cessation of all shipments of war materials to Israel and recognition of the State of Palestine. The issue of Palestine is the region’s most festering open wound, and the oft-stated justification for the rise of Islamic extremism. Osama bin Laden made that clear. Palestine also offers hope. Give justice to the Palestinians and you begin to change the world around them.’
The first proposal is wishful thinking par excellence. There is not a chance in hell of any true being called. None of the combatants are interested in a truce. His call appeared on the day that Russian officials conceded the IS downed a Russian airliner over Sinai, leaving Putin swearing vengeance. Hezbollah is unlikely to take the bombing of their supporters in Beirut lying down (but perhaps the bombing in Beirut and the destruction of the Russian airliner are ‘payback’ for supporting Assad?). Assad has showed no sign of any interest in any truce, even when it looked like his back was to the wall a couple of years ago; he is even less interested now, with the Russians covering his back. ISIS itself is not interested in a truce. Pilger’s call is vain, in both senses of the word.
If a truce is not feasible, then what about addressing the broader context like Palestine? Pilger’s proposal to end arms flows to Israel defies logic. Arms flows to Israel are not the root cause of ISIL’s rise, still less the Paris atrocities. Why would cutting off arms flows to Israel do anything to bring the mayhem in Syria to an end? Recognising Palestine? ISIL is not fighting for Palestinian recognition. It is fighting to restore the Caliphate, not for a two-state solution for Palestine. There is no place in this project for Israel, even an Israel back inside its pre-1967 borders. Perhaps we can quote Al-Baghdadi (quoted in Jason Burke’s Article in Prospect Magazine, 30 Aug 2015):
“The Muslims were defeated after the fall of their caliphate,” al-Baghdadi wrote. “Then their state ceased to exist, so the unbelievers were able to weaken and humiliate the Muslims, dominate them in every region, plunder their wealth and resources, and rob them of their rights. They accomplished this by attacking and occupying their lands, placing their treacherous agents in power to rule the Muslims with an iron fist, and spreading dazzling and deceptive slogans such as civilisation, peace, coexistence, freedom, democracy, secularism, Baathism, nationalism and patriotism, among other falsehoods.”
That’s a long list of grievances. I doubt that ending arms flows to Israel or recognising Palestine is going to assuage those. Nonetheless, how about his suggestion to deal with Muslim ‘alienation’ by ‘demonstrate[ing] a good faith to … Muslim communities everywhere, including those at home …’ There is, after all, a link between the war in Iraq and terrorism. But where is the comparison between Iraq and Syria here? Pilger talks much about Muslim anger against the West for what it has done in the Middle East. In Iraq, we reaped the Jihadi whirlwind when we overthrew Saddam. That made a lot of Muslims angry. But what is making many Muslims angry about Syria? The answer should be obvious but it’s not the one he offers. It’s not because we overthrew a dictator and killed lots of Muslims. The dictator is still there and he is killing lots of Muslims, with a lot of help from his friends.
I am astonished that he does not acknowledge this. According to King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 11,000 fighters from 74 nations had gone to Syria, mostly to join ISIS. This is biggest trans-national Jihadi mobilisation since the Afghan war on the 1980s, bigger than Bosnia and much bigger than Iraq (presumably because many of the anti-American insurgents were Shia). If that is so, if we want to show good faith to (Sunni) Muslims then we could do it by bombing Assad. If we want to show bad faith – then bomb his most effective opponents: ISIS.
As it happens, I do not think we should bomb Assad and I have serious reservations about whether bombing will work against ISIS but this is not the point I am making here. Whatever we do will be wrong. In Afghanistan, we backed Islamic insurgents against the Soviet Union. That was wrong. In Bosnia, we stood by (did not bomb) while Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats slaughtered Bosnia Muslims. That was wrong.
We are condemned for backing dictators like Gaddafi and Saddam and then condemned for overthrowing them. With Assad, what to do? Overthrow him and risk another Iraq and Libya, and have radical Islamists step into the vacuum? Back him, then, like we are backing the Egyptian Junta or as we once backed Saddam and a whole plethora of tyrants and risk making the problem worse, causing states to collapse and Jihadists to get in anyway? As the Al-Baghdadi quote shows, the list of grievances is wide, the threshold for taking offence low.
Pilger overlooks the significance of the Shia-Sunni divide across the Islamic World generally. This split is absolutely crucial if one is to understand the rise of ISIS, which is replete with blood curdling denunciations of the Shia. For starters, the deaths of 200 million Shia are an essential prerequisite to the establishment of paradise. If you leave the Sunni-Shia split out, then you cannot even begin to understand what this conflict is about.
Pilger simply ignores this. Again, he might want to read Patrick Cockburn, whose analysis of the IS, in his ‘The Rise of Islamic State’ if flawed and partial, at least identifies one of the roots of their rise: the oppression of Iraqi Sunnis under a post-Saddam Iraqi Shia-dominated state, a state made possible by the US-UK invasion – in other words, a sectarian state. That this state has been underwritten by Iran, the foremost Shia power, has also contributed to the rise of the ISIS (incidentally, one example of foreign interference that is glossed over in Cockburn’s account).
It is not that the West does not bear a significant proportion of the responsibility for the mess in the Middle East but this is not what Pilger is saying: he is saying that we bear all of it. He denies, without good reason, Assad’s violent repression of protests in 2011 contributed to the mess his country is in, that Hezbollah and Iranian intervention, a Shia guerrilla movement and a Shia power, has exacerbated Sunni resentment in the Middle East generally.
He uses the word ‘sociopathic’ to describe people like Francois Hollande but not the killers that ran amok in Paris on Friday 13 November – who are barely mentioned at all. His invective reaches the sort of heights we saw in ISIS’ claim of responsibility for those attacks (Hollande as the ‘imbecile’ of France). One thing can be said of Hollande: he is unlikely to take such offence to want to saw off Pilger’s head and film it.
It won’t come as any surprise to learn that the solutions he proposes are weak because his analysis that precedes them is weak. What are my solutions? I don’t have any. I did not write this post to get us out of the maze but only to identify where some of the dead ends are. All I can say is that I am not without hope. There are two things that we might draw comfort from. The first is the fall in birth rates in the Muslim world and the second is the slow rise of secularism and unbelief in the same. But more on those matters some other time. For now, with a sigh of relief, I take leave of John Pilger.