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The ISIS paradox

It is fair to say that in the last year ISIS – or ISIL, or IS, depending on your ideological standpoint – has successfully captured the imagination of the world. Never before, we have been told, has the established global order witnessed such an existential threat; a “barbaric” horde of “psychopaths” baying for blood and determined to eradicate any vestige of humanity from the four corners of the earth. Such rhetoric, in turn, is coupled with grand gestures of defiance from the Western powers; mass military mobilisation, firebrand speeches and important-sounding meetings of men in crisp suits gathered around lacquered tables.

The latest of these, a summit of representatives from 24 countries involved in the US-led coalition against ISIS held in Paris on Tuesday, is a case in point. The desired effect of such efforts is to lend an air of weighty significance to these defenders of the free world and, in so doing, provide further justification for the creeping securitisation of everyday life in the name of protecting democracy.

Because the problem with the political and media frenzy surrounding the ISIS threat is not so much that no such threat exists – it certainly does, and we’d be foolish to ignore it – but that the level and nature of the threat has been manipulated and distorted so as to serve the aims of those ultimately claiming to fight it. As a colleague recently commented: “ISIS is like the pit bull terrier someone brings to the playground to intimidate their classmates – a dangerous animal that is being controlled by someone else for their own purposes.”

If we abandon the myopic view of history constantly thrust on us by mass media and political elites alike, it soon becomes apparent that ISIS is not only far from unique in the use of terror tactics and strategic violence to capture and control territory, but that its reliance on a peculiar brand of theologically-inspired ideology to further its political ends is also a tried and tested mechanism. A recent article in the Washington Post by Texas University student Reyko Huang argues that “putting the Islamic State in a broader comparative perspective shows that the group is hardly unique among armed non-state organisations.” Drawing comparisons with numerous other armed groups throughout history, including Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Indonesia’s Darul Islam movement, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army and Nepal’s Maoist insurgents, Huang makes the point that, “to unduly emphasise the Islamic State’s distinctiveness is to distort its threat, inadvertently boost its legitimacy, and worst of all, to directly play into its leaders’ hands.”

Which, of course, begs the question as to why such “undue emphasis” has been so widely disseminated and propagated across the world, whether by the mass media, political elites, think tanks or other such powerful figures and institutions. Rather than play into the hands of conspiracy theorist who imagine there to be some sinister grand master plan orchestrating the behaviour of international states and actors (with the puppet strings invariably being pulled by the United States – or Iran, if you’re of an Islamist inclination), it might be more fruitful to consider the underlying logic of identity politics and human psychology that contribute to a sense of purpose and meaning in the world.

There is a well-known paradox among academic theorisations of individual and collective identity – known alternately as the self/other or identity/difference paradox – that seeks to expose the mutually dependent ways in which notions of self and other come to be imagined and enacted in the world. In order to assert an existential category of being – an identity – of any kind, whether that be personal, social, political, religious or otherwise, we must have an understanding of what it means not to belong to this identity, to be other to it. Put differently, it is impossible to have a conception of self without a conception of the other; you cannot be an atheist unless you know what it means to be religious, for example. Thus in order to put forward a claim to be one thing, there must be something else – an other – against which that thing is defined. The paradox here is that no identity is therefore self-reliant; it is constitutively dependent on that which is other, outside of it, in order to even exist in the first place.

ISIS, then, can be understood as the existential “other” to the proposed identity of “liberal Western democracy”. The very existence of ISIS, in all its “brutality” and violence, allows us to assert that we are not them; we are not worshippers of a mediaeval death cult but sophisticated creatures of an enlightened world. Or so we are told.

In this formulation, the constant emphasis on the aggression, ideological blindness and dominating vision of ISIS is not the result of any uniqueness on the part of the group itself, but a strategic mechanism in constructing and presenting a unified vision of the liberal, democratic West in opposition to the ISIS bogeyman. ISIS, in other words, provides the existential threat against which the West is able to define itself – much like Communism did during the Cold War. This is the reason why we are bombarded with sensationalised images and distorted predictions about the threat faced by this group (a threat which, I hasten to add, is very real, but is mostly confined to the region in which it operates), and why the US has launched a bombastic military campaign in a display of firepower and political bravado. Without ISIS (and before it Al-Qaeda), the increasingly draconian measures of the War on Terror would be exposed for what they really are; attempts to control and subdue the populations of the countries in which the global superpowers operate, including their own.

This is the ultimate paradox of ISIS; a well-organised, militarily strong and media savvy organisation of only a few hundred thousand fighters whose very existence not only upholds, but strengthens, the current global power system. Despite all its rhetoric to the contrary, ISIS is an integral part of US global domination – and the rest of the world, it seems, intends to keep it that way.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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