The Arab Spring marked a change for the Middle East and North Africa and the many ethnicities found within the region. What started off in hope, led to a spread of ethno-centric conflicts, leaders seeking revenge and, of course, the rise of extremism. In 2011, many analysts feared the backlash against the protests: foreign intervention; potential power vacuums; overthrown dictators seeking revenge or declaring war on their people; and corrupt elites retaking power through coups or alliances with other parties. It’s fair to say that all of this has happened. A major repercussion of the Arab Spring was the rise of Daesh.
The latest book by renowned journalist Patrick Cockburn, Chaos and Caliphate, explores the rise of Daesh from a perspective that goes back beyond 2011. In the form of personal accounts of his extensive reporting in the Middle East, especially Iraq, Cockburn has compiled them from the 1990s onwards, along with other journalistic and analytical accounts of events across the region to demonstrate how it has deteriorated. He emphasises the focus on his extensive experience in Iraq and explores the many factors that have brought the country to its knees, from UN sanctions which he claims have killed more civilians than the wars have, to Saddam’s dictatorship and the escalation of military violence.
The book is divided into five parts. The first covers the build-up to the Afghanistan war; the second and longest part looks at Iraq, and his vast experience of reporting in the country shows through. Not only does he give a detailed chronological account of his experiences, but he also writes in such a way that gives the reader the feeling of what it was like to watch the gradual fall of Iraq, and what it was like to be a journalist covering this on the ground during very dangerous times. The book then looks at the Taliban in Afghanistan from 2009-2012, the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution, including life inside Daesh-held territory.
Generally, the book has a flow to it and Cockburn’s experiences bring a unique angle that humanises the narrative; it is neither overly academic nor politicised. It is full of conversations he’s had, personal accounts from people he’s spoken to, or things he’s seen, rather than simply looking at the region from a detached, theoretical perspective. This is particularly relevant in the second part, which almost felt like reading a diary.
His description of life under Daesh suggests why people have joined the extremist group and how people in Iraq and Syria were “radicalised”. He explains how it managed to grow and why people accepted it. Locals who joined Daesh but then escaped described to Cockburn the way in which they would knock on doors, introduce themselves as a group that wants to get rid of corruption and restore Islamic rule; they would ask residents if they needed anything and generally had a kind approach to lure them in. Many who joined Daesh in the beginning were naïve and had a romanticised perception of what an “Islamic” state would look like under Daesh because of their soft approach in the recruitment phase. He gives us accounts of people signed up to join the group and at what point they realised the realities of Daesh, along with their escape story.
Each chapter follows a chronological order, which made it easy to follow and means that it must be read in sequence, like a novel rather than a reference book in which you can switch from chapter to chapter at random.
On the down side, his coverage of the Arab Spring is less personal, too brief and misses some important detail. This struck me particularly when he writes about Yemen and jumps straight from the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki in 2011, to 2015 when the Saudi-led air strikes began; there were crucial events in-between that he does not mention. Much of the context of the situation is missing, which is a massive let-down after getting used to his detailed writing in the previous chapters and expecting it to continue.
Nevertheless, Chaos and Caliphate is an excellent book which looks at the region from a brilliantly unique angle. For the most part, Cockburn really takes advantage of his personal experience and expresses it in such a gripping way that it is hard to put the book down. As a guide to what has been going on in Iraq, with Daesh and in Afghanistan it is almost perfect, but if you are looking for an academic account that explains the rise of the “caliphate” you may be disappointed.