United Kingdom

The last hurrah?

Print edition : November 14, 2014

A frame from a video released on October 3 by the Islamic State that purports to show the British aid worker Alan Henning before he was killed by the militant group. Photo: AP

People pay floral tributes to Henning at the base of the Eccles Cross in north west England, on October 5. Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP

A demonstration to denounce the abuse of women by I.S. fighters, on September 13 in Basra, Iraq. The placards in Arabic read, “Where are you, you, who calls for freedom?”, and “Help women who are abused by daesh (I.S.)” Photo: HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP

Questions are being raised about the “shelf life”of the I.S. Those who were initially seduced by its message now believe they have ended up creating a monster.

A STAND-UP British comedian joked that terror groups had become like seasonal fashion—a new group for every season, each claiming to possess “extra fire power” than its rivals.

“Bored with the Taliban and their AK-47s? Try Al Qaeda with its deadly bombs, and suicide bombers. Tired with Al Qaeda too? How about the all-new I.S. flush with armoured tanks, state-of-the-art missiles and its own caliphate to boot?”

He went on to suggest that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now Islamic State (I.S.), too, was a “passing fashion”, adding: “Watch this space for our spring collection!”

Jokes apart, questions about the I.S.’ “shelf life” are being raised even in knowledgeable circles. The popular narrative, of course, remains that it is in for a long haul, and its defiant resistance to the United States-led bombardment is seen as “proof” of its resilience. But a less fashionable view slowly emerging is that the I.S.’ fall may turn out to be as dramatic as has been its rise. Anecdotal evidence suggests that local support has already started to haemorrhage because of its use of Taliban-style cruel methods to impose Sharia in the seized territories. These include summary executions; forcing women into marrying I.S. fighters; or worse, coercing them into becoming sex slaves, calling it their religious obligation to please those engaged in jehad; and wanton destruction of historical sites and shrines it regards as un-Islamic.

Many of those who had initially welcomed the I.S. as a saviour are said to be getting increasingly alienated. But they are too frightened to speak up. It is mainly through force and intimidation that it is said to be hanging on in a lot of places. But for how long?

At another level, the I.S. is up against its own genesis. Unlike Al Qaeda, which defines itself as a global pan-Islamic movement against a foreign “enemy”, namely the West, the I.S. is the product of the sectarian divide within Islam. More specifically, it owes its rise essentially to Iraq’s former Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s treatment of Sunnis. Sunnis welcomed it with open arms to protect them from Shia militias—in the same way that they had once welcomed Al Qaeda only to turn against it when it started terrorising them. They then helped the Americans to get rid of Al Qaeda. The I.S. must remember that history has a way of repeating itself.

Besides, the I.S.’ stated aim of setting up a global caliphate, which got some traction initially because of the speed with which it was able to occupy and hold on to large swathes of Iraqi-Syrian territory, looks increasingly less promising. The fact that it was the first jehadi group to do so gave it a larger-than-life image. In the first flush of its successes amplified by a global media hype and its own slick propaganda, combined with an aggressive recruitment drive, it quickly became the newest magnet for hundreds of brainwashed wannabe jehadis around the world, including India. This created an exaggerated impression about its support base and staying power.

In retrospect, that assessment, which I also tended to share at the time, appeared to have been a little premature. Barely months after its explosive appearance, it continues to hold on to the territories it seized initially but has not made any new conquests in several weeks, and at the time of writing (early October), it appears to be under pressure in several places. The flow of new jehadis is also slowing down as various countries crack down on their nationals travelling to Syria; and many disillusioned by their experience are returning home.

Biggest threat

But the biggest threat that it faces is from within: those who were initially seduced by its message but now believe they have ended up creating a monster. Revulsion over its brutal methods—beheadings, rape and pillage—has already provoked a backlash among Muslims in the West, especially Britain. The murder of Alan Henning, a British taxi driver who had gone to Syria to deliver humanitarian aid to ordinary Muslims caught up in the civil war, has sent shockwaves through Britain’s Muslim community. As The Guardian noted in an editorial, his brutal execution for no reason other than that he was a non-Muslim, even though he was part of a Muslim aid convoy, “may mark a turning point”.

“It was not that there was sympathy for I.S. before, nor that the earlier hostage deaths were not deplored. But his killing was so completely indefensible that it could lead to a kind of Muslim mobilisation in Britain against I.S., and an end to overemphasis by some Muslims on how Western countries set off the chain of troubles which led to its emergence,” it wrote.

As someone who has followed Britain’s Muslim community from close quarters for more than a decade and witnessed the ebb and flow of its Islamist tendencies, I can say that never before has the Muslim reaction to an extremist atrocity been so furious. The rage went beyond liberal circles and mandatory condemnation, and most significantly the outrage was particularly palpable among groups normally seen as closet Islamists or their apologists. They felt deeply ashamed and personally responsible for Henning’s death because it was at the behest of local mosques, Islamic charities and madrasas that he risked his life to go to Syria. A fact they repeatedly made clear to the I.S. as they fervently appealed to it to let him go. Yet it went ahead and murdered him, and then gloated over it.

Imams and other senior Muslim figures, often accused of not speaking up against extremists, lined up to condemn the I.S. And the condemnation this time was unambiguous. No “ifs” and no “buts”. Some broke down in front of TV cameras as they paid tribute to Henning. There have been calls for I.S. not to be described as “Islamic state” because it lends legitimacy to their claims to be acting in the name of Islam.

“There’s nothing Islamic about these individuals; nor is it a state. My question to young people who might be sympathetic to the I.S. is: who’s living closer to the message of the Quran: is it I.S., or is it somebody like Henning?” said Suleman Nagdi of the Federation of Muslim Organisations.

Harun Khan, deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, the country’s largest Muslim group, called for the I.S. to be declared an anti-Islamic organisation.

“They are not Islamic; nobody recognises them. They are hijacking the religion,” he said while, according to Julie Siddiqui, a former head of the Islamic Society of Britain, “everyone is sickened” by the I.S.’ activities.

It is rapidly losing the propaganda war even among sections that were sympathetic to it. Even before Henning’s murder, the backlash had started as many of the Brits who had gone to join it found its methods revolting. They realised they were misled into joining a gang of bloodthirsty murderers in the name of Islam. They have said they wish to return home and have appealed to the government not to prosecute them.

Prime Minister David Cameron has hailed the Muslim community for its stand, saying that “in the midst of this [I.S.] brutality… something has emerged in our country which makes me incredibly proud”.

“And that has been the response of British Muslims who have stood up and stood together and say: ‘These appalling events are not being done in my name.’ And I felt so proud of British Muslims in everything that you have said and everything that you have done.”

This backlash brewing against the I.S., in fact, reflects a deeper revulsion against Islamist extremism generally. Security forces have been reported as saying that there is a new awareness among British Muslims about the threat from extremism.

“Security forces say that a growing number of community leaders and family members have come forward in recent months to raise concerns about suspected recruiters or family members who are being groomed by extremists,” The Times reported.

Coming back to the question as to where the I.S. goes from here, this is what I wrote in The Hindu when it first burst on the scene a few months ago: “We are on an entirely new territory and nobody really knows how it will turn out, but what’s clear is that it marks a new phase in the sectarian battle for supremacy within Islam with profound implications for what remains of moderate Islam…. The wider world should be concerned if the I.S. is able to dig itself in; hold on to the territory under its control; and consolidate its support base. For that will not only whet its appetite for more ‘conquests’ thus further destabilising the region, but it could spark a scramble for similar copycat campaigns by other Islamist groups.”

I stick to that assessment with the proviso that the chances of the I.S. ending up as seasonal fashion look more likely today. If that were to happen, it would have implications for the larger Islamist movement. It could give way to a new and nastier kid on the block or it could signal the last hurrah for a particularly virulent form of jehadism we have witnessed over the past decade.

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