Under a title of “The Mystery of ISIS” two recent books are currently reviewed in the New York Review of Books which endeavour to understand what ISIS is, what makes it such a vehicle of terror and, more to the . . . point, what drives it on. Both the authors of the books and the reviewer — all five of them highly knowledgeable about the Middle East — more or less accept that they don’t know.
The high reputation of the NYRB depends on the quality of the books it chooses to review and, even more so, on the authoritativeness of the reviewer. In this case we can’t judge this because he or she is anonymous. All we know is that he or she was formerly an official of a NATO country. And that, of course, is the reason why the reviewer has chosen to remain anonymous. We can only infer that NATO is as confused as anyone else despite having a panoply of expert advisers.
NATO could easily defeat ISIS by sending ground troops into Iraq and Syria but, in view of the mess that Western countries have previously made in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be politically impossible for any NATO countries to do so now and lose any more soldiers. Even if just one NATO soldier was killed or, much worse, captured and then burned alive in a cage as one Jordanian pilot was, then there’d be hell to pay.
This is why NATO is currently fighting ISIS troops only by means of bombing them — presumably from a safe height. As soon as ISIS could ever get hold of ground-to-air rocket-propelled missiles and one NATO plane was destroyed, even this bombing operation would be halted. Fortunately for NATO, the only non-NATO countries able to supply these to ISIS, Russia or China, would not do so, both being strong allies, militarily or commercially, with Shiite Iran, ISIS’s greatest enemy.
Whether NATO is succeeding in the fight with ISIS is difficult to say. As soon as one Western official opines that NATO is winning, ISIS seems to be able to pull off some spectacular success or other. If NATO carries on bombing — and if America, mainly, can continue to afford such an expensive operation — then presumably ISIS will lose in due course. But that would still leave the Middle East in a mess, with what is by now a much heightened animosity between Sunnis and Shias still unresolved.
So that still leaves the question of what drives ISIS? Surely it is the simplest explanation — the one that ISIS and other Muslim leaders in the Middle East, are already telling us. They simply don’t like, nor trust, the West — America and Britain especially. But who are “they”? It is not the Sunni royals or the very rich in any of the Middle East oil rich countries. Many of them happily visit or buy properties in the West.
It is not the ordinary folk either. Many of them, with any opportunity at all, are already fleeing to the West in large numbers. Discounting the majority of young men who are obviously economic migrants, we already know from the accumulating evidence of journalistic interviews with families and their children that they’re coming to Europe as much for the career futures of their children as much as fleeing civil war.
Which simply leaves the leaders of the more fundamentalist wings of Islam in all the Muslim countries. They know that if their countries become Westernized then their populations will very likely become secular in due course. They will lose power. The war between NATO and ISIS is a proxy war for all Muslim countries in which governments are ruled, or at least largely manipulated, by religious leaders.
Whether the present war between NATO and ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria is won or lost, there is still the need for whole populations in the Middle East to do what the Confucians did in China over 2,000 years ago and northern Europeans managed to do some 200 or 300 years ago — to displace state religions. Now that mobile phones and personal computers are becoming universal, even in religious countries, NATO and the West ought to be doing what ISIS are doing via Facebook and Twitter in recruiting a proportion of young impressionable people to join them in Syria — get online in a big and effective way.
The West could mount a huge educational programme — not simply propaganda — best of all, no propaganda at all — teaching all the subjects that are presently forbidden in Muslim schools, especially in basic science. For a fraction of the cost that is present spent on armaments and bombing operations, we could have a tremendous effect in persuading people to act against their religious dominators whenever they judge it timely.
Our educational programme should also be honest in telling the Middle East that most of the populations of the Western countries don’t want to welcome large numbers of refugees — and, before too long, are likely to shut the door totally. If ordinary folk in the Middle East are to have any future at all then it has to be in their own countries. And for their countries to have any economic future at all not only must they overthrow their religious oppressors but must also become well educated in science.