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World powers must use a 'soft' approach to combat ISIS' endless jihad

By Shreekant Sambrani
December 08, 2015 12:58 IST
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ISIS is not a problem which can be resolved through military action either. History tells us why this is so in all conflicts of such a nature, says Shreekant Sambrani.

Islamic State fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province in Syria. Photograph: Stringer/ Reuters

This holiday season finds the world enveloped in a pall of gloom that is far thicker than the smog that engulfs Delhi. It has nothing to do with global warming, being caused by the unspeakable savagery of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Daesh).

The carnage continues unabated in the killing field of West Asia, but it now surfaces among home-bound Russian tourists, young Parisians enjoying a rock concert or coffee at outdoor bistros, office staff at a party in the California town of San Bernardino, or London underground commuters.

ISIS is arguably the most vicious scourge of the modern world.

The bloodthirsty ISIS uses terms such as the ‘caliphate’ to describe itself and calls its acts ‘jihad’ -- but to describe it as waging a holy war in defence of its faith or seeking retribution for the wrongs perpetrated against its co-religionists, as many in India still do, would be a travesty of truth.

Even that genteel pontiff of peace, Pope Francis, was driven to describe the attacks on France as the beginning of World War III.

But ISIS is not a problem which can be resolved through military action either. History tells us why this is so.

Both Christianity and Islam coveted new territories and converted the conquered to their faiths, with one difference. The English and Spanish campaigns in the late Middle Ages aimed at land and plunder.

The accompanying missionaries carried on God's work by bringing true religion to the heathen; but that was never the main thrust of the expeditions. Islam sent warriors with the express purpose of spreading its holy calling.

The post-Muhammad Caliphate took over Byzantine North Africa and Andalusia by the early eighth century.

Mongol hordes rode through much of Central Asia and south-eastern Europe in the thirteenth century, led by grandsons of Genghis Khan. Large armies comprising not Mongol warriors but Turkic tribesmen wrought violence on an unprecedented scale in their wake.

The historian Brian Landers says that ‘The Mongols brought terror to Europe on a scale not seen again until the twentieth century’.

Remnants of this invasion became the Sultanate of Anatolia, the harbinger of the Ottoman Empire. At its height, the empire claimed to be the true Caliphate and controlled all of southern Europe, northern Africa and much of central Asia. It may have displayed culture in its native Turkey (the source of much of the Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk's celebrated melancholia), but in the provinces, it was savage and barbaric.

Its genocide of its Armenian subjects was the forerunner of the later Nazi Holocaust and ethnic cleansing.

The British and the French divided up the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War I.

They essentially drew lines in the sand and set up instant dynasties of no provenance in territories they called Syria, Iraq, Libya, Trans-Jordan and even in Egypt. Some of these were mere agglomerations of largely nomadic populations and came to know prosperity only with discovery of oil. The dynasties fell to warlords, but no modern states emerged.

That situation continues to date which explains why the Arab Spring of 2011 quickly withered away and why regime changes do not take root.

What drives the present-day brigands is a most primitive vengeful tribal memory. True believers are confined to whatever sect the members belong to and all others are apostates, not worthy of life.

That is the gory lineage of ISIS. To its Sunni followers, Shias and followers of amorphous faiths such as the Yazidis are as much worthy of annihilation as are Christians and Hindus.

Unlike the Taliban and al-Qaeda, there is not a shred of territoriality or a semblance of ideology that informs ISIS. That is what makes it so monomaniac and dangerous. The conflict with ISIS is no clash of civilisations, because ISIS has no civilisation at all.

Modern, easy communication has helped ISIS. Horrifyingly persuasive use of social media means that it does not have to depend on infiltrating other societies and supplying its moles.

Unlike other jihadist movements, ISIS does not necessarily have to push any buttons itself. Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik took it upon themselves to slaughter their colleagues, without any firman from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Boots on the ground and bombings can isolate and choke ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but will not be control its hundreds and thousands of converts -- not all born Muslims ­-- in numerous countries.

The world still has no idea how widely spread is its influence.

Last year, educated guesses put the strength of ISIS forces including foreign recruits at under 5,000. That figure now looks laughably low.

Some Muslim theologians and social leaders issue muted reproaches after each such outrage. What the world needs now is a united Muslim leadership, cutting across denominations and nationalities, voicing their denunciation of the abomination that ISIS is in the strongest possible terms and repeating it.

If social media can work for ISIS, it can do so for such a campaign.

Surely, President Barak Obama, the leader of the Western coalition realises this. The coalition must nurtured such a ‘soft’ approach to complement its hard-line of spending billions in bombing and risking casualties as the only way to ‘degrade and destroy’ ISIS.

The writer taught at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up Institute of Rural Management, Anand.

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Shreekant Sambrani
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