The ‘evil’ in Iraq and Syria


Special To The Japan Times

The horrific and spectacular acts of violence committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have shocked the world.Mass executions of innocent people, the beheading of captured journalists, the intentional attempts to inflame sectarian tensions, widespread sexual violence, and many other human rights abuses have quickly identified Islamic State as a brutal and ruthless actor.

The language used by our leaders to describe and respond to the horrors of Islamic State has been unsurprisingly forceful. Tony Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister, has referred to the group as an “apocalyptic death cult” whose aim is to “have heads on stakes.”

U.S. President Barack Obama conveyed a similar message in his recent speech at the United Nations: “There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”

The behavior of Islamic State has been so extreme as “to shock the conscience of mankind,” to use a phrase made famous by political philosopher Michael Walzer. Yet it is precisely because the violence committed by Islamic State has been so shocking and so directly opposed to our most basic standards of morality that our judgment can become clouded.

While many acts committed by Islamic State are certainly evil, and it may be appropriate to refer to the group as a whole as evil, there are also real dangers in seeing Islamic State in such black and white terms. The problem is the situation in Iraq and Syria is decidedly gray.

Identifying Islamic State as an evil monster that must be “destroyed,” as Obama and other world leaders have promised, risks misunderstanding what is a complex political phenomenon.

Without accepting or condoning the behavior of Islamic State, we still can appreciate that it is a group motivated by certain political beliefs and grievances. Dismissing Islamic State as a band of medieval savages means ignoring the important reasons it has had so much success and why it has rallied people to its cause. Some of the most obvious factors include: sectarian misrule in Iraq, a civil war allowed to fester in Syria, and a “war on terror” too often defined by the betrayal of values that were supposedly being protected.

Simply put, the goals of Islamic State have not appeared in a void: outside actors have played significant roles in shaping the fortunes of Iraq, Syria and indeed, much of the Middle East, especially following the fateful events of 11 September 2001.

Yet those who talk of evil almost invariably refer to others, while failing to recognize how they might be related to what they are condemning. Such thinking was displayed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had the temerity to suggest that “we have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this.”

To be able to remove the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and a motley ‘coalition of the willing’ from understanding the rise of Islamic State relies on mental leaps that only Blair and a few “neocons” are capable of making.

Likewise, when asked about the rise of Islamic extremism, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded that “there is no constructive purpose whatsoever served by going backward.

There are lots of questions that people can dig into for history about mistakes that were made.” This perspective may be politically expedient, but it does not help in understanding and responding to the current crisis. The only way Iraq and Syria can move forward is through coming to terms with the past.

In his speech at the U.N. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, stated: “my message today is simple. We are facing an evil against which the whole of the world should unite.”

Yet the situation in Iraq and Syria is not at all simple. It is deeply messy and complicated, one in which the international community’s ability to respond effectively is limited. In this context, perceiving Islamic State as little more than a malevolent, barbaric force may only further reduce the options open to concerned outsiders.

The forceful words of President Obama and other leaders clearly convey the message that against evil, there can be no compromise, only force.

Given that Western violence against Muslims and American intervention in the Middle East have been such powerful factors in motivating Islamic extremism in the first place, one must wonder how effective the military strategy embarked upon by the U.S. and its new “coalition of the willing” can be.

To be clear: Questioning the use of force by the U.S. and its allies in response to the crisis in Iraq and Syria is not meant to suggest that we should sit idly by as innocents continue to be brutally killed and abused.

Nor does recognizing the motivations and grievances shaping the behavior of Islamic State and its fighters entail condoning or accepting their beliefs and actions. Rather, it is a warning that reducing a complex political conflict into a simplistic story of good and evil risks engendering responses that may placate our sense of moral outrage but fail to address the causes of the violence and instability in the region.

When looking at Iraq and Syria it should be apparent that there are simply no good solutions immediately available. The horrific acts of Islamic State should be denounced and the international community must consider how it can limit the suffering of affected people. But acknowledging this messy and brutal reality also means coming to terms with Islamic State as a political actor, which is motivated by grievances and goals.

The longer we dismiss Islamic State as an “apocalyptic death cult” or medieval savages, the longer it will be before we can devise a more effective response to dealing with the terrifying challenge they represent.

Christopher Hobson is an assistant professor of political science at Waseda University, and a visiting research fellow at United Nations University.

  • GBR48

    When someone is committing atrocities on the scale that the IS currently are, the only just, humane and civilised response to their behaviour is simply to stop them, as quickly as is militarily possible. Everything else comes later, because every day more innocent people are being killed by them.

    History is full of groups like this. Regardless of the circumstances that allowed them to blossom, regardless of the gloss that they paint on their brutality, whether Islam, Christianity or Communism, they are always the same sort of people, doing the same sort of thing. In every case, time is of the essence as the body count of innocents just keeps on increasing.

    Sometimes, even the arrogant, militaristic, unethical, untrustworthy, frequently stupid and persistently annoying United States gets handed an unequivocally just war on a plate.

    If you don’t call the inequality, injustice and barbarism of the IS evil, without any quotes, then you might like to consider what you would call evil. I’m sure you’d use the term evil if a single person did this sort of thing to another in your home town.

    • rossdorn

      If my memory serves me well, the US and Obama were finally motivated to attack after the beheading of two Americans? This you call committing “atrocities on the scale that the IS currently are”.

      How would you then call the attacks of the US on Iraq and Afghanistan with its over 2.000.000 death then?
      The one under the US official lie that it has weapons of mass destraction and the other under the lie, that it had something to do with 9/11?

      • GBR48

        I’m not defending previous US actions in the middle east. There isn’t a nation on earth that hasn’t a heap of skeletons in its closet.

        The IS are committing plenty of barbaric acts beyond the public beheading of two innocent Americans, and many of those victims are muslims. But as they are not a nation state, nobody has elected them, and they have killed those two Americans, US action against them is entirely legitimate.

        Don’t let often justifiable prejudice against the US government blind you to the fundamental difference between good people (equality, justice, basic freedoms of speech, thought and belief) and bad people (beheading innocents to goad foreign nations whilst implementing a fascistic regime by force of arms). I stand by my comments.

      • rossdorn

        You have misunderstood me…

        My point is, that all I can see is that liars and murderers fight against one another.
        There is absolutely no reason for me to take sides here.
        Like the rest of the world outside the US, I fail to see that something, just because it is less evil than the second choice, I have to take sides here.

        The US attacked Afghanistan knowing that that country had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, and they attacked Iraq knowing that they there is no proof of WMDs and lying about it.

        Just these wars have cost the lives of more people than any ISIS&Co will ever kill!

        And your description of the US: “equality, justice, basic freedoms of speech, thought and belief” is, excuse me, a little childish and has nothing to do with the real USA.

      • GBR48

        I think you are being blinded by your own prejudice and I doubt anything I say will change that.

        The basic values of civilised life should be supported and those who seek to erode them should be opposed.

        To walk away, because you see no complete innocence and do not wish to get your hands dirty is an abrogation of your responsibility as a member of a civilised society. Every day you benefit from others who have fought for your right to hold your opinions, voice them without punishment and vote in elections. Others deserve those rights too.

        When innocent people are being vicitimised, fence-sitting is a mixture of cowardice, selfishness and folly.

        Whatever the failings of the United States, and they are many, it has a judicial system and is a good few divisions above a religious dictatorship, which is a much more primitive and less evolved form of society, under which you would be far less free to hold and voice the opinions you do. And I’m reasonably sure the IS don’t hold elections

        If, for whatever reason, the Americans are willing to act, ideally through the modern equivalent of ‘noblesse oblige’, then that is a good thing. Isolationism always reminds me of a quote:

        “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
        Because I was not a Socialist.

        Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
        Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

        Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
        Because I was not a Jew.

        Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

        There is nothing childish about supporting the basic tenets of a civilised society and opposing those who abuse them. It is the basis of all judicial activity scaled up to an international level.

  • Waseduh

    Although it should be easy to form another coalition of the willing to fight against ISIS, i doubt this action will escape international scrutiny like how france managed an opposition against the US in the iraqi invasion

    i agree with the prof in the form that isis is just a reaction to western intervention, just like how the taliban managed to swing the rural vote in the 90s because pashtun/afghanis (?) were tired of war and were willing to give up so much freedom for sharia law in exchange for having a militarist anti-western power which promised security

    i question when all of this will end tho, cause any invasion only increases antiwestern sentiment and i think iraq and syria are some of the last two countries in the middle east to confront their problems in government

    undervaluation of the complexity of middle eastern issues is something i fear the westerners will do till the end of time, and this one is no different

  • groundzero

    Two points not included in this commentary was A. from what was ISIS or ISIL born and B. from whom does ISIS receive funding? The article is not bad, however, the funding and the lineage of ISIS needs to be addressed. Without that we’ll never have a complete picture.

  • tiger

    Well, US funds did go into ISIS’ hands. ISIS just didn’t do US’ bidding of overthrowing Assad.