ISIS : The New Taliban

Ahmed Rashid

Where the lack of leadership is most visible is in the Muslim world itself—from politicians, generals, and senior religious leaders in each country. Instead of a vast public movement to condemn ISIS and other such groups, there is silence, helplessness, and hopelessness. Across the region, leaders like Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, Gulf regimes like Saudi Arabia, and many African governments, are autocratic, corrupt, cowardly, and incompetent; and nowhere is civil society strong enough to demand greater action against extremism. Rather than presenting Islam as a tolerant religion capable of building a modern social contract, each state blames outsiders for conspiring against it. The most commonly accused culprits are obviously the Americans, followed closely by Israel, Europe, and neighbors.

Still more dangerously, some Muslim states, including both Iraq and Pakistan, also blame minorities for state failure, and so do not defend them when they are attacked by extremists such as the Taliban or ISIS. The Sunni extremist movements that are murdering civilians today in Africa and Asia are all fighting for a deeply intolerant interpretation of Islam, seeking to impose a ruthless system of justice and punishment that targets women and adherents of other branches of Islam-especially Shias.

The ISS campaign against Shias has surpassed anything carried out by the Taliban or al-Qaeda. In its so-called bid to cleanse all schisms from Islam, ISIS represents the worst kind of schism. If ISIS succeeds in attacking Shia holy sites in the Iraqi cities of Karbela and Najaf as it has promised to do, then the Islamic world will be plunged into a sectarian war of unimaginable dimensions. If such actions are taken one can expect conflict between Sunni and Shia that could last for years to come. Already, there is an ominous rapid growth of Shia militias in Iraq in response to the ISIS advances.

The primary political task of the United States and its allies is to get Iran and Saudi Arabia to end their hostility and come together to deal with the present crisis in the wider Muslim world. Both countries are more responsible than others for creating the current wave of extremism, including in Iraq. Since its 1979 revolution Iran has funded, armed, and trained Shia militias, terrorist groups, and Shia activists in many parts of the Muslim world, particularly Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Lebanon.

Since the 1970s the Saudis have used their extraordinary wealth to arm and fund extremist Sunni movements everywhere, of many different stripes and shades. Any group opposed to Shias and purporting a Sunni sectarian view or ideology considered close to the Saudi sect of Wahhabisim has been deemed sufficiently sympathetic to receive Saudi funding—whether it was in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Africa or across the Middle East. While there is not clear evidence of direct Saudi support for ISIS, Saudi funding of Islamic groups fighting in Syria has helped strengthen the jihadist cause.

Islamic state persecution of Yazidi minority amounts to genocide. UN says Sunni Arab militants in northern Iraq are hunting down and killing large numbers of minority Yazidis, acts which amount to genocide according to a senior United Nations official. Fighters from the self-declared Islamic State overran the city of Sinjar, part of a widening offensive that saw ISIS take control of other Christian and Yzedi towns on the Nineveh plains. According to UN officials and Yazidi elders, the militants have killed hundreds of Yazidis, a secretive faith with pre-Islamic roots. Others have been taken as slaves. Tens of thousands have taken refuge on Sinjar Mountain, their traditional refuge over centuries of persecution, and are appealing for emergency aid. Unlike Christians, who have been told they must either pay a religious tax or convert to Islam to avoid death, the Yazidis are considered by Sunni militants to be infidels who deserve extremination...

Vol. 47, No.9, Sep 7 - 13, 2014