Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Islamic State : 9/11, 2014

(1) The President’s Address to the Nation

President Obama began his speech last night dismissing the IS as “neither Islamic nor a State”.   His speechwriters were no doubt winking at one another over this evocation (for them that have ears to hear) of the old chestnut about the HRE -- “Neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire” -- or those bumper-stickers from the 'eighties, "The Moral Majority is Neither".    And for public consumption, it may have been the prudent thing to say.   But for those who actually need to understand what makes the ISIL tick, the quip is unhelpful, because false.   It somewhat recalls the chorus immediately after 9/11 2001, to the effect that the kamikazes were ‘cowardly’, which was plainly false on the face of it.   It was comforting to believe,  but tended to lull folks into imagining that striking back at these … ‘poltroons’, would be a cakewalk.    Anyone who took that seriously must have been startled by the tenacity and ferocity of their response.
[A note on public rhetoric:   The principle difference between these two mischaracterizations of our adversaries, reflects the differences in Presidential temperament between Bush the Lesser and Barack Obama:   Bush was being dysphemistic, and Obama -- not all listeners will have caught this aspect -- euphemistic, at pains not to tar the Ummah with the same brush he was obliged to use to Paint It Black with respect to ISIL.]

First, the simpler issue.  They are not (yet) a full-fledged ‘State’, to be sure (not that that in itself is any great accolade; look at North Korea), though they do have one city (Raqqah, on the Euphrates -- a "city-state", if you will) which has been under their jurisdiction for one year, where they have been busily administering the law and insuring that the donkey-carts run on time:  that is more than you can say about a number of entities that, by courtesy, are designated “States” (albeit “failed” ones), such as Somalia or RCA.   You might call it (only History can ultimately judge) a “not-(yet)-successful State”.  But a State, of sorts, it is.
Now, I am not on their side and not simply trying to be “fair” here.   To understand them, and to predict their next moves, we need to suss out their motivations and mechanisms.   And, for the heritage Muslims among them (Western converts are another matter entirely), their status as a “State” -- or as we may say, as a state of things and not merely a movement -- is subjectively essential.   This party or that party, that group or this, may be good bad or indifferent in various ways;  but there can only be one Caliphate, and that utterly changes the eschatological dynamics.

Next, the thornier, religious issue,  where a rational analysis  risks, just as back in 2001, in the face of those who cried “Cowards!”, a vituperative and possibly violent response, though in the present case  from the diametrically opposite quarter.   Nor shall I, chary of incurring any wrathful anathema, speak plainly in this very public place;  but simply urge you to go watch the Mosul khutbah of al-Khalîfah Ibrahîm, and see if this (stellar) predicatory performance  makes any sense, in terms of what you have been led to believe.

For a striking piece of journalism, unparalleled in both execution and access, I cannot too highly recommend the documentary by Vice News (unfortunate branding, that; onomastic advice available free of charge):

The Islamic State

Two things about this video will strike you, even if you don’t understand a word of Arabic, even were the subtitles absent:

 (1)  The penitential sincerity of the prisoners, about to be well-whipp’t, might be doubted as coerced;  but the spontaneity of the young boys, reveling in the Raqqa adventure, is impossible to stage.   Further,  I suspect that the penitence actually is genuine, in a sort of Darkness-at-Noon dynamic.
 (2)  The whole set-up -- all of life, it would appear -- is overwhelmingly masculine, exclusively male.   Even among the children, those in attendance are always boys.  Where have the women and girls all gone to?   The only time we glimpse a woman -- in a street-scene, as we do a ride-along with the Hisbah (the morals police) -- is from behind, and for the briefest instant, just enough to see that she is veiled (she then moves off-camera).   Meanwhile the men, apparently quite relaxedly (though this scene could technically have been staged) chat, the ISIL guy directing the wayward citizen to acquire a different kind of fabric for his wife’s veil, and to admonish her not to lift her abaya as she treads the dusty streets, since “we can see underneath”.

Watch that, and ponder what it is that we are up against.

[For more about the gender aspects of the Caliphate, click here.]

[Historical footnote:  That original adage about the HRE  was itself only half-bright.  For, to understand its inner historical nisus, you have to realize that what it strove to be was indeed both Holy, and Roman, and an Empire.]

Clio takes the long view

(Philo)logical footnote:
The proposition that no true religion advocates the killing of innocents, is open to two logico-linguistic escape-hatches.

(1)  The classic “No True Scotsman” maneuvre.  (Thus, any religion that does advocate this, is no true religion.  -- The chief mufti of KSA has taken the same tack as Obama on this.)
(2)  One must pose the ever-relevant Clintonian Question:  in this case, “It depends upon what the meaning of 'innocent' is."   If the label is refused to those who profess a doctrine other than the received one (as has happened throughout history), the proposition becomes vacuous.
And though the fires of Lichfield have died down for a time, the matter is of more than archival interest:
And with slightly different emphases:

[Further historical footnote]  I casually described the Hisbah as the ISIL “morals police”, having in mind the Saudi المطوعينmuawwiʿīn ; but really, the fellow didn’t act like those sober-sided cane-wielding enforcers.  And indeed, I just now stumbled across a reference to a closer historical precedent, the “Muħtasib, a kind of inspector of morals and markets, who inherited the functions of the Byzantine agoranomos” (Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (1988), p. 7).   This is spot-on;  as the same clip that showed the guy admonishing a husband about the wife’s garb, depicted him quizzing a butcher about the relative prices of beef and lamb.

(2)  Concentric theatres

It has been plausibly observed, that the IS tide will not be turned back  merely by Canute-like injunctions, but will require “boots on the ground”.  -- True:  But whose boots?  Are the Yanks the only ones with boots, and the guts to use them?

A modest proposal:  The boots should be supplied by those actually threatened by the IS;  in order of immediacy and level of threat:

(1) Iraq and Syria
(2) KSA
(3) Lebanon and Jordan
(4) Britain and France
(5) other Western European countries
(6) other Arab Muslim lands
(7) territory not currently Muslim, but once under Muslim rule (as, al-Andalus)

and only thereafter, and finally

(8) the United States

(There is, of course, the minor matter:  Wo ist denn Palestina/Israel einzustufen?  But that exceptional state we shall leave hors concours.)

[Update 14 September 2014]  A concurrent opinion from this morning’s Washington Post:

Some terrorism experts have questioned Obama’s decision to open a multi­year campaign against the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — citing concern that it is being driven more by psychological factors and fear than by evidence that it can significantly harm the United States.
“The American public has come to equate ad­vances in the Middle East by this one group, ISIS, with the danger of another 9/11,” said Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counter­terrorism Center.
Pillar said that the Islamic State is following a playbook that is in many ways the opposite of al-Qaeda’s and that making the group the target of a U.S.-led campaign risks turning its focus toward the United States.
“For them to seize and maintain territory is a major digression from terrorist operations in the West, rather than a facilitation of such operations,” Pillar said.
U.S. strikes can certainly degrade the organization, but “there will be a revenge factor,” he said. “The killing of the two captive journalists was depicted by the group explicitly as retaliation for strikes that had already occurred.”

And this:

(3) The mythical “Moderates”

One thing everyone can agree on -- Republicans, Democrats, hotdog vendors and Yazidi devil-worshippers -- is the wonderful wisdom of arming, training, grooming and celebrating  The Syrian Moderates.  Only … Who might these exactly be?

The most assiduous pursuants of the Mythological Moderates  have chosen louche bedfellows, beginning with the Vulcans  who hitched their little red wagon to the whore and hoaxster Ahmed Chalabi (along with his trusty[not] sidekick “Curveball”), and down to our day with the pitiful relic  John McCain.

The Senator held hostage (though unaware of the fact)

What is never mentioned in these media love-fests, and what the journalists are too lazy to ask, is,  Which groups precisely did you have in mind, sir?

Time was, ISIL itself might have qualified.   Next most potent:  the ANF (al-Nusrah Front -- uh-oh, those guys are al-Qaeda!).   Next, the Ahrar al-Sham, a Qatar-backed group (as was the ISIL earlier) -- which, however, just got (as the saying goes) “decapitated”, when fifty of their top guys, meeting all together in a basement, got whacked.  (Why so many leaders, inadvisedly, in one place at one time?  One report suggested they had gathered to settle the strategic question, Shall we cease opposing, or even join with, the ISIL. Uh-oh...)
In short, the debate, once again, is proceeding on a dismally low intellectual level.  It is as though speaker after speaker mounted the podium to proclaim his undying support to the (unspecified) “Good Guys” (stormy applause).

Additionally, bear in mind that, even if such “Moderates” could be found (hiding under a bed somewhere, or moodily sipping espressos in Paris cafés) -- We already had over a decade to “train” allegedly moderate Iraqis, and allegedly moderate Afghanis, at the end  with very little to show for it.  And that was with a full-court-press.   Why would a smaller-scale training program, in any case probably largely to be farmed-out to the Saudis and Qataris (who have their own agenda [**] ), be any more effective?
(At least it will be an efficient use of resources, since many of the same trainers who earlier formed and funded the ISIL -- now unemployed -- can be recycled as trainers of "The Moderates".)

[Update 13 Sept 2014]  French Syria-expert Frédéric Pichon makes the same point:

Quant à la Syrie, il me semble illusoire de compter sur les rebelles dits modérés, qui travaillent souvent côte à côte avec Al Qaida sur le terrain, pour servir de relais au sol.  … Après trois ans de vaines tentatives, l'Occident n'a pas réussi à identifier sur le terrain des rebelles sûrs qui pourraient servir de relais à une action sur le terrain.

This observer also throws cold water on the puppet-play being waged in Washington, to wash its hands of any Iranian assistance:

Malgré toutes les précautions prises par Washington pour intégrer les pays arabes sunnites, cette coalition incluera de fait l'Iran dont le rôle est déjà déterminant en Irak dans la lutte contre l'Etat Islamique: Qassem Soleimani, le commandant des troupes d'élite iraniennes Al Quds, est en Irak et se bat au côté des forces irakiennes - soutenues et armées par les États-unis. Cela constitue un obstacle politique majeur pour l'après-guerre.

[**] Footnote to the assertion that the Saudis here have their own agenda;  again Pichon:

Les dirigeants saoudiens prennent part à une coalition contre l'Etat Islamique alors qu'un sondage récent révèle que près de 90% de la population du Royaume soutient l'organisation terroriste.

[Update 12 September 2014]  Ah, now here’s an interesting development:

An alliance of rebel groups bashed out a “non-aggression” with IS pact on Friday.  The alliance on the rebel side was made up of four distinct groups, among them the US-backed Syria Revolutionary Front.

Not sure what this "Syria Revolutionary Front" is, exactly;  they appear not to rate a mention in Wikipedia.   Anyhow, don’t count on them rallying to smash the ISIL, or your eggs will be in a fragile basket.

The USG, searching for a Syrian moderate 

As for Turkey, since it has suffered an influx of refugees from the chaotic land on its southern border, and since the ISIL has threatened to target Ankara over the closing of the Ataturk Dam, you would think thay they would be a mainstay of the US-organized action;  but no such luck:

[Update, 17 September 2014]  This morning, NPR happily prattled about working only with “vetted” Syrian oppositionists -- “vetted by the C.I.A.”
Did the C.I.A. also “vet” Chalabi, and Curveball, who (in league with the Vulcans) lured us into Iraq on phoney intel?  Did it vet Humam al-Balawi, of F.O.B. Chapman ill-fame?

[Update, 23 September 2014]

One Syrian rebel group supported in the past by the United States condemned the air strikes on Tuesday. Harakat Hazm, a rebel group that received a shipment of U.S. anti-tank weapons in the spring, called the airstrikes  “an attack on national sovereignty”.

[Update 7 October 2014]  Now this:

Equipping the Free Syrian Army got off to a rocky start. Sources in Turkey told me this summer that one brigade tried selling American-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles to Jabhat al-Nusra for $25,000 this year.

I.e., the al-Nusrah Front -- a/w al-Qaeda.

Having popped that bubble, our commentator then blows one of his own:

For the operation to be a success, Washington should enlist the support of a group it has spurned: the Syrian Kurds.

This, at the very moment that, in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, they are getting their butt crushed, despite American air support!

[Update 17 Oct 2014]  And now this:

From the start, President Obama’s Syria policy has foundered because of a gap between words and deeds. And he’s done it again. Having declared that the aim of U.S. policy is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, Obama now finds himself pressured to escalate military action in Syria. This is a path destined for failure. In fact, the administration should abandon its lofty rhetoric and make clear that it is focused on a strategy against the Islamic State that is actually achievable: containment.
Escalation in Syria cannot meet American objectives and is almost certain to produce chaos and unintended consequences. The central reality is that Washington has no serious local partners on the ground. It is important to understand that the Free Syrian Army doesn’t actually exist. A Congressional Research Service report points out that the name does not refer to any “organized command and control structure with national reach.” The director of national intelligence has testified that the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime is composed of 1,500 separate militias. We call a bunch of these militias — which are anti-Assad and also anti-Islamist (we hope) — the Free Syrian Army.

To coin an epigram:  the "Free Syrian Army" is neither free, nor Syrian, nor an army.

(4)  Political linguistics:  What to call the Caliphate

Our earlier essay, “ISIL vs. ISIS”, offered a thorough examination of the competing (Western) acronyms for what in Arabic is al-Dawlah al-Islâmiyyah fi-l-`Iraq wa-l-Shâm, from the perspective of historical linguistics.   The newer name, IS tout court, resolves the acronymic conundrum, and moreover is inoffensive in itself, since it sounds like simply a short-form of ISIS/ISIL -- though in origin it is not that, but rather a sort of “lengthened” designation in terms of their envisaged AOR -- now not onomastically laid out, but surely encompassing the whole of the Islamic oecumene, and probably much more besides.   But it is easy for a Westerner to remain unconscious of that latter fact, and think of the IS as just one more terrorist group among many.

The matter becomes considerably knottier when we realize that the real story here, and what will motivate coming events, is not a change of name, but a (proclaimed, purported) change of essence:  from a mere jihadi ‘group’ (an entity whose ontological status the IS itself now dismissively minimizes) to that of a caliphate -- or rather, The Caliphate, since unlike a kingdom or an emirate, there can in principle be only one such thing at a time, and its reach wraps the whole of the globe.   A comparable ideal held for Christendom, back before the schisms, when the Church was not merely Catholic (now merely the proper name of a confession, like Presbyterian or Orthodox) but catholic -- ‘universal’ in its original sense.
The geopolitical and even eschatological claims  of such an entity, are enormous, and difficult to come to grips with, for those who have forgotten history.

The caliph Harûn al-Rashîd,
graciously receiving a humble embassy from Charlemagne
So, setting aside the comparatively minor kerfuffle over “ISIL vs. ISIS”, what do we call the, er, … “Caliphate”.   Do we use the word, or would that represent a significant legitimation?

For now, those with enough awareness to realize what the problem is, are taking a leaf from Frankie Lee:

“Eternity?” said Frankie Lee
With a voice as cold as ice
“That’s right,” said Judas Priest, “Eternity
Though you might call it ‘Paradise’”
I don’t call it anything
Said Frankie Lee with a smile
“All right,” said Judas Priest
“I’ll see you after a while.”

(And indeed, they will be seeing us, not that far down the road.
 This very Sunday, maybe.) 

Here you can witness the French wrestling for the mot juste:

Reconnaître la qualité d'État au Califat autoproclamé fin juin, à cheval sur l'Irak et la Syrie, serait lui accorder une existence officielle. Pour le moment, aucune appellation commune n'a donc été retenue.

(Which means: "We don't call it ... anything.")

The French, it turns out, are having qualms, not only with the edgy 'Caliphate' designation, but even with 'The State' (which Obama likewise deprecated in his address).  That very informative article goes on to present an elegant solution which has now been adopted by the French leadership -- call it by its Arabic acronym Dâ`ish  (داعش), which the group itself despises:

En France, c'est Laurent Fabius qui, à l'Assemblée nationale, s'est livré à une mise au point sémantique: s'il utilisait auparavant l'expression «État islamique», le ministre des Affaires étrangères préconise désormais l'appelation «Daech». «Vous avez parlé d'un prétendu “État islamique”: permettez-moi de revenir, un instant seulement, sur cette expression, a-t-il dit, mercredi, au Palais Bourbon. Le groupe terroriste dont il s'agit n'est pas un État. Il voudrait l'être, il ne l'est pas, et c'est lui faire un cadeau que l'appeler «État». De la même façon, je recommande de ne pas utiliser l'expression “État islamique”, car cela occasionne une confusion entre l'islam, l'islamisme, et les musulmans. Il s'agit de ce que les Arabes appellent “Daech”, et que j'appellerai pour ma part “les égorgeurs de Daech”!»

Depuis quelques temps, le président de la République, François Hollande et le ministre de la Défense, Jean-Yves Le Drian, utilisent également la terminologie «Daech».

This, then, would be the dysphemistic name for the Caliphate, the way the jihadis spurn the term Saudi Arabia (with its blasphemous dynastic claims) and refer rather to the Âl Salûl.

An alternate dysphemism has been suggested by the “«Dar al-Ifta», que le Guardian décrit comme une autorité religieuse à l'intérieur comme à l'extérieur de l'Egypte, dépendant du ministère de la justice Égyptien. Dar al-Ifta demande aux occidentaux d'appeler l'État islamique «Séparatistes d'al-Qaida en Irak et en Syrie», soit SQIS.”
That has a certain charm, especially if the members of the SQIS organization are accordingly designated SQISlings.

[Update 15 September 2014]  In his entertainingly satirical French-language commentary,

Fouad Laroui (our favorite Franco-Morocco-Dutcho  radio feuilletoniste) comes up with a hit-parade (pronounced EET-pah-RAHD) of dysphemisms:  for the ISIL,  the “IS-no-good” (pronounced EEZ-no-GOOOD); for Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi (the Caliph Ibrahim, to those who acknowledge him as such), “EEZ-no-GOOOD sa-barbe-à-poux”; for the faux-caliphate, the “califarfelu”, for which the adjective is “califarfelutique”.
Additionally, he makes the same allusion to the HRE epigram that I did;  les beaux esprits se rencontrent.

[Update 17 September 2014]  Amy Davidson’s lucid essay on the ISIL quandary, including its rhetorical/linguistic aspects, heads off this week's New Yorker.

[Update 19 September 2014]  In light of yesterday’s events in Sydney … The order of vulnerability listed above  remains valid;  but the overall level of threat is now further elevated.  Further, the practical distance beween adjacent levels may well be compressed, given the potential for the face-off between civilizations to go global rather quickly.  For an analysis, see here:

[Update November 2015]  Some clear-eyed commentary, not gulled by the "neither Islamic nor a State" meme:

"Saudi Arabia, an ISIS That Has Made It"
Der algerische Publizist Kamel Daoud stellt nach einer Gegenüberstellung des "Islamischen Staats" und des Königreichs Saudi-Arabien nüchtern fest, dass die Ansichten des einflussreichen saudischen Klerus sich nicht grundsätzlich von der Ideologie der Terroristen unterschieden. Beide basierten auf dem Wahhabismus, einem messianischen Radikalismus aus dem 18. Jahrhundert. "One might counter: Isn’t Saudi Arabia itself a possible target of Daesh? Yes, but to focus on that would be to overlook the strength of the ties between the reigning family and the clergy that accounts for its stability — and also, increasingly, for its precariousness. The Saudi royals are caught in a perfect trap: Weakened by succession laws that encourage turnover, they cling to ancestral ties between king and preacher. The Saudi clergy produces Islamism, which both threatens the country and gives legitimacy to the regime. (...) All of which leaves one skeptical of Western democracies’ thunderous declarations regarding the necessity of fighting terrorism. Their war can only be myopic, for it targets the effect rather than the cause. Since ISIS is first and foremost a culture, not a militia, how do you prevent future generations from turning to jihadism when the influence of Fatwa Valley and its clerics and its culture and its immense editorial industry remains intact?"
(New York Times vom 21.11.2015)



  1. There are too moderate Syrians! I know one myself. His name is Ahmed and he’s a dentist in Fairfax County.
    Whether he would be amenable to abandoning his practice and going over to fight the Islamic State in Damascus, is a matter you would have to take up with him.

  2. Much better than NPR or FOX but handicapped by a lack of translations for those of us who have refused to learn French on principal. The questions that need to be asked are "What are the US interests?" and "How can they be accomplished, if they can?" We are paying the price for electing leaders on the basis of ideology rather than leadership -- Obama is a follower, in thrall to popularity, but that's what we elected him for.