The meteoric rise of the Islamic State (IS) has transformed the Middle East’s political landscape and indeed that of the wider Islamic world. For large measure, the policies pursued by the US and its European allies helped create an environment for ruthlessly fanatic groups to take centre stage at a time when violent changes were sweeping through the Arab world before and after the Arab spring. The destruction of authoritarian regimes in countries like Iraq and Libya were naively regarded as harbingers of change that would bring stability and democracy. It was not realised that regimes, howsoever totalitarian in character, are always underpinned by a certain degree of ‘rapport ‘ with the masses that ensures their survival. In the case of both Iraq and Libya, there was another factor that contributed to the continuance of dictatorial regimes — the generous welfare measures that were put in place by the rulers thanks to the oil revenues, which benefited the rank and file citizens.
Another gross miscalculation was the inability of the ‘liberators’ to anticipate the tremendous vacuum that would inevitably follow the bloody regime changes orchestrated by forces thousands of miles away as there were no viable alternatives rooted in the cultural and political norms that could ensure peaceful transitions. In the wake of such convulsive changes, factional fighting broke out on a frightening scale causing mayhem, devastation of infrastructure and most importantly, death and persecution that brought misery and suffering to the people. This provided a perfect setting for groups like the IS to take hold, taking advantage of the collapse of state authority and the accompanying chaos that offered opportunities to large numbers of frustrated, despondent youth, as well as ambitious and misguided members of the clergy .
The initial successes were truly remarkable because people, sick and fed up with the prevailing chaos, saw a light at the end of the tunnel and believed that ‘saviours’ were at hand to deliver peace and justice. That explains why the IS was joined by a large number of personnel from a disintegrating military, along with their weapons, ammunition, tanks, etc. Soon the oil revenues were also to bolster the IS coffers.
The IS, however, converted itself into a terrorist group that had no clear goals, no valid agenda and no guiding principles and enacted its own deadly, nihilistic code. The West was alarmed because the virus could threaten its traditional allies —notably Saudi Arabia, Jordan and eventually even cause problems to the outpost of its civilisation —Israel. Thus alarmed, it quickly organised a rapid response force to combat the evil of terrorism that it had helped create.
The IS may be a passing phenomenon primarily because it is losing support of the people that it claimed to protect. The atrocities its cadres commit and the beheading of journalists have caused anger and created deep suspicions in the minds of the people about its credentials. It is exceedingly difficult for such a movement to gain traction in Pakistan for a variety of reasons. Firstly, when an outfit is challenged in the region of its origin, it is not possible to sell its ideology to distant countries. Secondly, the IS is confronted by a formidable array of forces — equipped with the most lethal weapons and adequate resources. It is not easy for it to fight for its survival or organise the establishment of franchises thousands of miles away. Thirdly, in Pakistan, there are enough homegrown groups, which are seeking help from communities to espouse and promote their programmes. Such entrenched groups would not allow the ceding of space to Middle Eastern organisations. More importantly, there is a fatigue syndrome amongst the populations in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and tribal areas insofar as supporting violent movements are concerned.
For these reasons, the IS will not find any warm response to its overtures of establishing branches in Pakistan. People will not lend support to an organisation located far away and one which has an abominable record of torturing its victims. Some members of outlawed outfits which have broken away from their groups may in desperation announce their affiliation with the IS but they would be few and far between. Pakistan has many domestic challenges to face and overcome. It should stay focused on its internal agenda without bothering much about the IS threat.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2015.