Part two of a three-part series reflecting on the Islamic State group (ISIS). The author is an MCC worker in the region, whose name is withheld for security reasons.
After understanding comes repentance. And there is much of which to repent. The roots of ISIS are tied up with a hundred years and more of Western colonialism. This is important because ISIS draws support from its self-identification as an anti-colonial movement, rolling back the system of nation-states established by Western powers in the Middle East after World War I.
Despite its abiding relevance, this earlier period of colonialism is nothing compared with more recent U.S.-led military intervention in the region. The events of the Iran-Iraq War, the First Gulf War, the sanctions regime, and the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, are too long to be detailed here.
One way of telling the story is this: the U.S. propped up a dictator, then sanctioned his regime, hollowing out the nation, and finally shattered the remains of the state, turning Iraq’s population against both itself and the ensuing U.S. occupation. ISIS was born out of this long story of destruction, incubated in the chaos of the Syrian Civil War, and grew to maturity wreaking havoc on the remains of Iraqi society.
All these events, down to the unfolding present, constitute one of the most sustained and brutal unravelings of a society that the modern world has yet seen. And while the problems of Iraq, and the region, are not entirely the fault of the United States and the West, we, whether ordinary citizens or not, are implicated deeply in this history of destruction.
If we fail to recognize this, we will certainly fail to see that U.S. colonial adventures are not over. Western governments continue raising up militias, raining death from the skies, and pouring weapons into this free-for-all war zone that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Iranian border.
But the grip of the colonialism that helped to create ISIS extends even to our own thinking. There are the obvious, harmful tropes about Islam, violence, and democracy. There are also more subtle assumptions about who our “partners” are in the region—best exemplified by the media portrayals of Kurdish groups.
Despite vast differences among them, Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria have been repeatedly portrayed as the one group that has the capacity to both win against ISIS and pursue democratic norms. Kurds are portrayed as more Western in their attitudes toward religion, democracy, and gender.
Setting aside the (debatable) accuracy and uniformity of these assumptions, this crudely boils down to “the Kurds are the good guys because they are like us.” More disturbingly, it reinforces latent notions of religious, racial, and cultural superiority over Muslim societies and Arabs in particular.
Most importantly, it leaves the media free to ignore particular problems of governance among them, from coups and corruption to autocracy and charges of ethnic cleansing. In some areas, our colonial mindset may thus re-enact a tired, poisonous script—the U.S. will destroy a repressive regime by creating others in its place.
ISIS is dangerous, particularly to Christians in the U.S., because it enables us to hide these sins from ourselves; ISIS makes us think war is simple again.