So, mankind has the capacity to be unkind? But, we knew that from long ago when “the Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.” Lord Byron was well aware of man’s potential for barbarity in Neo-Assyrian times, circa 3,000 years ago. Even before that time, we know of battles in Sumerian Mesopotamia when Sargon the Great defeated Lugalzagesi at Uruk, captured him, and led him away to the Holy city of Nippur, bound in a neck stock like an animal. Oh, the (psychological) pain.
From 4,500 BP through the Classical Period (of war) in Ancient Greece and Rome, to the Arab-Islamic times of glory, then the Middle Ages with their torture dungeons, followed by the Renaissance and the era of witch hunts (with deserving punishment) in the civilizations of Europe, and on to modern times with its its technology of napalm and white phosphorus — mankind has shown great advances in the art & science of inflicting death and suffering.
Yet, the same creature, Homo sapiens, has shown strong social tendencies: cooperation, friendship, fairness, empathy, kindness, and love. For the great majority of us, we don’t engage in physical violence the great majority of the time, if ever. Several nations have enjoyed peace through two, three, or more generations at a time in their history. Some nations have changed from a war society to one of peace within one or two generations.
Human behavior is not dictated by a gene for violence or a gene for kindness. Behavior and emotion are complex and dependent on personality, culture, situation, and personal past experience. The history of the Near East and the cultures that took root there are equally complex.
Oh, if only it were as simple as “You’re either with us or against us.” Even the conventional wisdom of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t hold true.
ISIS (or IS – Islamic State) seems to have a short history of only three or four years, and didn’t grow out of a vacuum. To understand the phenomenon, we must go back at least a century to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. A good case can be made for starting a millennium ago and the Crusades, but lets start with 1916, 1917, and 1920 when the industrial powers of the world showed enough arrogance and lack of foresight to last till today. At the San Remo Conference of 1920, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan met in pleasant surroundings on the Italian Riviera, drew arbitrary lines on a map as boundaries and called them: Mandate of Palestine, Mandate of Iraq, Mandate of Syria and Lebanon. Then Britain and France graciously offered to prepare these various peoples, some of whose history goes back a thousand years, for independence and self governance. Britain had a long history of monarchy, and France could boast a succession of kings and then Napoleon who declared himself an emperor. Just the right folks to educate the ancient cultures of the Near East in the intricacies of democracy.
Fast forward now to post-WW II times and events in our lifetimes. Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies around the Persian Gulf [Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and the seven emirates of the UAE] have been of special interest to Britain, France, and the US ever since oil was discovered in each of them. Consequently, the governments and royal families of each have been awash in money — plenty for sumptuous living and for their governments to buy the latest weaponry (usually from the US). Bahrain, additionally, rents out some of its harbor space to the US Fifth Fleet.
Most of the people who live in the countries of the Near East are Muslim. England, France, and the US didn’t look much further to the details of the different divisions and sects of Islam. Yet, by knowing those details we could have foreseen much of the violence that has occurred. First, not all inhabitants of the region are Muslim; there are Jews (some observant and others less so), Coptic and Maronite Christians both of which go back to the 8th century, Druse who represent an ethnic-religious minority in Syria and Lebanon, and Kurds whose culture pre-dates the Prophet and Islam and who live in a contiguous part of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. The Muslims can be either Sunni or Shi’a, and each of these basic groups has a number of sects
Sunnis can be Salafis or Wahhabis — representing Islamic State and Saudi Arabia, respectively, but both pretty fundamentalist. All the jihadist groups and militias fighting against al Assad in Syria and al Maliki in Iraq are Sunni. As to Shi’a representation, it claims majorities in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain, and significant minorities in Lebanon and Yemen. Assad in Syria is Alawite, an insular branch of Shi’a Muslims. Hezbolllah in Lebanon is also Shi’a. The Zaydi of Yemen are a branch of the Shi’a tree — the militant Houthis are just one tribe of Zaydi. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is Shi’a, as is Moqtada al Sadr and his militia.
Complexifying the Near East further: Iran which is largely Shi’a, and Saudi Arabia which is predominantly Sunni, vie for leadership roles in the region. The two nations may be mainly Muslim, but Arabia is Arabic and Iran is Persian. Saudi Arabia’s wealthy have provided backing for jihadist groups, particularly Islamic State. Iran has aided the Assad government in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, besides having close ties with Iraq and al Assad in Syria.
Behind it all, the US and Russia have their own favorites for geopolitical reasons. Syria provides a resupply port for The Russian fleet in the Mediterranean; and Russia and Iran have had a long friendship which gives Russia an ally with a seacoast and Iran a friend with technology in advance of flying carpets. The US is interested in oil and gas resources, which are plentiful in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in the nations bordering the Persian Gulf. The US, having a military-based economy as well as a military culture, likes to lavish money on countries with strong leaders (like kings, emirs, and sultans) who assure stability (no demonstrations permitted), which welcome US military bases, and buy fighter-bombers and other “defense” toys from US corporations.
The short answer to the title question “But What About ISIS?” is that mankind is capable of violence and the atrocities of war; but man is equally capable of cooperation and caring. Such behaviors are not a matter of our genome, but rather of our culture. Culture can evolve in one or two generations. In the next Gadfly column, we will have a try at the long answer to the question about ISIS, and about how to change to a culture of peace. Along the way we will make fun of those who deserve it.