Isil’s extreme cruelty and filmic savagery has shocked the world, but it is not very different from what leaders of Iraq and Syria – and to some extent their colonial predecessors – have been doing to local people for decades
By Richard Spencer, Dohuk, northern Iraq
7:00PM BST 04 Oct 2014
The beheading of Alan Henning was not Isil’s first, as we all know full well, nor will it be the last. But by ignoring pleas for mercy from across the Muslim world, the group set any doubt to rest as to the nature of its need for video horror violence.
That violence is in part religious – a public insistence that its own ultra-aggressive interpretation of Islam is more “authentic” than the wishy-washy versions of Muslim politicians, scholars and ordinary people who want to live peacefully and get on with the modern world.
It demands recognition that Islam can be spread by the sword in the 21st century, just as much as it was in the 7th.
The violence is also rooted in the political culture of Iraq and Syria, the countries from which Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has sprung.
The extreme cruelty with which Isil’s “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his predecessors have avenged themselves on Westerners has revealed a culture of violence to an international public. But it is not very different from what these countries’ leaders – and to some extent their colonial predecessors – have been doing to local people for décades.
Most importantly and specifically, the violence reflects a need to show a continuous momentum. Success, however horrific, breeds success; if you depend on apparently psychopathic behaviour to press your advance, you need to recruit more psychopaths, and to show it works.
A United Nations report last week showed the importance of this sense of momentum. The headlines were full of the admirable words of Human Rights reportage: it talked of “gross abuses of human rights that have been perpetrated by Isil and associated armed groups, with an apparent systematic and widespread character”.
What that doesn’t capture is the constant movement and repetition of Isil’s actions, the reiteration of its overwhelming purpose. The greater the violence, the more the idea that this is a zero-sum game, a question put to Sunni Muslims of whether they want to be winners or losers, is rubbed home.
In June, The Sunday Telegraph reported how an Isil pickup truck killing party swept through Turkmen Shia villages in northern Iraq, killing scores of people at random – old men gunned down outside their homes, women shot dead as they fled. Any sign of trying to hide was doubly punished.
That is, by now, the well-recognised modus operandi of the group, showing their followers that they have the strength and ruthlessness to lead.
But as with everything Isil does, there was a twist.
Six weeks after the Telegraph interviewed survivors in a half-built mosque where they had taken refuge in a town nearby, Isil came back.
The jihadists set off a car bomb near the building site, killing 12 of those inside, including Abdulwahid Reza Kahir, the patriarch of one of the families.
An old man in a turban and farmer’s robe, already mourning the random killings of his son, cousins, nephews, including a 15-year-old: there was no precisely definable military or political purpose to his death, other than to show that, for jihadists, anything is possible.
There will be no end to the harrying of the enemy, an idea that is writ through the history of conquest.
It is easy to say that the national psychosis which gave rise to Isil was triggered by the American and British invasion of 2003. There is of course some truth in that: al-Baghdadi’s inspiration is Isil’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who also ordered the filming of decapitations of western hostages, sawing off the head of the American Nicholas Berg himself.
Zarqawi was already a local al-Qaeda leader, but his particular brand of filmic savagery, mostly inflicted on Iraqi Shia, flourished in the lawlessness and increasing sectarianism of the country in the wake of the invasion. It is a platitude that the absence of order allows deranged men to prosper.
The defeat of Saddam Hussein also fed into the widespread Middle Eastern perception that Sunni Islam is under particular threat in the Arab world, is suffering an Arab equivalent of what the Chinese call “a century of humiliation”: colonial rule, the existence of the state of Israel and its repeated defeat of its (Sunni) Palestinian enemies, the economic catastrophes represented by Egypt and Yemen.
For those with ethnic or sectarian inferiority complexes – in this case both – there is a primal appeal in seeing your foe kneel before you and die.
However, the idea that politics is not just occasionally violent, but requires of its essence demonstrative violence, long predates 2003.
The modern Iraqi state is founded upon it. When the royal family, imposed by the British Empire in its dying days, was overthrown by a coup in 1958, the prime minister was not only shot dead with the king.
His corpse was dragged through the streets of Baghdad, publicly hanged and then burned.
The fate of the coup leader, Abdul Karim Qasem, when he was in turn overthrown five years later, is even more reminiscent of Isil’s approach to the media. He was shot on live television, and the state network’s camera rested on his bloodied corpse for the rest of the day, army officers occasionally intruding to insert a knife to prove his death for the viewer.
The lawlessness, in other words, is not just a product of the absence of a state, but written into the state. In Syria next door, ordinary people routinely tell stories of similarly pointless horrors, that served some political purpose while having little apparent rationality, from long before the civil war.
One Christian friend describes watching, as a child, her nine-year-old playmate next door being lined up against a wall and executed, after the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982.
Another describes how a secret school truant smoking session in a Damascus cemetery was broken up by police who wrongly thought the teenagers were drug dealers. One boy disappeared, arriving home without his finger nails a few days later.
These are just stories plucked at random.
In war, everything escalates. The same regime that did these “small”, local crimes then began mutilating corpses of teenagers who opposed it. In 2011 one 13-year-old boy was sent home without his penis. From then on, anything was possible, impunity was written into the code of conduct. Impunity’s apotheosis was the attack by a regime militia on the town of Baniyas, where among the 400 victims, many of them children with their throats cut, was a pregnant woman whose body had been cut out so her foetus could be killed too.
Like Isil, the militia’s leader boasted publicly for the camera of what he was about to do.
These victims were, in the nature of the war, Sunni. The need to see your enemy kneel and die in a pool of blood is common to both extremes.
Can the West do anything to stop this? It should only try with humility. It is all too easy to find pictures on the Internet of Western soldiers – French, Italian, even British – posing for pictures with the heads of their colonial victims in the all-too-recent past.
There is no start point to the cycle of violence.
We do, however, have the experience of putting back together what is psychologically broken, as Syria and Iraq undoubtedly are. Whether that can be done from the air, or even in the halls of the United Nations, is another matter.