ISIS and the West


ISIS is the expression of different social and political phenomena that must be understood separately. One of them is undoubtedly the significant amount of “Western” fighters of which some elements are also at the forefront of their media campaign. By Western I mean people who have lived and were educated in Western countries (mostly Western Europe and the US) either as Muslim minorities or as recent converts (or who knows maybe just random Westerners with searching for a cause).

Most media article and think-tank papers (I haven’t come across any serious academic work on ISIS) have by now narrated the story of their success in Iraq countless time. Their alliance with Sunni tribesmen and former Baath regime establishment is what tipped the balance in their favor. This explains one particular victory but it does not really tell us more on the movement as a whole and on their different political visions and strategies. The easy answer here is that there isn’t one but many visions or strategies. Yet looking at the various media campaigns led by ISIS and the reaction to them coming from Western media outlets is revealing of the extent to which the struggle is framed along “Western” concerns and imaginaries (and subsequently somewhat alien to local Middle Eastern concerns).

I think that a lot of what ISIS represents is a war that a disgruntled minority from the West is waging against their respective host countries. The problem is that the battlefield is not theirs, it is a fantasized one that the West has imagined but could not provide for them. Moreover, these groups cannot wage this war within these liberal countries as they are tightly policed and where these types of political questions cannot be asked. Here is the dangerous dimension of ISIS: it is a movement that fantasizes about a territory (Arab world, Islamic land etc) it does not come from, using ideological toolkit that the West has provided through decades of Orientalist studies. The most scary aspect of ISIS is that it represents everything the West has stigmatized about Islam for decades, nurtured (whether consciously or not) in the suburban areas of European cities among Muslim minorities or even people in search for identities, and internalized by the Muslims themselves.

This also is proof that ISIS knows Western societies very well. It feeds it with what it fears the most: security breaches and pitiless slaughtering of human lives (something that has been already imagined in countless possible ways for decades in Hollywood movies). These members of ISIS grew up feeding on this culture of constrained violence (constrained in films and other cultural productions). Now they have a vast terrain to experiment on.

One drawback of this is that ISIS is one of the many instance that blurs the boundaries between what is Western and “Other” or even “Peripheral” in many ways. It emanates from a Center and tries to imagine a a type of living that was thought of in the center but as the latter thought of the periphery as it was exposed to a myriad of cultural material.


If you thought Beirut was a complicated place in a complicated (made-up) country, in a chopped-up region, then wait until you travel to one of the Balkan territories where different religions, languages, tribal affiliations are stacked in territories formerly part of different age-old empires. Their entry into “modernity” is paved with tragedies: first joining the communist hemisphere, subsequently creating their own movement such as in the case of Yugoslavia, and finally ending up broken down to a myriad of countries eagerly waiting to enter the EU or NATO (which basically means the same there as the motive for joining is mostly security-related).

Yugoslavia’s Tito was surely one of the strangest instance of late nation building. Did Attaturk, with all the cleansing of dominant cultural Ottoman forms that he engaged in, have an easier task at hand in fabricating the Turkish nation? The answer is not so evident. Turks were as much an invention as the Yugoslavs, and the territory that constitutes modern Turkey is as much a random draw on a map by some bold general in the turn of the century as is Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, and so many other parts of the former Ottoman empires.

Why did nation building “succeed” in Turkey when it failed miserably in the Balkans, or at least in former Yugoslavia. Nation-building seems to only work where it is fierce, violent, drastic and uncompromising. the more the cultural changes were drastic and even  I’m sure that many people proposed answers to the question of the failure of Yugoslavia. I mean what’s there to succeed really. But asked through this odd comparison, the question leads us to an interesting problem.

It seems that Tito was “kinder” than Attaturk where the main language, serbo-croat, could be written in several scripts depending on where you lived. In contrast, Attaturk not only imposed Turkish everywhere, a significantly different language from Ottoman but he also changed the script from Arabic to Latin. There is a language committee of some sort that, until now, annually meet and gradually remove from Turkish, words with Arabic origins and replaces them with words that older Turkic tribes may have used. Ironically the Croats have adopted this method to distance themselves from their Serbian compadres.

Another thing that got me thinking is that Yugoslavia was a collection of territories that were at the crossroads of so many different age-old empires: most importantly, the Austria-Hungarian and the Ottoman empire. The worst historical combination is cross empire failure succeeded by cross nation building. At the frontier of traditional empires seem to coalesce a rich mix of communities suffusing religion, languages, sense of history etc. But empires attract the concentration of communities as they are a center of prosperity. How ironic that one type of political system (empire) could bring communities to live side by side, even if for pragmatic reasons, as another (nation-state) tended to create ethnic-cleansing urges or authenticity quests. yet one system (empire) is mostly pre-capitalist where the other (nation-state) is the sine qua non of what economist believe was the take-off of prosperity for mankind.

But here are some random analogies between Zagreb and Beirut. So for example, the Croats were much luckier than the later called Lebanese as Zagreb seemed to be an important city for the Austria-Hungary an empire. The buildings are numerous and magnificent. In contrast, Beirut was a marginalized province of the Ottoman backyard (so much so for all the historians or just ideologues who claim that Beirut is such a historical place). In general, apart from Istanbul, the Ottomans did not really care for building much. They were mostly interested in collecting taxes through local magnates and let them decide on urban planning (sorry for the historical anachronism here but you get what I mean).

In any case, what strikes me the most as soon as I leave Beirut and step into any other country is how poor Lebanon is. And by poor I mean in the many ways you can use this term. Mostly though, in providing the basic necessities of life and in creating a space for people to interact as a community. Zagreb is a magnificent city, with huge sidewalks, parks, markets selling the best agricultural local produce in the middle of downtown. Imagine for one second this happening in our plastic Gulf occupied Beirut downtown, between a parking lot and another, between the Aishti and Prada shop. You do have an agricultural produce market in downtown, Souk El tayeb, but it only works every Saturday and where a cucumber is most likely to sell at 5$ a piece.

Also, just for posterity, if a country is between East and West (what a horrible appellation) it is more likely to be Croatia rather than Lebanon who’s well entrenched in the East if anything. This appellation was used by several Croatians. And when I said that I was from Beirut I got as an answer “Oh how exotic!”. So let’s push the boundaries of East further to the west.

The most memorable moment of my trip was when a Croatian guy drew some parallels between our two “civil” war torn countries. He told me that people who lived in war zones for a long time seem to think that they have a special or unique experience which makes them more special than the rest of humanity. “But as soon as you get out of your country you realize how the world is way ahead of you in every way”, he concluded. On this, I have to say, he is completely right.

Womanhood and the absence of Politics

My article in Al Akhbar on Nadine Labaki’s movie “Where do we go from now?” The arguments made were a bit more developed but it seems that the text was cut for the sake of adequate newspaper presentation.