After the Paris terrorist attacks last week, American media and politicians have once again become singularly obsessed with ISIS, how to defeat it, and related issues like the refugee crisis and whether the U.S. should accept Syrian refugees.
The Cornell International Affairs Society’s invitation to Faisal al Mutar, an Iraqi-born secularist, to speak on campus on the topics of “The Future of Iraq and ISIS” thus could not have come at a better time.
Al Mutar, who on his website describe himself a proponent of “Secularism, human rights and the free market of ideas”, spoke at length about the origins of ISIS and then discussed ways to defeat the terrorist organization.
Al Mutar first spoke of his personal background and designated himself one from the “war generation”: young Iraqis who have experienced little else other than war and chaos, from the the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the civil wars of recent. He characterized many of these youths as disillusioned and easily radicalized by groups like ISIS.
Calling ISIS the one of the “most sophisticated” terrorist groups to have ever existed, al Mutar said ISIS was born in the power vacuum that followed the U.S.’s withdrawal of forces from Iraq several years ago and the Iraqi government’s inability to construct an inclusive governing system and civil society. Even though U.S. forces significantly diminished Al Qaeda in the Iraq War, deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions still festered within the country, and they manifested themselves in election results that mirrored the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish demographic composition of the country.
When he turned towards ways to defeat ISIS, al Mutar said most commentators and political analysts do not fully understand the relationship between terrorist groups and their ideology, which in this case of ISIS and other groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban is Islamism, the political expression of Islam. He likened the latter, ideology, to a disease and terrorist groups as symptoms of said disease, and that the correct measures to defeat radical Islamic terrorist groups is to cure the disease.
Al Mutar pointed out that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 shows that the military option will not root out Islamic extremism in the Middle East, and that by foraying into the Middle East military Russia is now committing the same mistakes. Instead, al Mutar suggested that it is mostly up to Arab countries to solve their own problems and defeat ISIS.
It is “not what should America do about ISIS. It’s what should the Arab world do about ISIS?” al Mutar said.
It is “time for Arab countries to wake up” and put an end to sectarianism throughout the Middle East al Mutar said. He pointed out that “it’s easier to start a terrorist group in Iraq than a liberal group” because there are so many sources of funding for the former and because those who endeavor for the latter have no source of funds and are faced with violence.
According to al Mutar, the only constraint on ISIS right now is its lack of technology, meaning a lack of arms and the money to obtain them. He said that limiting the group’s access to weapons and other technology is one key role Western powers could play, but did not say how this could be done other than perhaps airstrikes, presumably, on supply routes and known weapons and ammo depots.
Still, the speaker’s main point was that the Arab world must take responsibility for its actions and put an end to what he described as a culture of victimhood pervasive in the Arab world. Al Mutar said that nearly all Arabs blame Western countries and Israel for their problems without ever considering what their own faults are, and said that those, such as himself, who speaks out against Islamic terrorism become targets of violence and are shouted down as imperialists and Zionists. Not until the Iraq government becomes more “inclusive” and non-sectarian, and Syrian president Bashar Assad is ousted and that country’s government too reformed, will there ever be hope of permanently destroying ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups, al Mutar argued.
Faisal al Mutar offered a refreshing viewpoint in his lecture, one that was critically honest about problems with both the Western and Arab approaches to defeating Islamic terrorist groups: for the former, to bomb and invade and topple regimes; for the latter, to do nothing and blame others.