London, Friday 26th September 2014

I do not doubt that David Cameron will be given the necessary support in parliament today for the UK to join in the hastily formed coalition to attack ISIS in Iraq.  Most Britons, I suspect, share in common a sense of revulsion not only at the barbaric way in which the British aid worker, David Haines, and others were executed, but also at what’s happening to the Yezidi, Shia and Christian communities in those areas of the Middle East already under ISIS control. The need for decisive action to address the growing threat that ISIS poses for the stability and security of the whole Gulf, Middle East and North Africa region is real. The mix of grievance and ideology is a potent driver that can lead thousands of ISIS followers to make the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. But the pernicious form of sectarianism that ISIS seeks to impose through the sword and their use of highly sophisticated weapons, as well as the effective use of social media, cannot be defeated by words of condemnation or military action alone.

The Islamic State movement is a symptom of the failure of Western policies in the region over the past hundred years, which have always put our own economic interests before our values. To secure the continuous flow of relatively cheap oil and lucrative trade deals, we have propped up oligarchies and turned a blind eye to the export of sectarian ideologies packaged in the name of religious piety. It would be wrong to say that what we are witnessing today has nothing to do with religion.  It is the combination of a literalist interpretation of texts that offers certainty and the ability to call on historical role models who used their religious beliefs as a mobilising force to impose their world view on others that appeals to many of their followers. This selective use of texts and role models provides a real alternative to many young Muslims who often feel both frustrated by their own religious leadership and impotent at the inaction of governments, Western and Arab, in the face of the widespread suffering they see in the region. As one young British Muslim aid worker said some months ago, “if the world was doing what it should be doing, I would not have to risk my life taking aid to Syria.” Airstrikes may help to contain ISIS advances on the ground, but I fear the movement will continue to thrive so long as we fail to get tough with those Arab states who fund and export sectarianism, and we continue funding programmes here in the UK that have proved to be totally ineffective in engaging the growing number of disaffected Muslim youth in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The presence of an estimated 3000 young Europeans fighting for ISIS is clear evidence of the failure of our current policies of engagement. An ideology cannot be defeated by bombs – the need to understand the attraction of ISIS is more important.

Oliver McTernan, Author of Violence in God’s Name: The Role of Religion in an Age of Conflict

Forward Thinking

For comments, please contact Forward Thinking on:

tel: +44 (0) 20 7734 2303