Over the past year, the idea that Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) was there to stay has unravelled with welcome speed.
In October 2016, as Daesh was about to face certain defeat in Mosul, the major city in Iraq that the insurgents had occupied since June, two years earlier, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the group’s self-styled caliph, released a rousing audio recording of a speech in which he urged his followers to stand their ground and fight to the death.
It is the only fate available to them, he hollered, for those who “turn their back on jihad” will simply trade the pleasures of paradise for the short-lived benefits of this world. Though his orders were not altogether ignored (it took more than seven months to liberate the city), nevertheless an ignominious end awaited the terrorists throughout Iraq.
In Syria, too, the group was, literally, on the run. Last week, after several months of heavy losses and withering air strikes, Daesh fighters withdrew from their last urban stronghold in Hajin, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, to outlying villages, in a desperate — but futile — effort to escape further misery. In short, Daesh was effectively done in, its dissolution coming with a whimper rather than a bang.
But Daesh was not just your garden-variety terrorist outfit that made an appearance, like a thief in the night, and then melted into the shadows. It represented an ideology (venomous though that ideology was), a movement, even a state (to the extent that it held, controlled and governed land), a state that in its heydays ruled territory equivalent in size to that of Britain. It generated revenue in excess of $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) a year.
It commanded tens of thousands of fighters. And it inspired countless supporters from more than 100 countries, East and West, to join its ranks.
Now we need to ask, as Daesh has had its eclipse, why it was able to have its day in the first place, and to equally ask whether it will continue, from the grave, as it were, to inspire deluded souls East and West. The answer is hiding in plain sight.
Point of departure
When you consider how, after the Arabs’ humiliating defeat in the June war of 1967, all the secular ideologies that had then animated the public debate — such as pan-Arabism, Nasserism, Baathism, socialism — proved to be hollow and worthless, you begin to see a vacuum there.
And human nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum. At a time when Arabs needed a mythology of hope to live by — for man does not live by bread alone — what better one was there to turn to than Islam, a source of identity and power, whose holy texts grew out of the very bosom of one’s culture?
People want to be recognised and respected, defined within a shared system of thought that gives passion, meaning and elan to the lives they live — a notion in our part of the world called ‘Assabiyah’ by Ibn Khaldun in Muqaddamah, and in the Euramerican world called Thymos by Plato in The Republic.
Sadly, secular Arab thinkers at the time envisioned the world, but failed to change it, and created meaning but possessed no means. Enter Daesh, bristling with arms and muscular swagger, ostensibly to speak to, about and from these people’s choked psyche.
But some Islamist activists, even before Al Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden and Daesh, were semi-literate oafs — indeed in some instances outright street thugs such as Abu Musab Al Zarqawi — rather than polished, discerning intellectuals in touch with the soul of their history.
Thus, like all such jejune movements, Daesh came burdened with the seeds of its own destruction.
And, yes, Daesh may continue to inspire some alienated people who demand a dissociation from personal identity, who prefer a diminished range for the self, and who want to entrust their imagination, their centre of reality, their emotional and tactical resources to a massed movement.
Consider, in this regard, how a defunct ideology like Nazism, that tyrannised through contempt of man, and a deceptive ideology like Communism, that tyrannised through exulting ideological rigour over human freedom, continue to this day to find adherents.
What is left for us to do at this time, as the end of days roll for Daesh, is to ask: What true lessons have we learnt from our encounter with a brutish movement that subverted our faith, debased our culture and brutalised our society? For, lets face it, we all know what happens to those who cannot learn from their history.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of ‘The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile’.