Sami Moubayed

Author / Historian

In another world, celebrated Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum came to Damascus to preform before her fans back in 1931. Four bearded men stood lurking in the corner of her hotel. They were wearing kufiyyas to cover their face; the oldest was just 21. He hissed at her, “Woman of sin; go cover your face!” She took no notice, and walked straight down the red carpet at the main entrance of the Umayyad Hotel, near the fabled River Barada. Um Kalthoum was a strong-minded woman who was schooled by Egyptian clerics and who took great pride in having memorized the Holy Quran. She did not care what the Salafis were saying. The Syrian boys shook their fists while growling and sneering, then pelted her with silver nitrate, trying to burn and deform her bare face. The Syrian press described them as “hoodlums with bad manners.” The word “terrorism” had not yet crept into the Syrian dictionary. Um Kalthoum escaped unharmed, but part of her dazzling blue gown was destroyed. She appeared on stage, obviously shaken. Her stalkers were the predecessors of Da’esh, the terrifying Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Bilad al-Sham (ISIS). In today’s world, ISIS would have burnt Um Kalthoum alive, as they did with a Jordanian pilot in 2014 and other innocent victims since then. Or they would have purposely deformed her face and let her free, to punish other “women of sin.”

Radicalization is not new; it has always existed in Syrian society, yet beneath layers of civility and democratic rule in the 1940s and 1950s, it was barely noticeable. In the 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood chief Mustapha al-Sibaii tabled a bill in Parliament, calling on the state to enforce an additional shade of black to the thin melaya that women wore in public, and demanded the prohibition of the albums of the Cairo-based Syrian pop singer Farid al-Atrash, who was adored by Syrian teenager girls. Sibaii also tried to close down cabarets and mixed schools, and even lobbied hard to prevent the erection of a statue of General Yusuf al-Azma in downtown Damascus, the minister of war who was killed confronting the invading French Army in 1920. They argued that statues were reminiscent of the pre-Islamic jahiliyara (the era of ignorance) and were pagan habits that ought to be eradicated. Such rhetoric resonates with the Taliban’s notorious actions in March 2001 when they destroyed the ancient statues of Buddha, carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in Hazarajat, central Afghanistan. A few years later, ISIL and its proxies would encourage similar activities in northern Syria. In 2013, for example, Jabhet al-Nusra rebels beheaded a statue of Abbasid-era poet and philosopher Abu Alaa al-Maari in Muarret al-Nouman in northwestern Syria. He was celebrated for his criticism of all religions, Islam included. In February 2015, ISIL released a five-minute video of its warriors smashing ancient statues into tiny fragments at the Mosul Museum. The destroyed statues were thousands of years’ old, dating back to the Assyrian and Akkadian Empires. In the video, another man is shown drilling through the statue of a winged bull, an old Assyrian deity, dating back to the 7th Century. In March 2015, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for the destruction of both the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids in Egypt, claiming that they were un-Islamic. When Jabhet al-Nusra overran Idlib in early 2015 they also beheaded the statue of Ibrahim Hananu, a celebrated anti-French leader of the 1920s. During their first 10-month rule in Palmyra, ISIS five ancient sites were destroyed; the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, the Arch of Triumph, the Valley of Tombs, and the Palmyra Museum. During their second takeover in December 2016 ISIS dynamited parts of the famous amphitheatre, where militants used to film their executions.

When Kemal Ataturk abolished his country’s claim to the caliphate in March 1924, Damascus Muslims launched an initiative chaired by Emir Said El Djezairi, the grandson of Algerian resistance leader Abdel Kader El Djezairi, called the “Syrian Caliphate Association.” The Muslim World ought to headhunt for a suitable caliph, they argued, before an usurper or charlatan emerges, with a distorted understanding of Islam, to claim the vacant post. Once and if he ever did, he would destroy the Muslim world from within, they stressed. Never did any of them imagine that exactly 90-years later, the caliphate would be resurrected in al-Raqqa, a dusty forgotten city along the Euphrates, 1400 km south of Istanbul, at the hands of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS.” The idea of a “Caliph-Led Islamic State” is not new, and it has been at the core of Salafi thought for centuries.

It was the Syrian Brotherhood, however, not ISIS, which in modern times, first introduced the terms into the Syrian dictionary. Terms like “Islamic State” and “Caliphate” were widely discussed by Syria intellectuals in the 1920s, at the time of Ataturk’s controversial decision. Articles debating the subject appeared on the front page of Syrian dailies. The topic slowly disappeared from public discourse and was restricted only to Islamic journals and saloons as the struggle against French colonialism swept Syrian society. It was simply written off by the mainstream public as démodé—something of the past that was more folkloric than real. Flipping through Syrian newspapers from the 1940s to the 1960s, one finds almost no mention of the caliphate, except in the Brotherhood daily al-Manar. In the 1980s, celebrated playwright Mohammad al-Maghut even penned a play that was performed on the stages of Damascus, pocking fun at the caliphate’s indulgences, depicting him as a fat turbaned buffoon chasing a concubine.

When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed the caliphate for himself back in 2014 many predicted that this was a short-term phenomenon that would soon fizzle. They claimed that its ideological roots were shaky, and so was its power base. It did not disappear—far from it, ISIS stormed into strategic Syrian cities like Deir e-Zour, Manbij, Palmyra and Albukamal and overran Iraqi ones like Ramadi and Mosul. Affiliate groups emerged in the desert of Sinai and in Gaza, Lebanon, Libya and Nigeria, all pledging an oath of allegiance to the “caliph.” It took three years of war, spearheaded first by the Americans and then by the Russians, to eject them from most of their vanquished territory. Ramadi was liberated in 2015 and so was Tikrit in April 2016. ISIS was driven out of Palmyra twice, in mid-2016 and more recently, in March 2017. Next, ISIS was dislodged from al-Raqqa, the jewel of the crown in the war on terror, by the US and their Kurdish allies on the ground. Finally, the Syrian army with help from their Russian and other allies succeeded in driving ISIS out of Albukamal in Syria’s eastern desert.

But even though ISIS is by now mostly physically destroyed, and even if its caliph is killed or forced into the underground, delivering pre-recorded speeches from caves like Osama Bin Laden did, will this really eradicate the ideology of ISIS? The Americans promised us that they would eradicate al-Qaeda after 9-11. The result of course, was radicalization with ISIS because nobody dealt with the core ideology of al-Qaeda—they just focused on killing its top commanders. Since the Americans started their attacks on ISIS in 2014, they have managed to eliminate prominent figures like Jihadi John and Abu Omar al-Shishani, but ISIS has not gone away. Had there not been a population ready to embed ISIS, then the Islamic State would not have cemented its rule that swiftly. People were tired and fed up with the old way of doing things and dying for a break with the past. Something in ISIS, beneath the layers of terrorism was seemingly attractive at least to some people in the Middle East. The societies in which the terror group flourished were suffering from long-term plagues like military rule, sectarianism, lack of social mobility, joblessness, unequal distribution of wealth and mediocre education. Those who joined ISIS did so not only because of the money and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s long swords. They did it because their former societies had fallen apart and failed them, leaving them to rot in poverty and ignorance.  Ironically “citizenship” of the Islamic State is mainly composed of rural dwellers, often the children and grandchildren of the very same families that formed the crux of Baath Party rule since 1963. They were the incubator of Baathism one day and now they are incubating ISIS. Wahabism is certainly a reason for that but so is the failure of Baathism itself, which has failed very same societies that it had promised to develop five decades ago.

Sami Moubayed is a former Carnegie scholar and author of “Under the Black Flag” (IB Tauris, 2015)