Contradiction must be confronted. Ignored problems act as a constant reminder of failure, are an annoying high-pitched whine that distracts in the background, and eventually make themselves heard in the most inconvenient time, in the most unfortunate way. ISIS is not the problem. It is only the latest American arch-rival, a clearly identifiable evil-doer whose black attire would resonate well with students of American literature: black represents corruption, it is a color symbolizing impurity, and surely, the author’s choice to don his characters in black represents their status as an antipode of good.
For the skimmer of headlines, the casual listener, ISIS is such an obviously bad actor that sound bites are enough to satiate rationale and explanation, and re-runs of clips are enough to warrant military action. The presentation is simple: ISIS beheads prisoners; they are funded through the sale of stolen oil; and their presence in the region is undesired by the established Middle Eastern states. The presentation is simple: America and countries in the Middle East have a common enemy; nobody endorses ISIS’ acts of barbarity; everyone wants ISIS gone. The presentation is simple: the enemy remains faceless, their shrouds revealing nothing but their eyes; the enemy is presented as Hollywood villains, given names like Jihadi John, alliteration that again must delight Lit teachers; the enemy is presented as a succession, off-shoots of a fragmented organization that recalls familiar themes of power struggles, internal divisions, and glory at all costs. The presentation is simple.
So is the contradiction. ISIS’ brand of medieval justice fits right in with the actions of recognized states. With Sudan, the world became aware of child soldiers; the Japanese’s use of “comfort women,” and the South Korean’s demand for an apology kept sex slaves relevant; drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico regularly commit crimes far worse than anything ISIS has done; North Korea is suspected to have concentration camps. It’s unfortunate for ISIS that it hasn’t succeeded in becoming a state, because if it were, sovereign immunity would allow it to carry on with its beheadings, like Saudi Arabia; sovereign immunity would allow it to carry on its rule based entirely on Islam, like Iran; sovereign immunity would allow it to continue the mistreatment and murder of its own citizens, like Syria. To put it simply, ISIS has not done anything worse than what’s already been done by recognized states, many more than are listed here.
The tension we see in the Middle East, the unraveling situation calls to mind the First World War. Alliances are being tested, fragile relationships hang precariously in the balance, and chaos is one assassination away. Well, further chaos. That’s why retrieving a World War analogy is inappropriate—conditions in this region were stable, deteriorating only after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Rentier states built their wealth on oil, not on a diverse economy that encouraged innovation and trade. Monarchies and royal families were not beholden to the social contract, as European countries were. Unsustainability characterized, and continues to characterize, the region. Built upon a foundation of shifting sand, it’s no wonder we’re seeing so much hostility.
ISIS is not the problem; it is the distraction. But its presence keeps attention glued to the region, and with the increased media coverage, the hypocritical relationships have never been more visible. The presentation of ISIS as the problem will only make its “destruction” the more anticlimactic, as the circumstances that led to the creation of ISIS will lead to the creation of another group. Desperation only understands duplication and there’s no reason to believe that another militant jihadi group will not rise out of what may be the literal ashes of ISIS. Once that occurs, world leaders will have to come face to face with the task they so irresponsibly pushed back, more than half a century ago—demanding accountability and responsible governance from one another. Allying oneself with repressive regimes will require greater explanation. Politically, justifying such a relationship may be impossible. To put it simply, again, the War on Terror will not be won by maintaining these alliances. It will be won by ending them.