ISIS and counter-revolution: towards a Marxist analysis

Issue: 145

Anne Alexander

Four years after the Arab revolutions of 2011 the hopes that the uprisings kindled seem to have been all but extinguished. Libya, Syria and Iraq present grim variations on the theme of “failed states”.1 Meanwhile, a United States-led military coalition of Western powers and their Arab allies is back in action in northern Iraq and Syria, justifying their intervention with the same “humanitarian” rhetoric that provided cover for the catastrophic occupation of Iraq after 2003. In Egypt the dictatorship has resurrected itself in a more violent and bloody form than even the worst days of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, killing over 1,000 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in a single day on 14 August 2013, jailing over 40,000 political prisoners during the following year and creating a new cult of personality around Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. The iron grip of repression on Bahrain has not eased since the crushing of the uprising there in 2011.

Looming over all this, at least in the vision of the region that emerges from the Western media, is the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now also known simply as the Islamic State (IS) or by its Arabic acronym, Da’ash. This violent, sectarian jihadi group seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014, routing the Iraqi army. It has captivated the Western media with well-publicised atrocities including the beheading of captured British and US citizens and systematic brutality against women, religious minorities and Muslims from other backgrounds to their own. As they have advanced across western and northern Iraq, ISIS fighters have carried out massacres and ethnic cleansing, including mass killings of members of the Yazidi religion, Shia prisoners in Iraqi jails and men from the Albu Nimr tribe, to mention only a handful of examples.2

Why is ISIS so mesmerising? It is tempting to reduce the impact of the group to the internet pornography of its violence and hope that by looking the other way it will exhaust itself and burn out. But this leaves too many questions unanswered. Is it a neo-Wahhabist state modelled on the emirates built two centuries ago by the ancestors of the Saudi ruling family and the Islamist preachers who were their allies? A gang of foreign mercenaries led by an over-ambitious communal warlord? The political and military glue holding together a new alignment of the “Sunni elite” in Iraq? Or a transnational network of alienated jihadists? Does its rise reflect the “Sunni-Shia faultline”? What about the Kurds? What role have the US, the Gulf states and Iran played in its rise?

This article represents a preliminary effort to set an agenda for answering some of these questions. It focuses on three primary tasks: first to sketch out a general theoretical framework for the analysis of ISIS from a Marxist perspective, and then to explore the specific Iraqi context in which ISIS first set down roots in more detail, followed by an analysis of the interaction between the defeat of the Syrian Revolution and the consolidation of Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarian rule in Iraq after 2008. The focus on Iraq reflects the key role played by the current Iraqi leadership of ISIS. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has led the group since 2010, is said to be from Samarra’a, the crucible of the 2006-7 sectarian civil war, although at the time he was apparently in US detention at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, and only released in 2009.3

Finally, the article locates ISIS within the context of the crisis of reformist Islamist movements in the wake of the 2011 revolutions. The general and specific levels of this analysis are deeply connected. The catastrophe that has engulfed Iraq reflects the working out of processes at global and regional levels, but the scale of that catastrophe has in turn intensified those same processes. The weakening of US hegemony as the concrete outcome of military defeat in Iraq lies behind the relative rise of regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and has set in motion a fractal process creating the conditions for the consolidation of new proto-states such as the Kurdish entity in northern Iraq.4 Will ISIS itself fall into this pattern? Its leaders have made a wager with history that they can stabilise not just a new state, but a new kind of state—the first outpost of a transnational caliphate. There are many reasons to question their judgement, just as there are many reasons to oppose the strategy adopted by the US and its allies for “dealing with ISIS” through bombing. Only the revival of forms of social and political struggle that connect the poor and oppressed of the region across differences of religious belief, language or culture can provide a real alternative to both.

Neoliberalism, sectarianism and imperialism

The 40 year long process of the adoption of neoliberalism by ruling classes across the region is the reference point onto which the other phenomena we are discussing here can be mapped. While there is not space here to explore the development of neoliberalism in the Middle East in detail, three key points are of particular importance to the analysis proposed here.5 First, neoliberalism did not entail the withdrawal of the state from the economy. On the contrary, as Sameh Naguib notes, the adoption of neoliberal policies created “an even more intimate relation between the state and capital”.6 Profitable state-run industries and services were earmarked for privatisation while others faced neglect and eventual closure, but this process created new amalgams of the state and private capital, where “privatisation” often meant the sale of public assets to the sons and daughters of officials from the ruling party.7

There were also real changes in welfare and public services as neoliberal policies transferred a greater proportion of their costs onto the poor, while facilitating their transformation into machines for making profits. Those who could not afford to pay big business for healthcare and education turned to other “private” providers: religious institutions and charities. Ironically, the political beneficiaries of this process were often the Islamist opposition movements that combined providing charitable services for the poor and lower-middle class with calls for greater personal piety and cultural resistance to the “secular state”.8

While it is tempting to see this long sweep of social change as creating a smooth transition to the new economic and political order, in reality the process intensified the uneven and combined development of the region. Unevenness increased both within economies at national level,9 and also between them. It also accentuated the frictions caused by the combination of features from different phases of capitalist development.10 For lack of space, we will simply highlight two specific axes of unevenness that have proved particularly important.

The first is the friction caused by uneven development within national economies, with some areas and sectors being more rapidly integrated into global markets and flows of investment than others. The rapid progress of the Syrian Revolution of 2011, through the most impoverished provinces and the city suburbs that had become home to the tens of thousands who abandoned Syria’s agricultural heartlands in the face of a devastating drought between 2008 and 2010, is one example.11 The three poorest regions of the country, Deir Ezzor, Hassaka and Raqqa,12 are also those that have been the cradle of ISIS’s consolidation in Syria.

The second, and equally important, example is the growing weight of Gulf capital on both a Middle Eastern and a global scale. As Adam Hanieh demonstrates, conglomerates spanning circuits of productive, commodity and financial capital accumulation have begun to play a crucial role in the wider region: investing in production and services, and using loans, diplomacy and threats to drive through neoliberal policies bent on opening new markets.13 This unevenness made the Gulf states into more powerful regional actors than they had been in the past, capable of shaping the outcomes of revolution in Egypt and Syria by backing military-led counter-revolution in one case, and working for the hegemony of Islamist armed factions over the military struggle in the other.

Neoliberalism did not entirely sweep away the political and social relations of the previous phase of capitalism, but rather combined with them in new and unstable amalgams. Eleven years after the US invasion the World Bank lamented in its 2012 “Iraqi Investment Climate Assessment” that Iraq’s economy was still dominated by the state: “the private sector today has limited role or presence, and incentives for its expansion are absent”.14 This does not mean that the application of neoliberal principles to the economy had no effect: they profoundly reshaped Iraqi politics and society. This process first hollowed out the state behind its Ba’athist facade under sanctions during the 1990s, then partially smashed it and reconstituted a new authoritarian system run by sectarian parties and militias after 2003.

The second anchor for our analysis is Karl Marx’s approach to understanding where ideas come from. Whether we are examining religious belief in general, particular sectarian ideologies or the political perspectives of specific Islamist movements, a Marxist analysis has to depart from the widely-held premise that these ideas have a life of their own, separate from material reality. In the case of the Middle East, many mainstream analysts go further, claiming that the religious beliefs of the people living there determine material reality, so that the region can only be understood through the prism of its “ancient hatreds”.15 It is no accident that the ideas expressed by ISIS’s fighters are frequently described using metaphors drawn from biology or epidemiology. Alastair Crooke, in a widely-read article, presents ISIS as a “mutation” of the “Wahhabist gene”, in other words of the transplantation of the ideology developed by Muhammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, the 18th century Arabian preacher, and his followers in the course of his movement’s long alliance with the Al Saud dynasty.16

The problem with such approaches is not that they are always wrong in substance: Crooke is certainly correct that the “Wahhabism” disseminated by Saudi official policy has been taken up by groups that risk becoming a threat to the Saudi regime itself. But by making ideas, rather than human action, the motive force of history, they obscure the ways that society changes. As Chris Harman explains, “Humans cannot act independently of their circumstances. But this does not mean they can be reduced to them. They are continually involved in ‘negating’ the material objective world around them, in reacting upon it in such a way as to transform both it and themselves”.17

The actual history of Iraq tells a very different story from the simplistic picture presented in the media. Religious, linguistic, ethnic and tribal communities are not, and have never been, a simple mosaic of discrete pieces. In Iraq, for example, marriage between Sunni and Shia Muslims was relatively common during the mid-20th century. Sunni and Shia Islam cross the linguistic divisions between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, while there are tribal confederations with Sunni and Shia members.18 Moreover, all of these “communities” are divided by social class—the landowners, businesspeople and senior state officials who claim to represent the whole, of course, have very different interests to the majority.

However, although these horizontal social cleavages, particularly those based on social relations formed in the course of production, give a “truer” picture of Iraqi society than the vertical divisions based on religious belief or tribal affiliation, 20 years of war, sanctions and occupation have created a new material basis for sectarian consciousness. Clerics who can increase the appeal of their sermons by giving families access to the mosque’s electricity generator, or tribal leaders whose connections with government officials provide access to jobs and patronage for their supporters, create social relations that help to knit together different social classes despite their contradictory “real” relationships. The strength or weakness of these social relations cannot be measured in isolation from the strength or weakness of other social relations. In a society shattered by civil war, where millions have fled their homes, the offer of a job fighting for a tribal leader or a sectarian militia may make the difference between life or death for individuals and their families. In contexts such as these there will be few opportunities for workers to test out class solidarity in practice.

Likewise, the starting point for understanding Islamist movements cannot simply be the ideas that they articulate, but rather their social content: in other words, the relationship between their members and leaders and class divisions in society. Mass Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, usually contain enormous social contradictions within their structures, with the class interests of the leadership often at variance with the aspirations of members from the working class, urban poor or lower middle class.19 ISIS is, and always has been, of a very different character as a movement. It is an elitist, military organisation which, as we will explore in more detail below, is rooted in the competition between armed sectarian factions in US-occupied Iraq.

This does not mean that the organisation is incapable of benefiting from the contradictory aspirations of people from different social classes for political or social change, and the defeat or marginalisation of other forces that appeared to advance these hopes. For example, ISIS has thrived by appearing to offer Sunnis in Iraq protection from their systematic oppression at the hands of the sectarian Shia Islamist parties at the helm of the Iraqi state. However, the entirely sectarian agenda of ISIS, combined with its military structure and rejection of any programme for political or social change that ordinary people could make their own, means that revolutionary socialists cannot take the same perspective towards the organisation that we do in relation to Hamas, Hizbollah or other armed Islamist forces.20 Unlike these organisations, which have at times provided a deflected route towards the expression of real social and political grievances for ordinary people, ISIS’s politics represent a dead end.

The third anchor for our framework is a Marxist analysis of imperialism in the region, and specifically of the catastrophic impact of US intervention in Iraq. As Alex Callinicos has discussed at length in this journal and elsewhere, the failure of this “vainglorious project” has had profound consequences at both global and regional levels.21 As noted above, US imperial overstretch in Iraq, combined with the workings of neoliberalism at a regional level, created a fractal process of centres with fraying peripheries across several dimensions. The relative loosening of US hegemony gave regional powers more room to manoeuvre against each other, just as it created spaces in which new and unpredictable actors such as ISIS could arise. Yet further imperialist interventions to “correct” the problems spawned by previous interventions—whether by bombing raids or deploying “boots on the ground”—will either bolster ISIS’s claims to be defending the people under its rule or set the scene for the rise of successor movements. Although there is no space to explore properly the relationship between imperialism in the Middle East and the rise of racism and Islamophobia in Europe and the US, these processes are intimately connected, feeding in turn into the alienation afflicting some of ISIS’s foreign recruits.

The final pivotal point on which our analysis rests is an understanding of the role of human agency in determining the outcome of impersonal and long-term “processes”. In one sense, this is an issue about connecting together different scales of analysis. One of the great strengths of revolutionary Marxism is its ability to connect together individual and collective action with abstractions that help us understand better how society works. Marxist analysis offers a unique perspective because it grasps the kind of agency that provides a real alternative to ISIS: the active intervention of the mass of ordinary people across the region in the struggle for the demands of bread, freedom and social justice, which became the watchwords of the 2011 revolutions.

Iraq after 2003: “consociationalism” and neoliberalism embed sectarianism in society

The US occupation of Iraq in 2003 set in motion processes that transformed the Iraqi state and society, leading directly (although not inevitably) to the resurgence of ISIS in 2014. US officials strove to create a “consociational democracy”, where power would be shared between representatives of different religious and national communities according to a quota system. The consociational approach to governing Iraq reacted with the extreme neoliberalism espoused by figures such as Paul Bremer, appointed to run the Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the invasion, to produce a toxic combination in a society shattered by sanctions, war and occupation. US officials expected confidently that they would be able to keep the mechanisms set in motion in 2003 working in their favour, nudging the balance of sectarian power in the “right” direction from time to time as necessary. In reality, the system they created quickly ran out of their control, and could only be temporarily corrected by an enormous infusion of money and troops during the “surge” of 2007-8.

It is important to put the developments after 2003 in the correct context. Iraqi society before 2003 was certainly not free of sectarianism. The Ba’athist regime had long used sectarianism and encouraged ethnic conflicts in its efforts to maintain power. For example, its propaganda portrayed all Shia opposition groups as a “fifth column” working for neighbouring Iran, and it settled Arab citizens in largely-Kurdish areas of northern Iraq in order to assert control over the oil-rich northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. However, the impact of sectarianism on society was blunted by a number of factors, including the mixing of Iraqis from different religious backgrounds in state employment. The capital city, Baghdad, retained a large Kurdish population, even at the height of Saddam Hussein’s brutal war against the Kurdish insurgency in the north,22 and, despite the efforts of some Shia Islamist forces to persuade them otherwise, the majority of Iraqi Shia conscript soldiers did not break ranks and side with their Iranian co-religionists during the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, the legacy of the great political struggles of the 1940s to the 1960s, dominated by competition between secular currents such as the Communist Party and the Ba’ath Party itself in the context of high levels of strikes and social protests, was still influential among an older generation of activists.23

However, the defeat of Iraqi forces in 1991, and the impoverishment of Iraqi society as a result of the sanctions regime that was imposed immediately afterwards created much more fertile ground for sectarianism to take root in society. Reeling from the impact of the uprising that began in the South, the Ba’athist regime desperately sought allies who could exercise military and political power on behalf of the state. Saddam Hussein created an Office of Tribal Affairs in order to manage relationships with tribal leaders who had been empowered by the weakening of central government. He also presented himself as a great Sunni leader, mobilising faith campaigns and courting the Sunni religious establishment. At the same time the weakening of state institutions under the crushing pressure of international sanctions created spaces into which religious institutions expanded their activities, providing welfare, education and health services to an increasingly desperate population.24

From the very beginning, even before they had set foot in Baghdad, US officials decided to deal with Iraq as a country composed of competing, distinct communities. This view of Iraqi society seems to have been based on the rough estimates of the percentages of Arab Shia, Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs reflected in a map of Iraq that circulated widely among US officials in 2003.25 Sectarian “balance”—and therefore its corollary, sectarian competition—was enshrined in America’s Iraq from the start.26

The practice of muhasasa, or the use of a sectarian quota system for appointments, was implemented by political parties whose survival was bound up with entrenching sectarianism. As Toby Dodge explains, it is a system “that has, in effect, privatised the Iraqi state. The system has allowed the Iraqi political elite to strip state assets for personal gain and to fund the parties they represent”.27

A key reason why this process quickly spiralled out of control was its interaction with the neoliberal assault on Iraq’s remaining infrastructure. Paul Bremer rushed through laws forcing open the public sector, the welfare system and health services to privatisation.28 However, although US corporations initially made a quick buck from the contracting process, it was not international investors who were the main beneficiaries of the partial dismemberment of the Iraqi state, but rather local strongmen, leaders of militias and sectarian parties who were able to turn many of its institutions into highly profitable protection rackets.29

The initial political winners of this process were the Shia Islamist parties closest to the US, such as the Da’wa Party and its rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). They led the efforts to mobilise Shia support for the occupation on a sectarian basis, in an attempt to undercut the success of other Shia Islamist forces such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which opposed the US. Kurdish allies of the US also benefited, with the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani, becoming Iraqi president in 2005. The PUK and the other major Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, meanwhile consolidated their grip on the Kurdish-majority regions of northern Iraq, which had attained de facto independence during the 1990s under the protection of the US no-fly zone.30

The rising calls for Shia communal solidarity from the Shia Islamist parties allied with the US reflected the danger that a combined Sunni-Shia insurgency represented to the new political establishment. Even if their attacks were not coordinated with each other, the mere fact that the occupation was under combined attack from fighters in “Sunni” Fallujah and “Shia” Sadr City and Najaf threatened to disrupt the mechanisms by which the US and their allies were attempting to govern Iraq. Opinion polls in March and May 2004 commissioned by major US newspapers and even by the Coalition Provisional Authority itself showed that 80 percent of Iraqis in both Sunni and Shia majority areas thought of US troops as occupiers, and 81 percent wanted them to leave, despite the fact that Sunni areas had borne the brunt of repression.31

It was a military as much as political problem, demonstrated by the fact that in 2004 Shia troops refused orders to march on Fallujah with the US to quell resistance there.32 Yet the US and its allies were successful in derailing the beginnings of a cross-sectarian alignment between insurgents in majority Sunni and Shia areas. They isolated and stormed key areas in western Iraq that were centres of military resistance, in particular Fallujah. However, this was complemented by a strategy to bolster the idea of a common “Shia” interest in securing power in the emerging structures of the post-Ba’athist state. The intervention of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key figure in the Shia clerical establishment, was critically important in this respect. Al-Sistani spoke strongly in favour of participation in the 2005 parliamentary elections, making it extremely difficult for anti-US Shia leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr to support calls from Sunni insurgents for a boycott.33

The rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the sahwa, and the surge

Over the course of 2004-5 the potential for building political and military alliances against the US that cut across sectarian divisions ebbed away. One major factor was the consolidation of a sectarian consensus among the major Shia Islamist parties, who agreed broadly on a goal of seizing control of the apparatus of the state (and the inability of anti-US Shia forces such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army to challenge this consensus). Another important factor was the US strategy of smashing military resistance by full-scale assaults on Fallujah and other towns in Anbar province. In combination, these events created the space in which Sunni sectarian jihadist groups, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), were able to grow. AQI was founded by Jordanian Islamist Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004, following a declaration that his small group of Islamist fighters had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organisation. AQI’s appeal in western Iraq was largely bound up with the fact that the group’s fighters won a reputation for effectiveness against US troops, yet their leaders focused on igniting a sectarian civil war by carrying out mass bombings of Shia shrines and sites of pilgrimage.34 Meanwhile, the armed wings of various Shia factions, including ISCI’s Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, were working as anti-Sunni death squads within the police and security forces, killing and torturing hundreds of Iraqis every month.35 The bombing of the Shia al-Askari mosque in Samarra’a in February 2006 triggered a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, transforming previously mixed neighbourhoods into segregated enclaves and forcing those on the “wrong” side of the sectarian divide to flee.36

The temporary alliance between jihadist groups and other anti-US fighters in western Iraq presented a huge military and political problem for the US. Success in set-piece battles such as the assaults on Fallujah produced conditions for a perpetual insurgency. In 2006 they appeared to have made a breakthrough by breaking the tactical alliance between the jihadi forces and other armed groups from Anbar Province. It is worth outlining the “Awakening” (sahwa in Arabic) in some detail. It began as a localised military partnership between US forces and a number of Anbari tribal leaders. US forces provided training, payment and arms to Anbari volunteers who joined them in the fight against AQI.37 The alliance was initially promoted by second or third rank tribal leaders, whose ascendancy through the Sahwa eclipsed more prominent tribal leaders who had fled into exile because of the high levels of violence.38 Some sources hint that AQI posed a social challenge to the authority of these tribal leaders and attracted some of those who were marginalised within the tribal hierarchy.39

The alignment between AQI and other Anbari insurgent groups was in large part based on their assessment that US forces represented the primary threat to local people’s security. The city of Fallujah’s experience with the US occupation and the Iraqi government was extremely bitter, for example, the city was besieged and then stormed by US troops twice in 2004:

The 2004 offensive destroyed 70 percent of the city’s infrastructure including 36,000 buildings, 8,400 shops, three pipelines for water purification and two electricity stations. When civilians returned, US forces tracked them with fingerprints and iris scanners. Each had to show a US-issued personal biometric ID card when entering or exiting the city.40

AQI quickly squandered their credibility, however, by launching brutal campaigns of murder and intimidation to enforce their authority over their allies and the areas under their control. Their sectarian tactics also caused repulsion among many Anbaris, who certainly felt alienated and marginalised by the growing sectarianism of the Iraqi state, but were not engaged in a tit for tat sectarian civil war.41 Narratives from the US Army’s official oral history of the Awakening (which is over 300 pages long) make clear the intensive work US officers put in to “win hearts and minds”. An interview with “Miriam”, the wife of an Iraqi police officer, describes the work of “Captain Stephanie”, the US officer who worked with her and other women in a local NGO:

Stephanie distributes products. We call her “Santa” or “Mamma Claus.” Stephanie helped people love security. She helped women get jobs. She put rules on who should be hired: target unemployed college graduates to maximise employment… At the time, it was raging with insurgency. There were no rations available, except through Stephanie. She brought in a truckload of food and supplies—1,500 shares.42

The “Sons of Iraq” programme beyond Anbar was an attempt to transfer the Awakening to other Sunni majority areas. US forces recruited 100,000 largely Sunni volunteers across Iraq, paying them around $300 per month. As the security situation improved, US commanders promised that SoI volunteers would eventually be offered jobs in the regular Iraqi security forces or in the civil service. In 2009 the programme was officially handed over to the Iraqi government, despite the fact that Nouri al-Maliki’s regime “viewed thousands of armed Sunnis as a strategic threat”, and thus disbanded the SoI units, in some cases accompanied by extra-judicial executions or exile.43

The Awakening and the Sons of Iraq programme were part of a wider US strategy of a “surge” in troops that swelled the number of US soldiers in Iraq to 166,000 by 2007. It was these “boots on the ground” and the massive financial commitment accompanying them that made the Awakening a temporary success. As David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq during this period, tacitly admits in a lengthy and hubristic article published in October 2013, a key change in tactics by US forces after 2007 was essentially the reconquest of Baghdad neighbourhood by neighbourhood, establishing local, small-scale bases for US troops who had previously been concentrated in large bases away from the local population.44

Yet a closer look underlines why that success was ultimately shallow and short-lived. The Awakening was not in itself a break with the strategy of sectarian divide and rule. It simply represented US efforts to “redress” the sectarian balance in favour of Sunni Arab social and political elites in western Iraq, after fighters from the region had demonstrated that they could not be cowed by other means. The lubricating factors were money, jobs and weapons, while AQI’s brutal methods aided the US by alienating their potential supporters. The Awakening did nothing to challenge the sectarianisation of the state: on the contrary it contributed to its further fragmentation by creating another body of armed men who were almost exclusively from one specific religious group.

Al-Maliki’s ascendancy and the failure of the sectarian state

In many ways, the years following the “victory” of the US surge in 2008 repeated a dismally familiar pattern from the 2003-6 period. Sunni political elites from western Iraq attempted to negotiate a place for themselves within the sectarianised state apparatus. Their hopes had been raised by cooperation with the US and they approached their Shia Islamist rivals such as Nouri al-Maliki of the Da’wa Party with renewed confidence. The parliamentary elections of 2010 at first appeared to augur well for a “rebalancing” of political and sectarian factions within the state: the Al-Iraqiyya electoral bloc won the most seats, with Maliki’s State of Law bloc coming second. Al-Iraqiyya was a cross-sectarian alliance of parties led by former Ba’athist Iyad Allawi, which included a number of groups with strong roots in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq.

Maliki’s reaction to this unexpected defeat was to undo the results and impose a State of Law government under his leadership. His supporters in the judiciary issued rulings that undermined Al-Iraqiyya’s claim to form the next government. In December 2011 he had bodyguards working for the Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, arrested and, based on their confessions, ordered Hashemi’s trial on charges of organising terrorism and sectarian death squads, leading to a death sentence in absentia for the most senior Sunni politician in the Iraqi state. Other major Sunni politicians, such as finance minister Rafi’a al-Issawi, were targeted. The arrest of al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism charges in December 2012 triggered a widespread protest movement across western Iraq.

Meanwhile, in the background, Maliki pursued a ruthless campaign to assert his personal control over Iraq’s sprawling armed forces. Not content with using a pattern of sectarian appointment-making to ensure that Shia commanders predominated in the upper levels of the military, Maliki created an entirely new command structure through regional Operations Commands which answered to him personally through the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC). Finally, he bolstered Shia sectarian militias and death squads, such as the Asa’ib Ahl-al-Haq, a splinter from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and which is thought to operate at least partially under Maliki’s command. Maliki’s control over the Iraqi Army and his use of sectarian paramilitary groups intermeshed through the OCINC, which purged army officers who had taken action against the Shia militias.45

It is important to understand the specific characteristics of Maliki’s regime, as they help to explain the swiftness of the Iraqi army’s collapse at Mosul. He systematically used sectarian rhetoric to bolster his own power and undermine his rivals, and organised and enabled sectarian violence and discrimination. But Maliki’s power was also highly personalised, relying on networks of cronies in the army and the institutions of the state, including the Iraqi army commanders who apparently fled Mosul even before their troops.46 Thus behind the imposing authoritarian facade, which brooked no criticism, rivalry or dissent, it was also fragile, incompetent and increasingly dysfunctional.

The initial response in Sunni areas of Iraq to Maliki’s offensive was not, in fact, to relaunch military action against the central government forces. Quite the contrary. Maliki’s repression and attacks on Sunni politicians triggered a widespread popular protest movement that experimented with tactics reminiscent of the street protests and occupations of the Arab revolutions of 2011. The protest movement seems to have mobilised wide social layers in the cities of western Iraq such as Ramadi and Fallujah, catching established politicians by surprise. In its early stages tens of thousands took part; their slogans demanded an end to sectarian discrimination against Sunnis and challenged Maliki’s use of repression under the banner of “fighting terrorism”. They found at least a rhetorical echo from other Iraqi political figures, including Moqtada al-Sadr, who issued a series of supportive statements, but declined to offer any more than verbal backing for the movement. A violent raid on one of the protest camps at Hawija by the Iraqi security forces on 23 April 2013, which killed 50 people, was the final turning point on the road that led to the rapid resurgence of AQI, triggering a wave of sectarian bombings in response.47

This cycle of events took place, however, in a world that had significantly changed since 2007. As discussed above, the counter-revolutionary backlash against the uprisings of 2011 included a significant rise in sectarian rhetoric across the region (with the regimes of the Gulf playing a critical role in both directly filling the airwaves and social media with anti-Shia sectarian bile and enabling others to do so). The question of sectarianism at a regional level was not of course confined to rhetoric but had by 2012-13 taken the form of interventions by regional powers into the spiralling conflict in Syria, with Sunni Islamist forces armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf States confronting Hizbollah’s Shia Islamists backed by Iran alongside Assad’s troops. The Assad regime had taken the decision early on to mobilise sectarian militias, such as the shabiha, largely drawn from members of the ruling family’s Alawite sect, but as its attempts to defeat the revolution faltered, its strategy became more and more focused on transforming the battle into a sectarian civil war pitting the Alawite elite and other minorities against the Sunni majority and pulling in regional support from Iran on that basis. This process eventually marginalised and defeated the armed revolutionary factions and local committees that had led the uprising at the beginning.

The Syrian Revolution’s transformation into civil war also had profound consequences for the revival of AQI in Iraq. It created new spaces where the jihadi fighters could operate beyond the reach of any state and accelerated the process of erasing the Syrian/Iraqi border that had been in train for several decades. This in turn intensified the mutual interactions between jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. The flows of fighters, arms and battle experience went in two directions across this now vast region, with Syria functioning as a hinterland for Iraqi jihadists, who were able to simultaneously create an effective military presence within the Syrian conflict and relaunch themselves back into Iraq as a result.48

But by far the biggest change was in the relative strength of the US as an actor in the struggles over the carcass of the Iraqi state, and more broadly over the resources of the Middle East. After 2011 the US not only did not have the “boots on the ground” that contributed to “victory” in the surge, but was in no position to turn the clock back and reconquer Iraq for the third time in the space of a decade. This was not simply the result of the military and political failures outlined above, but reflected the impact of the global economic crisis on the US after 2008. The occupation of Iraq cost an estimated $1 trillion dollars and the lives of 4,500 US soldiers.49 In a world racked by the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, US officials no longer had the blank cheque they had been given to spend their way to victory when neoconservative dreams of a “New American Century” seemed a realistic prospect.

From prison-breaks to state power?

In 2010 AQI appeared to have been crushed. Within two years, however, the organisation had begun to revive, and by September 2013 the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think-tank, announced that it was “resurgent”: capable of operating across Iraq to unleash a wave of its signature car bombings which were beginning to push casualty rates back up to war-time levels last reached in 2008.50 January 2014 saw AQI (now renamed ISIS after announcing a merger with the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda) take full control of its first city, Raqqa in the north east of Syria, after heavy fighting with other jihadi forces, including its own erstwhile sister organisation in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).51 Six months later ISIS seemed unstoppable as Mosul fell to its forces on 10 June.

This dizzying upward curve of military and political success conceals startling transitions and poses challenges that it is very unlikely that ISIS in its current form will overcome easily, if at all. The most serious of these challenges are connected with ISIS’s claim to statehood. The group’s audacity in imposing jihadi governance on major population centres in Syria and Iraq demands that it transform itself from guerrilla network to conventional army. At the same time it has to move from running a protection racket—collecting “taxes” from frightened shopkeepers—to collecting real taxes and ensuring the delivery of basic services for hundreds of thousands of people. There are many reasons to doubt that this will be easy for a small, elitist, military organisation reliant on spectacular acts of violence to ensure compliance with its will.

One of the major contrasts between ISIS and other armed Islamist movements that have achieved some degree of state authority in areas under their control, such as Hizbollah or Hamas, is illustrated by the means through which AQI began to revive within Iraq during 2012. In contrast to Hizbollah, which complemented its military struggle with Israel by organising welfare services for decades before it first entered a coalition government, AQI seems to have rebuilt itself in 2012 through a coordinated series of jail-breaks. The “Breaking the Walls Campaign” did exactly what its title suggests: AQI fighters smashed their way into prisons across Iraq to restore experienced jihadis to their ranks, culminating in an attack on Abu Ghraib prison on 21 July 2013 which released 500 or more prisoners.52

Meanwhile, AQI’s fighters were also operating in Syria alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s branch there. Again AQI’s military experience was instrumental in creating opportunities for the organisation to grow in Syria, where it began to compete with JN and ultimately with Al Qaeda’s overall leadership in Afghanistan. Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, AQI’s leader since 2010, announced the merger of the Islamic State of Iraq (as AQI had renamed itself in 2006) and Jabhat al-Nusra on 8 April 2013.53 This provoked a furious response from JN’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, who rejected the merger, and earned al-Baghdadi a reprimand from Al Qaeda’s leader, Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahiri, who instructed the Syrian and Iraqi branches to restrict their work to their respective states.54

Yet events were unfolding in Iraq that would dramatically accelerate ISIS’s development, allowing it to eclipse its parent organisation. Within days of Baghdadi’s announcement of the merger with JN the Iraqi army had stormed a camp set up by Sunni protesters in Hawija, Kirkuk governorate, killing dozens.55 This bloody end to the “Sunni spring” protests that had rocked western Iraq for months presaged the polarisation of the movement between those who began to look to armed solutions and those who were prepared to compromise with Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. The moment was ripe for intervention by ISIS, which launched a series of sectarian attacks, while Iraqi government forces raided Sunni neighbourhoods, carrying out mass arrests during “anti-terrorist” operations in Anbar and Diyala provinces.56

At this stage ISIS was still a resurgent guerrilla group, shunning urban areas and keeping its distance from the protest camps. It is unlikely that any of ISIS’s fighters were involved in the clash with the Iraqi army at Hawija, as the military forces most closely aligned with the political demands raised by the protesters were the neo-Ba’athist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiya (JRTN).57 Nor did ISIS at this stage appear to have recovered enough credibility to be able to work with local armed groups in defending their areas. This was to change dramatically within a few months as ISIS began asserting formal control over urban areas in both Iraq and Syria, and in some cases attempting to build or run government institutions. This assertion of formal control does not mean that ISIS came into cities only to conquer them: the group’s seizure of Mosul was preceded by ISIS penetration of the city over the course of several years.58

In Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq, ISIS fighters took the opportunity afforded by a new upsurge of protest against yet another provocative arrest of a leading Sunni politician, Ahmed al-Alwani, on terrorism charges by Nouri al-Maliki on 28 December 2013. Protesters poured into the streets in both towns. ISIS fighters appeared alongside them, planting their black flag on municipal buildings in Fallujah as well as surrounding Ramadi and seizing part of the main highway to Baghdad.59 They faced different responses from the local political and military leaderships in the two cities. Ramadi’s political leaders, who were largely supportive of the Iraqi Islamic Party and prepared to cooperate with the government in Baghdad, rejected ISIS and called on local residents to work with Iraqi government forces to expel them. In Fallujah, however, political and military leaders attempted to negotiate an ISIS withdrawal through mediation with a newly-established military council of their own, rather than leaving the Iraqi army to bombard and attempt to recapture the city.60

Nouri al-Maliki’s government did nothing to allay Fallujah residents’ fears that the history of the 2004 assaults on the city would repeat itself. With elections on the horizon, he made the call for Shia unity behind the crushing of rebellion in Fallujah a key campaign issue while the Iraqi army increased its shelling of the besieged town. The city’s military council was thus forced into a “Faustian bargain” with ISIS, cooperating with them against the Iraqi army, but attempting to restrict their role in running the now almost empty city.61

ISIS experience in ruling Raqqa began with rebel groups taking over the city as Syrian government control collapsed in March 2013 and key tribal leaders switched allegiance from the Assad regime.62 ISIS then emerged victorious from a long and bloody power struggle with other jihadi groups to assert its authority over the town in January 2014. There are indications that ISIS focused its military assets in Syria on the battle for Raqqa in order to secure the city.63 Until the capture of Mosul in June 2014 Raqqa represented ISIS’s most developed attempt at building or running government institutions. In a detailed study, largely using social media sources, Gabriel Garroum Pla lists an array of different state institutions in Raqqa claimed as institutions of its new state by ISIS, including schools, bakeries, media institutions and courts. ISIS social media accounts claimed that an office of Consumer Protection checks for counterfeit medicines, the Awqaf Department (Religious Endowments) collects taxes and rents from shops, while the Unified Collection Office takes payments for electricity, water and phone bills. These services were provided within a system of rule which also includes spectacular displays of public violence, such as regular public executions and the crucifixion of victims’ bodies, the public burning of illicit material such as alcohol or cigarettes, and the institution of “Dignity” checkpoints where citizens are interrogated about their personal observance of ISIS’s version of Sunni ritual.64

Reports from Mosul are sparse, but interviews with residents in October and November 2014 suggest that ISIS was attempting to implement a similar system of rule to that instituted in Raqqa. “Mays”, a teacher, speaks of changes to the curriculum, with ISIS decrees banning subjects such as art and physical education and imposing strict dress codes on pupils. “Faisal” describes severe water and electricity shortages, while “Nizar’ recounts how the homes formerly belonging to the city’s Christian population had been given to ISIS members.65 Other anonymous reports via social media paint a similar picture of acute water shortages in a city overcrowded with refugees from elsewhere in Iraq, skyrocketing fuel prices, and pervasive fear of ISIS reprisals against dissenters.66

The shift from conducting guerrilla operations to running daily life in major cities has the potential to open up enormous contradictions for ISIS. Raqqa is Syria’s sixth-largest city and had a population of 220,000 in 2004, while Mosul is the second-largest in Iraq with a population of between 1.5 and 2 million. At one level, intensifying social contradictions in the cities under their control will confront ISIS with the same dilemmas that any ruler faces: how to balance coercion and consent in order to stop those they rule discovering their power to overturn the system which oppresses them. This is where ISIS’s trademark brutality can be a liability as much as an asset: fear and horror have their uses in the short term but are difficult to maintain indefinitely.

At a military level, ISIS’s bid for statehood also poses severe challenges. The transition from underground guerrilla network to a more conventional armed force, with territory to lose, requires knitting together new command structures, providing different weapons and training, and mastering different kinds of tactics. ISIS fighters have so far seemed capable of making use of captured US equipment,67 but rapid success can equally rapidly come undone as supply lines stretch and fighters have to divert resources to deal with restive populations. However, there is nothing certain about ISIS’s rule imploding under the weight of its own contradictions, as it it did in Iraq in 2006. Other factors which come into play here include the impact of Western intervention. Alongside news of discontent and misery in territories under its rule, there are also frequent reports of how US bombing pushes other armed groups to ally with ISIS for self-protection. Fighters from the Free Syrian Army and Islamist factions in Syria were reported to be seeking alliances with ISIS in late November as US bombing intensified.68

Counter-revolution and the crisis of reformist Islamism

The final context for the rise of ISIS is the crisis of reformist Islamism in the wake of the revolutions of 2011 and the counter-revolutions that followed. The popular uprisings which rolled across the region in early 2011 were fraught with promise and danger for the major Islamist organisations such as Ennahda in Tunisia or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria. The success of the street protests and strikes in shaking loose the structures of power appeared to offer a historic opportunity for their leaders to negotiate new openings for themselves within the state, far exceeding the modest gains they had made through years of patient electoral work. Yet the major reformist Islamist organisations69 that did win elections and form governments, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, found themselves trapped between the still-mobilised movement from below on the one hand, and the resurgent structures of the old regime on the other. Unable to contain continued social and political protests and restore the “normality” that prospective investors and large swathes of the middle class craved, and equally unable effectively to confront the core of the “military-bureaucratic machine” of the state, they lurched from triumph to tragedy in the space of a year. The overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi by the Egyptian military on 3 July 2013 was then followed by the mass murder of his supporters at protest sit-ins in Cairo and Giza and a counter-revolutionary offensive aimed at wiping out all trace of the 2011 Revolution. This offensive was not therefore aimed solely at the Brotherhood, but rather at the whole loose coalition of forces that had assembled in the uprising against Mubarak: left and liberal activists, striking workers, Islamists outside the Brotherhood who identified with the revolution’s basic demands of bread, freedom and social justice.

At a regional level, the primary backing for Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s counter-revolution came from the states that represent the capitals of the Gulf. They chose to reinstate Mubarak’s old order rather than work through Islamist reformists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Here the unevenness in regional development operated to intensify counter-revolution. Without the confidence that the massive financial resources of Saudi Arabia, UAE (and more recently Qatar) were behind him, would Sisi have had the audacity to commit crimes of the same magnitude? Note here that Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi rulers made decisions based strictly on their judgement of who would be the safest pair of hands to restore conditions for a return on their investment, not their presumed ideological affinity with Islamist currents.70 In Syria, counter-revolution came from two directions: a “secular” authoritarian regime which was in reality prosecuting a sectarian civil war as its basic survival strategy, and later the gradual rise of ISIS itself which overcame other factions opposed to Assad in order to impose its rule over rebel-held areas, as described above.

The defeat of reformist Islamist currents by revived authoritarian regimes, or their eclipse by other forces was always likely to lead to a resurgence of specifically jihadi alternatives. The history of Egyptian Islamism is littered with examples of this pendulum-like movement. Sayyid Qutb, whose ideas about the permissibility of rebellion against tyranny have inspired generations of jihadists, was a disillusioned reformist who turned towards vanguardist terrorism because the consolidation of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule in Egypt convinced him that neither the existing state nor a popular movement from below could be trusted to deliver the kind of society he wanted to see.

The catastrophic defeat of reformist Islamist movements on a regional scale has intersected with the specific dynamics of Iraqi society, projecting ISIS to a wider audience, and allowing it to vie with Al Qaeda’s historic leadership for the allegiance of those looking for successful, powerful organisations that appear to be able to challenge imperialism and dictatorship. ISIS is also attractive in the context of that defeat because it offers false explanations and constructs new narratives of victimhood, providing other targets for their rage and disappointment: Shias, Christians, “immodest women”. Other dynamics of frustration and alienation are most likely at work on ISIS’s recruits from Europe: anger at rising levels of racism and Islamophobia in the context of endless imperial interventions in the Middle East.

This does not mean, however, that we can expect to see ISIS-type spectacles across the Middle East. As this article has outlined, the specific dynamics of Iraq since 2003 have interacted with the defeat of the Syrian Revolution to produce a zone of intense competition between regional powers, and new political and military actors, such as ISIS itself, in the Jazeera region, that lies between Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Kurdistan, and its hinterland. These conditions are not present across most of the region, and more importantly, much of the rest of the region has a far richer experience of the kinds of struggle from below that are the real alternative to ISIS.

This is why it is also crucial to grasp the significance of 2011 as a rupture with the past. The revolutionary crisis was at once the detonation of the accumulated tensions between the social and political aspects of the transition from state capitalism to neoliberalism (if we can use such short-hand terms for a messy and complex reality) and the potential negation of the entire process. It is important here to distinguish between the idea of 2011 as creating the possibility of a reversal of neoliberalism, in other words the restoration of the state capitalist regimes that the region’s nationalist and Stalinist left craves, and the potential for opening a route to a different kind of society altogether.

Of course, even at the dizzying heights of the revolutionary wave, as regimes across the region were reeling under the impact of the greatest popular uprisings the world had seen for decades, there would have still been a very long way to travel before potential became reality. Yet the key point here is that the revolutions of 2011 made other futures beside neoliberalism possible. Moreover, and this above all is the reason why the revolutions potentially negated the trajectory of the previous decades, it was the agency of millions of ordinary people that detonated the revolutionary crisis in the first place. They marched in the streets, went on strike, occupied their workplaces, organised popular committees, broke open the regimes’ torture chambers and took up arms on a scale few had imagined was possible. There was nothing inevitable about the explosion of revolution in 2011. This rupture was not simply a natural consequence of shifting tectonic plates or the realignment of the stars: it was created by struggle from below.

And it is no accident that such struggles were, from the first, profoundly anti-sectarian, both in form and content. Anti-sectarian banners, slogans and chants dominated Tahrir Square in Egypt during the uprising against Mubarak, and were the watchwords of the early stages of the Bahraini and Syrian uprisings. The revolutionary wave also triggered a mass movement against sectarianism in Lebanon for the first time in decades. This was not a temporary aberration, but was an expression of the class content of the revolutions: the real horizontal cleavages that unite workers and the poor across the region in the face of neoliberalism and imperialism.


1: Sameh Naguib, Phil Marfleet, John Rose and Alex Callinicos gave very helpful comments on the draft of this article. Special thanks are also due to all the participants at the SWP educational on “Analysing ISIS” on 22 November 2014, as the article was rewritten in the light of the intense and fruitful discussion there.

2: Chulov, 2014; Human Rights Watch, 2014a; Human Rights Watch, 2014b.

3: Cockburn, 2014, pp28-29.

4: The emergence of a Kurdish statelet in Iraq’s northern provinces was triggered by the weakening of the Ba’athist state in the 1990s, but the inability of the US occupation to re-empower Baghdad’s authority over the region has created the conditions for its consolidation.

5: See chapters 1-2 of Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, for a more detailed discussion of the development of neoliberalism in Egypt, and Achcar, 2013, and Hanieh, 2013, for regional perspectives on the process.

6: Naguib, 2011, p5.

7: Haddad, 2011.

8: Harman, 1994.

9: For more on this question see Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, chapter 2.

10: Leon Trotsky, in his analysis of Russia’s economy at the beginning of the 20th century, argued that the uneven and combined nature of that development created an “explosive amalgam” of contradictory social and political relations which, when ignited by the sparks of protests and strikes, triggered a much deeper revolutionary process than any had foreseen (Trotsky, 1992). Trotsky’s argument centred on the combination of social and political relations across two distinct modes of production: feudalism and capitalism. When we are using the term here, we are referring to the combination of social and political relations from different phases of capitalism—Choonara, 2011.

11: Maunder, 2012.

12: Go to for more details on rural poverty in Syria before the revolution.

13: Hanieh, 2013.

14: Cordesman and Khazai, 2014, p227.

15: Burleigh, 2014; Conant, 2014.

16: Crooke, 2014. See Al-Rasheed, 2010, pp13-68, for an overview of the role played by Wahhabism in the process of state formation in Arabia.

17: Harman, 1986, p11.

18: Batatu, 2004; Zangana and Ramadani, 2006, p60.

19: Harman, 1994; Naguib, 2006.

20: See articles by Philip Marfleet and Bassem Chit in this journal for more on the recent development of Hamas and Hizbollah, and Assaf, 2013b, and Harman, 2006, for further background.

21: Callinicos, 2014a; Callinicos, 2014b, p19; Callinicos, 2009.

22: Zangana and Ramadani, 2006.

23: Alexander, 2003, and Batatu, 2004.

24: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a.

25: International Crisis Group, 2013, p4.

26: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a, and Zangana and Ramadani, 2006.

27: Dodge, 2014, p17.

28: See Dodge, 2010; Herring and Rangwala, 2006, pp222-236, for more on this process.

29: See Herring and Rangwala, 2006, pp236-241, for more on the role of US transnational corporations in Iraqi “reconstruction”, and Dodge, 2014, for its later impact.

30: There is not space in this article to deal properly with the impact of the Kurdish question on Iraq. For a historical perspective on the Kurdish question see McDowall, 2003, and for the role of Kurdish parties in post-2003 developments see Herring and Rangwala, 2006.

31: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a, p27.

32: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a.

33: Alexander and Assaf, 2005b.

34: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a.

35: Buncombe and Cockburn, 2006.

36: Damluji, 2010, pp75-76.

37: Montgomery and McWilliams, 2009.

38: Al-Jabouri and Jensen, 2011.

39: International Crisis Group, 2014.

40: International Crisis Group, 2014, p9.

41: International Crisis Group, 2014.

42: Montgomery and McWilliams, 2009, p43.

43: Dermer, 2014.

44: Petraeus, 2013.

45: Sullivan, 2013.

46: Dodge, 2014; Sullivan, 2013.

47: International Crisis Group, 2013, and Assaf, 2013a.

48: Cockburn, 2014.

49: Chulov, Hawramy and Ackerman, 2014.

50: Lewis, 2013.

51: Pla, 2014, p27.

52: Lewis, 2013, p7.

53: Lewis, 2013, p9.

54: Atassi, 2013.

55: Human Rights Watch, 2013.

56: International Crisis Group, 2013, pi; Lewis, 2013, p21.

57: Lewis, 2013, p19.

58: Abbas, 2014.

59: International Crisis Group, 2014, p6.

60: Al-Jazeera Arabic, 2014.

61: International Crisis Group, 2014; Al-Hayat, 2014.

62: Holliday, 2013.

63: Lewis, 2013, p17.

64: Pla, 2014, p35 and pp27-28.

65: BBC News Online, 2014.

66: Beauchamp, 2014.

67: Chulov and Lewis, 2014.

68: Mahmood, 2014.

69: “Reformist” is used here to indicate where these organisations sit within a broad spectrum of responses to the state by Islamist currents, ranging from guerrilla warfare aimed at overthrowing the existing regime to withdrawal from society in order to found a conservative utopia, and is not meant to imply that these Islamist organisations can be equated with social democratic organisations. See Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, chapter 1, for more on this point.

70: See my review of Gilbert Achcar’s and Adam Hanieh’s recent books for more on this point (Alexander, 2014).


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