For Western observers and politicians to fashion a black-and-white morality tale out of the current mayhem in Iraq takes chutzpah to new heights. For these people, these individuals now posing as good guys keen to ‘save Iraq’, these clamourers for the return of Western military forces to Iraq to rescue the Yazidi people and the Kurds from a genocide at the hands of ISIS, bear ultimate responsibility for the mayhem they’re weeping over. They created it, they inflamed it. ISIS might be doing the killing, but the space in which ISIS could rise and gain influence was provided by Western forces, by the Western invasion of Iraq and Western intervention in Syria. To listen to the very facilitators of ISIS’s emergence now say that ‘we’, the good and the powerful of the West, must stand firm against this new ‘Islamofascist threat’ is almost too much to stomach.
It is striking how speedily the nightmare in northern Iraq has been squeezed into what has become a familiar moralistic script. It is all very simple, we are told: on one side there is a marauding gang of people who, according to a writer for The Times, are ‘very like’ the Nazis; and on the other side there are the terrorised Yazidi people, denounced by ISIS as ‘devil worshippers’, and the Kurds, bravely trying to hold back the tyrannical ISIS tide. And into this squaring-off between evil and innocence, we, the ‘defenders of democracy and human rights’, must intervene to destroy a ‘genuinely evil force’, says one newspaper. We must wage a ‘battle for civilisation’, says a UK Labour peer, and face down ISIS, the ‘greatest threat to peaceful co-existence that exists in the world’.
As a snapshot of what is unfolding in northern Iraq, described last week on spiked as ‘horrifying’, these descriptions seem plausible. ISIS is indeed a profoundly unpleasant organisation, made up of a mixture of intolerant theological extremists, morally warped Westerners who think beheading infidels will give them a sense of direction in life, and disgruntled Sunnis who want to strike hard against the Shia rulers in Baghdad. And the Yazidi people in particular do indeed face a mortal threat from ISIS, having been expelled en masse from their towns in northern Iraq simply for possessing allegedly infidel beliefs. Their suffering on Mount Sinjar, to which they have fled, is, by all accounts, immense. And yet at the same time, something very important is missing from this snapshot, from this self-aggrandising depiction of the crisis in northern Iraq as a 1939-style question mark hanging over every decent Westerner, asking him ‘will you combat fascism or will you appease it?’. And that is the backstory, the antecedents to this hellishness, the question of how this crisis came about, the issue of how much moral responsibility is borne by the self-styled anti-fascist, pro-interventionist observers of the West for the very ‘fascism’ they are now posturing against and defining their inherent goodness in relation to.
Very little in life is black and white. There is always grey. And the dark grey hanging over the crisis in northern Iraq, a grey which very few want to look at, far less analyse, is the fact that ISIS’s rise is a consequence of something simultaneously more mundane and more concerning than evil – it’s a product of Western intervention, and more importantly of new forms of Western intervention built more on an emotionalist desire to ‘Do Something’ (about evil) than on any kind of clear-headed, realpolitik-informed analysis of what might be in the best interests of the West or of global stability and order.
There are two ways in which the West’s handwringers over the fate of the Yazidi people facilitated the rise of ISIS. First, the Western invasion of Iraq destabilised the careful political equilibrium in that nation, allowing the emergence of political and sectarian tensions which had been held relatively in check for a significant period of time. Through removing the political system that had cohered Iraq’s various disparate ethnic and religious groupings, without replacing it with anything of substance that might have allowed the Iraqi state to consolidate itself in a new way, Western interventionists set in motion a lethal dynamic that led in the mid- to late 2000s to a civil war between Sunnis (influential under Saddam) and Shias (the rulers of post-Saddam Iraq). The seemingly apocalyptic crisis in northern Iraq is in many ways a continuation and also a terrifying extension of this post-invasion unravelling of the Iraqi order: it continues the Sunni-Shia conflict facilitated by the West’s invasion, with ISIS representing, in part at least, the latest manifestation of Sunni fury with ‘the anti-Sunni policies and actions of [the Baghdad government]’; and it also expands the post-invasion disorder into other communities, exposing and exploding tensions between Kurds and Sunnis, between Kurds and Shias, and between Islamists and small religious communities like the Yazidi. Behind the mayhem in northern Iraq, there’s a larger story about the lethal folly of casually removing state structures and state institutions in divided, fragile nations, as the West did to Iraq in the 2000s.