The Islamic State (IS) is battling numerous groups, defining all of them as heathens: Shiites, Yazidis, Alawites and Sunnis with whom they ideologically disagree. But on closer inspection of IS statements, it is evident that they have a more prominent enemy: the Sahwa, or Sunni tribal fighters. Since US Gen. David Petraeus persuaded Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq — the group from which IS sprung — the Sahwa have become the organization’s main enemy.
The term Sahwa is even used to describe Syrian resistance groups who are battling IS. Moreover, Libyan jihadist groups have used the term Sahwa to describe the militias it is fighting. Using the term Sahwa in this way does not reflect the group’s military strength — for they have weakened since 2008 — but it is an ideological issue. IS’ main struggle is to mold Sunni identity around an idea of purity, breaking away from the impurities of the “jahiliyyah" period — meaning the pre-Islamic period — and modernity. The goal of the jihadist struggle is to return to the idealist, muhajirin era of Islam, when Muhammad emigrated from Mecca. Confronting those who disagree with this vision is a vital part of the project to rejuvenate the Islamic ummah, or community of believers.
Between tribalism and patriotism
For that reason, IS has entered a battle that may appear of secondary importance to its other armed conflicts. But, given the group’s long-term calculations, it is the main battle; the fight to reinvent the Sunni ideology is central to the jihadist imagination. IS’ discourse rejects tribalism and patriotism. It considers confronting these ideas a vital part of its struggle to cleanse the impurities of the jahiliyyah era and the modern era. If this jihadist stance toward tribalism is derived from Islamic history — particularly from the stories of Islam as a unifying movement that transcended tribalism — then its position regarding patriotism is based on modern ideologies, especially the imposition of nationalism on the post-colonial world. This reflects the fact that however much jihadist groups have attempted to depict their wars in the context of the dawn of Islam, the narrative of modern history shows us that these farcical stories are in fact a frightening tragedy.
IS was empowered by the disintegration of tribal and national identities in many countries in the Middle East, particularly Iraq. Iraqi society is still tribal, even though the tribes only exist in particular cultural and social contexts. Ultimately, there is a difference between “the tribe” and “tribalism” — the first is a relatively stable socio-cultural unit, and the second is a mode of thought and behavior. The main goal of the modern state is to break up this traditional tribal way of life in favor of establishing national, urbanized modern society.
Attempts to erode these tribal links have been largely unsuccessful, although traditional societal entities experienced some gradual disintegration during the Ottoman era, when the reformist governor Midhat Pasha established the Tebu system regarding agricultural property. The majority of internal migration within Iraq occurred from traditional rural spaces to major cities. The modern Iraqi state, however, was unable to fully integrate these new communities. In the past few decades, the middle classes have declined and these communities have expanded — as has their struggle to be organized and mobilized.
Ali al-Wardi has extensively discussed the tension between the values of the city and the village and the cultural dissonance of those who find themselves caught between the two. Since Wardi’s latest book, Iraqi society has experienced sweeping change, particularly political and ideological, but the village–city tension remains the central issue.
Like Shiite extremism — as exemplified by the Mahdi Army — Salafism is compatible with various post-tribal environments. The state is virtually absent and, to many people, modern ideals are not understood. Therefore, tribalism offers a form of symbolic identity. Birth rates are high, particularly because of the lack of health awareness, and thousands of people seek comfort in well-established ideological movements that offer a sense of belonging to those who hail from such marginalized communities. This sense of belonging helps to alleviate a perception of injustice and, in some instances, offer a forum for resistance.
According to some who live in IS-run areas, fighters who have joined the group often hail from these marginalized communities, or from groups that suffer from a lack of political representation either in local or central government. These tensions between the city and the village, or, put another way, the center and the periphery, are at the heart of political struggle in Iraq — particularly, violent struggle. It is possible to argue that sympathy for IS emerged through persuading people in these communities to buy into a simplistic "them or us" mentality.
In his 2011 book, Hirmant Shah discusses the appeal of the concept of “the passing of traditional society” in the Middle East, and the role the West can play in instilling the modern values that Daniel Lerner speaks of in his 1958 book. Lerner and his contemporaries discussed the transition from traditional to modern societies, beginning with the mass movement from the countryside to the city. This urbanization sparked a demand for modern institutions, such as schools, mass media, the free market and civil society organizations. These demands for development occurred in Iraq — as they did in many Middle Eastern states — but political and economic progress was not forthcoming. Distorted modernization projects led to uncontrollable situations, and it is possible to see the rise of IS in this context.
There is a need to re-examine the dichotomy between traditional and modern societies. Our greatest challenge in doing this is to understand the instability that allows IS and its ideology to proliferate. This tension was present before the inception of IS, and will remain after the group diminishes.
IS’ primary battle is within Sunni society. Its goal is to convince people that their Sunni identity is the most important part of their identity. From there, IS hopes to establish itself as the authentic, singular representative of Sunnis. This is the only way an "Islamic caliphate" with a broad social base can be created. Whatever brutal methods and instruments of coercion IS uses, the group needs a form of social legitimacy in order to survive. This is IS’ true struggle. Therefore, without offering an alternative social system that integrates state and society, it will be impossible to envision a society without jihadists or would-be caliphs.
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