Most articles on the Middle East tend to follow political lines, but the region is rarely explored in a cultural and social sense, except through a rather romanticising tourist lens. Nowhere is this more apparent than in recent attempts to understand the extreme violence of Daesh, also known as ISIS.
Standard descriptions of the Middle East usually introduce the region as being divided into coherent nation states with clear boundaries. Furthermore, it is assumed that the Middle East is solely populated by Arabs of Muslim faith. However, it is rarely mentioned that the state territories in the Middle East were in fact negotiated between colonial powers and competing tribal leaders.
Today, governments are mainly backed by an urban elite, but their ability to control the wider population is weak and relies heavily on state-sanctioned violence rather than consensus. The Middle East is not as ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ as it is made out to be, although the ongoing violence is impacting harder on minority groups, making them the first to leave. The lack of legitimacy and engagement with minorities and poorer sections of the community is prevalent all over the region, making it harder for these governments to control their borders. This results in what I refer to as “geographies of hate” in marginalised border regions.
Root causes of violence
The tendency in the west to impose a religious and ethnic identity on the region has contributed to the current crisis, as can be seen for example in the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. Israel is a state for one particular ethnic-religious group and it has been backed by a strong military ever since its creation. No prime minister of Israel can get elected unless they can prove their former military credentials. Furthermore, up until now the government has been unable or unwilling to declare its borders.
Nevertheless, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 is often described as a wake-up call to the former Ottoman and Anglo-French mandated regions of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. It can’t be a coincidence that very similar state models based on fuzzy borders but dominated by one particular religious ethnic identity have taken over. Nowhere more so than in Egypt, where no leader without strong military ties (with the brief exception of Morsi) has been in power since 1952.
Sinai is an excellent example of the new geographies of hate on the margins of terror. Often referred to as a “land bridge between Asia and Africa”, a “crossroads” or a “wilderness”, it also makes up one half of the Suez Canal and marks a buffer zone between Egypt and Israel. As such, it is one of the most de-and re-territorialised spaces in the Middle East, occupied by consecutive military forces in Egypt and Israel since the 1950s.
The 1982 Camp David Peace Accords, which enabled a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, was an attempt to consolidate these fuzzy borders. At the time, the US reasoning (as stated by former US ambassador in an Al Jazeera documentary about the Israel-Egypt gas pipeline) was that if Israel and Egypt start to work together from a business and investment perspective, this would potentially stop the conflict and peace would prevail, as the business interests would prevent an outbreak of violence.
This strategy did indeed work for the following decades, because much money was made by many different global stakeholders via the Egyptian and Israeli business and political community. Unfortunately, cronyism and corruptionprevented access of the local population to the generated wealth, eventually causing the system to break down during the 2011 ‘Arab spring’ revolution.
Border regions as breeding ground for Daesh
North Sinai is just one of the many marginalised spaces between national borders where the Daesh ideology is flourishing. North Lebanon, the border between Turkey and Syria or the border between Syria and Iraq are other examples. The governments of Turkey, Egypt and Syria are mostly focused on ensuring the support of urban elites, neglecting the control of border areas. Flocking to these forgotten areas are the young and disaffected.
Massive population growth in the region in recent years, met with a lack of serious employment opportunities or investment in education, means there is little hope that the recruitment of young fighters in these border areas will stop any time soon. In addition, their globalised identity, created through decades of migration to Europe and North America, means that another border is being attacked—the one that divides “us” from “them”.
“Us” versus “them”?
The western press is spending a great deal of effort in its attempts to understand the extreme violence and its glorification which, as something to be feared and carried out by “others”, is often described as irrational behaviour. Contrary to that, western violence, with some exceptions, is understood as measured, targeted and rational—think of Guantanamo, or the drone air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan—because it is state-sanctioned.
In his recent article, “Why ISIS murdered Kenji Goto”, George Packer suggests that Daesh doesn’t act along the lines of normal “cost-benefit analyses.” Their self-branding with the help of social media is significantly different to western conceptions of “war” and “violence”. It is somewhat idealistic—more akin to a fanatic death cult.
Packer argues that Daesh ‘”doesn’t leave thousands of corpses in its wake as a means to an end. Slaughter is its goal—slaughter in the name of higher purification. Mass executions are proof of the Islamic State’s profound commitment to its vision.” Because of their idealistic irrationality, says Packer, they will not self-destruct, but have to be destroyed by us. In this way, he holds up the traditional divide between a “rational” use of force in the west versus irrational violence in the Middle East.
In the meantime, the leaders of Daesh have taken over oil bases in northern Syria and Iraq. They are trafficking migrants, robbing banks and selling oil back to Syria. They may be running out of hostages, but they have managed to dominate the narrative of western news media that is intent on seeking out stories that will shock and awe us from the safety of our living rooms.
For a marginalised young man in the Middle East, what is the real difference between a state like Egypt, which is run by the military and exercises power through taking journalists and activists hostage via its legal apparatus, and Daesh, which does the same thing, only with a savvier exploitation of social media? The only difference may be that this young man is welcome by Daesh and is given the promise of power and influence.
Sinai may have fuzzy borders between Israel, Gaza and Egypt, but it does contain a natural geographical border between the flatter plains in the north, where the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis brigade, which has just joined Daesh and rebranded itself as Wilaya Sina (Sinai Province), is located, and the mountainous region of the south of the peninsula, home to immensely profitable Red Sea tourism.
In March 2015, president Sisi will host the Egypt economic summit in the largest conference centre in the Middle East, situated in Egypt’s most well-known resort of Sharm El Sheikh. The conference centre and hotel complex was built by the disgraced businessman and confidante of Mubarak, Hussein Salem, and is still home to the Mubarak family.
President Sisi himself will not stay in this hotel, but in a military base adjoining the airport. It can only be assumed that a huge military presence and even more checkpoints than usual will be set up in in an effort to prevent the troubles of the north from impacting on the political business to be done in the south.
If the state of Egypt mirrors the state of Israel in many ways, then Daesh are perhaps more like Fox News than we care to believe. The people of these countries deserve something better, but in the meantime, groups like Ansar/Sinai Province will continue to flourish. Western countries and their economies continue to support the heavily militarised and authoritarian governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Packer’s claim that we have to destroy them perhaps is taking the video game analogy too far. It is not—and has never really been—a case of “us” versus “them”. If we want to attack anything at all in the Middle East we should tackle its lack of democracy and open up the failing borders of the Middle East to a broader sense of citizenship.
Sinai violence highlights since 2014
16 February 2014: Taba bus bombing kills four people, including three Korean tourists and an Egyptian bus driver. The group Ansar Jerusalem warned all tourists to leave Egypt before 20 February 2014.
28 August 2014: Ansar Beit al-Maqdis released a video showing the beheadingof four Egyptians accused of being Mossad spies and providing Israel with intelligence.
24 October 2014: Sinai attacks killed 28 soldiers northwest of the town of Arish. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is reportedly also responsible for a drive-by shooting several hours later at a checkpoint in Arish that killed three soldiers.
29 January 2015: More than 30 soldiers and bystanders died after simultaneous attacks were carried out in north Sinai. Two days later Ansar Beit al-Maqdis again warned all tourists via facebook posts to leave Sinai, but were mostly ignored.