The War Nerd: Islamic State and American Narcissism

By Gary Brecher , written on February 12, 2015

From The War Desk


DILI, EAST TIMOR—It’s about time to do a premature autopsy on Islamic State (IS). It’s not quite dead, but the flies are buzzing, the thought-pieces are a-stinkin’, and the smell is impossible to ignore. It’s clear enough: Islamic State, the hope of middle-class Wahaabis around the world and darling of way too many idiot Western Leftists, is dying—wailing away like a soprano, but still dying.

What’s odd is how many people who should know better are mourning its passing. Mark Twain said long ago that “rapscallions and dead beats is the kind…good people takes the most interest in”—which is why, no matter how crazy-evil IS got, there was guaranteed to be a do-gooder on hand to tell us how misunderstood they were. Islamic State put a Jordanian pilot in a cage, doused him with kerosene, and set him on fire, videoing the whole thing from multiple camera angles. You’d think that’d be a pretty simple call for editorial writers: “Burning a man in a cage…thumbs up or thumbs down? Hmmmm….” And after they had a thunk, a surprising percentage of the Anglo brain trust told us we had no right to condemn IS for this pyro-snuff video.

Great ethicists like Bill Moyers and Chauncey de Vega, from Daily Kos, were on hand before the BBQ was over to tell us we had no right to condemn IS’s line cooks. Here’s Chauncey sermonizing the masses:

ISIS burned Muadh al Kasasbeh, a captured Jordian fighter pilot, to death. They doused him with an accelerant. His captors set him on fire. Muadh al Kasasbeh desperately tried to put out the flames. ISIS recorded Muadh al Kasasbeh's immolation, produced a video designed to intimidate their enemies, and then circulated it online.

ISIS's burning alive of Muadh al Kasasbeh has been denounced as an act of savagery, barbarism, and wanton cruelty--one from the "dark ages" and not of the modern world.

American Exceptionalism blinds those who share its gaze to uncomfortable facts and truths about their own country. What Chauncey means (or thinks he means) by “American exceptionalism” is that we are above such things. But look at what he actually does here: After a very flat, brief summary of the IS burning-man video, he wrenches the topic to the only context he knows or cares about: America and its sins of the past. I would call that a classic demonstration of American exceptionalism—no, let’s call it what it is, American narcissism—at its worst. For people like Chauncey’s fans or Moyers’s admirers, nothing that happens outside the US matters at all. Only our sins are important. So a man burned alive in the Syrian desert becomes nothing but an excuse for a sermon on American History X, because only America matters, only America’s sins are real.

Kinda patronizing, Chauncey. Kinda chauvinistic, even.

Bill Moyers, the smug homophobic snitch, in with a typically sly bit of self-praise in classic Bradbury prose, “The Fiery Cage and the Lynching Tree.”

Moyers’ sermon on how a guy burned in Syria is nothing compared to our American sins is actually worse than Chauncey’s, because at least Chauncey doesn’t imagine he’s some kind of prose-meister. Moyers, as you can see from that title “The Fiery Cage and the Lynching Tree,” actually imagines he’s a great writer, as he pulls the same lame move, wrenching the topic back to America in the early 20th century, away from Syria in the 21st in a flood of maudlin drivel about a Deep South Baptist college where Moyers once interviewed for a job.

Try imagining Chauncey or Bill minimizing an IDF phosphorus bombing in Gaza the way they trivialize this IS pyro video. Phosphorus burns people alive just as horrifically as kerosene, but would Moyers or de Vega trivialize Palestinian kids burnt alive with phosphorus by saying, “Remember the KKK! We’re just as bad!” Never. Because everyone would scream, quite rightly, that they were trivializing the IDF’s atrocity.

But both these fools spend thousands of words trivializing IS snuff movies, because…ah, it’s too stupid to paraphrase, but it goes something like this: “The US is the root of all evil, so IS is only acting out because it’s a victim. We did something bad to it somehow.”

The people who fight for Islamic State are not victims. Well, we’re all victims, if you want; we’re all gonna die, we’re all confused, we all had weird childhoods…but the groups that make up Islamic State are some of the most privileged, arrogant, and unsympathetic demographics in the entire Muslim world.

There are two groups involved in Islamic State: First, the core strength, the Sunni Arabs in Iraq; second, the much-hyped “foreign fighters” from outside the Iraq/Syria war zone.

Let’s start with the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, because they’re much more important to Islamic State’s combat power than the foreign fighters. Islamic State grew out of Al Qaeda Iraq, a nasty sectarian militia that massacred Shi’ite Arabs from the South for the crime of thinking they had finally won a chance to control Iraq, where they are the majority. When Islamic State says “Islamic,” they mean “Sunni,” and God help you if you’re some other kind of Muslim. The project is not universalist, but local and sectarian; always was, always will be.

And it came out of nothing more than sullen resentment at being dethroned as the brutal bosses of Iraq. Until 2003, Sunni Arabs—Saddam’s people—had run the country with no more than a few tokens from the Shia and Christian minorities (and nobody at all from the non-Arab Kurds, whom they simply hated outright).

Sunni Arabs have never been more than a third of the population of Iraq, perhaps no more than 28% (because Iraq’s Kurds, who were excluded from power when Sunni Arabs dominated the country, are counted as Sunni in religious breakdowns of the Iraqi population). But the Sunni Arabs, who dominated the key central zone of the country, had been in total control of everything that mattered (including Baghdad, the capital and great prize) for so many generations that they came to see their domination, and exclusion of the Shia, as the norm.

The Shia, who are at least 60% of the Iraqi population, did not agree, and expressed their dissatisfaction with protests, peaceful and otherwise, all of which were put down with mass torture and murder. The Kurds, who as non-Arabs were viewed with even greater contempt by the Sunni elite, were subjected to systematic extermination attempts, including the Halabja gas attack. I’ve been to the museum commemorating that attack, and to the Red Museum in Suleimaniya, and once you’ve seen those places, the notion that Saddam’s people are victims tends to make you want to puke. They were a brutal, arrogant minority tribe, just like the whites of South Africa or the American South. In fact, if people like Chauncey de Vega or Bill Moyers were capable of making serious historical analogies, they’d realize that the true analogy between Iraq’s Sunni-Arab militias and the American South is actually a group founded by the Prince of Darkness himself, Nathan Bedford Forrest. A little clot of thugs called the KKK.

Like Iraq’s Sunni Arabs after 2003, Bedford’s Confederate vets had always ruled through extreme violence. After the great defeat of 1865, which drove the weaker minds among the Confederates right round the bend, so deep was their conviction of their own superiority, Forrest started a terror network, the KKK, which used officers from the beaten army as its nucleus.

Same motive: Former masters, accustomed to ruling through sheer terror, defeated on the battlefield, resorting to what they do best: ultra-violence and exemplary torture-murder, to reassert control of a newly uppity population they’re used to ordering around.

That’s what Islamic State’s Iraqi roots are: Bitter, defeated Sunni using religion as a handy pretext to win back control of the country they consider theirs, and theirs alone. Only fools like Moyers and de Vega seriously imagine that gang has anything to do with preserving the honor of Islam.

Obviously this doesn’t mean the invasion of 2003 was a good idea. I said back then it was a rotten idea, for America, and lost the chance to be very rich by saying so back when it wasn’t cool. I’ve paid my dues and then some, panning that dumb-ass move. But the fact that our invasion was a bad idea does not in any way suggest that the Saddam clique we toppled were, or are, the fucking good guys, ok?

Like all historical analogies, this one is imperfect, but it’s a damn sight closer to the truth than imagining that the sectarian murderers of Islamic State are a bunch of pitiable victims.

And as for the second group contributing fighters to IS, the hugely over-hyped “foreign fighters,” they’re not victims either. Most are ordinary bored young men who want a war. Two things to remember about these “foreign fighters,” who’ve had more un-earned media time than anyone since the skinheads of the 1990s:

  1. They’re not nearly as numerous, powerful, or important as they’re made out to be;
  2. They’re not nearly as anomalous or weird as they’re made out to be.

Number 1 is particularly important. Jihadis? What jihadis? That’s a myth, as the Russians would say. A tiny boutique hobby. Tiny numbers, compared to the pool of possibles. Still, we can find something of interest in this tiny quantity, as the broke tweeker said about the turned-out baggie.

Key fact about foreign-fighter stats: More jihadis in IS are from Belgium than from Indonesia.

Now that is a weird stat. How is it even possible? I’ll tell you in one quick quote:

“It’s boring in Belgium.”

Remember that line. It was spoken by a typical jihadi who left his boring Belgian life, sheltered by the pious, bland welfare state, to kill and die in Syria. Boredom and easy travel sent these guys on their way, not oppression. A hard look at where the foreign fighters come from will show that.

Take Indonesia, by far the biggest Muslim-majority country on the planet. There are about 238 million people in Indonesia, and 88% (209 million) are Muslim. The Indonesian population skews very young, and when you break it down by age and gender, you end up with at least 40 million males of military age from Muslim backgrounds. That’s the available pool of jihadi recruits.

So, how many jihadis has Indonesia contributed to Islamic State?

About 60, maybe 70. Not 70 thousand, you understand; 70 guys. A miserable two-digit total, about a platoon and a half. Hell, let’s be generous and double that figure, make it 140 men. Triple it! Fine with me! It’s still going to amount to something very close to zero-point-zero Indonesian volunteers in Iraq/Syria.

It’s not that Indonesia is short on militant Islam. There are plenty of homegrown Indonesian groups, some of them extremely violent—remember the Bali Bombings of 2002, when a couple of hundred party kids were burned alive? That was an all-Indonesian production, and there was plenty of sympathy for the bombers. It also means that would-be jihadis in Indonesia have plenty of local groups to join. They’re too poor to go to Syria, it’s too far away, and they have opportunities nearer home.

Those same considerations keep young Muslim men from a whole tier of poor countries from contributing to IS. Take Yemen. You’d expect Yemen to provide a huge contingent to IS, because Yemenis are hands-down the toughest Arabs. But there are very few Yemenis in IS, fewer per capita than from the UK, France, or Belgium. That, again, is a very odd stat.

And you see the same thing with a whole tier of poor, distant Muslim countries. How many IS volunteers from Kazakhstan? From Sudan? From Pakistan? Same answer in every case: Damn few, too few to show up in the charts at all.

And the same reasons keep these numbers down: Poverty, distance, fighting to be done close to home.

So who does join IS from far away? Let’s look at an outlier in the other direction: Belgium.

Everything about Belgium says it shouldn’t be making any significant contribution to the jihad in Iraq/Syria. First, the total population is tiny, less than 11 million people, and unlike the Indonesian population it skews very old. The total number of males of military age in Belgium is less than one million, or about two percent of the equivalent in Indonesia. And unlike Indonesia, Belgium is not a Muslim-majority nation. In fact, only six percent of Belgium is Muslim—call it 600,000 people. Let’s say that the Muslim minority in Belgium skews younger than the general population, as recent immigrant minorities usually do. That still means a total pool of something like 70,000. But from that tiny pool, Belgium has sent at least 350 volunteers to Islamic State.

Of course, that’s still a tiny number. It’s worth repeating that all these numbers are ridiculously small, considering the pool of Muslim young men who could be taking up jihad. But Belgium is still an anomaly, producing way too many IS volunteers. Never mind what’s wrong with Kansas, what’s up with Belgium?

Two things: first, that comment “it’s boring in Belgium.” Why is it boring? Consider the huge change in Europe after the great de-fanging of 1945. For certain countries, going o’er the waves to kill and die had been part of the national tradition for generations. Look at which countries relied most heavily on those foreign imperial ambitions in the early 20th century, and you get a surprising match-up with the non-Muslim majority countries with the highest rate of Islamic State volunteers. The states with the highest per capita rates are the ones that formed part of the most aggressive overseas empires of the last century: Turkey, England, France, and Belgium. All these countries have suffered a sudden shrinkage, from ruling distant outposts to maybe, if you’re lucky, getting an office job in the boring ol’ home country, such as it is, what’s left of it.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, a British, French, or Belgian male who’d attained his eighteenth birthday would have a chance of lording it over somebody far away in the hot countries, with a weapon in his hand, a man to be feared and obeyed. Not a nice dream, maybe, but let’s be honest enough to admit that it’s not exactly an uncommon one, either, especially among males in their late teens—and IS recruits, by the way, skew very young.

The dream was there for the white British and French and Belgian young men; why is it surprising that it should persist among a later generation of brown young men from those same cities (though quite a lot of white young men in those countries have converted and joined IS as well).

In fact, skin color, or “race,” as Americans call it, isn’t the point at all. As usual, this is culture, not genes. This is the persistent dream of “fighting o’er the waves,” as Oi boys used to sing, and it has the same old appeal, in the same old cities of coastal Europe. Fighting for Islam, fighting for Empire…who cares, when you’re seventeen and barely made it through high school? What matters is going somewhere and scaring people, shooting ’em, coming back with some cool stories. Let’s not romanticize this species of ours. Maybe you went to a posh private high school, but I didn’t, and believe me, I’m being too kind to our kind.

It’s easy to miss this persistent cultural trend, because it’s taboo in contemporary Western Europe, at least in polite society. But researchers are starting to realize that the myth that countries like Belgium were “reluctant imperialists” is, uh, crap—that in fact, most people, and especially the young males who would get to go abroad and shoot people, loved the idea.

Compare that dream with the less aggressive European states of the 20th century, like Spain and Italy. Their contributions to Islamic State has been tiny, especially in view of the huge Muslim community in those countries. How many IS fighters have come from Italy? Fifty. Five-zero.

Italy has a population of 1.5 million Muslims, poor humble people who are glad to get across the Mediterranean without drowing. Poor humble people are not jihadis; that’s an arrogant, middle-class phenomenon. Those 50 IS volunteers means that only one out of every 30,000 Italian Muslims has made jihad to Syria. You see the same low rates in the European countries without the tradition of recent, aggressive overseas Imperial careers.

The trend shows up outside Europe, with the most aggressively and recently imperial countries producing the biggest and nastiest jihadi contingents. Australia, product of very recent Imperial ambitions, has sent at least 250 jihadis to Syria from an Australian Muslim population of about 475,000, less than a third of Italy’s. Australia, pound for pound, is probably the last and most aggressive cultural expression of the sea-oriented European imperial drive, so it shouldn’t be a particular surprise that its Muslim population has produced some of the nastiest, most brutal jihadis ever to grace an Islamic State slave auction.

But no matter how you can make the percentages dance around here, you have to come back, sooner or later, to the numbers. And the numbers of foreign fighters are too low to matter in military terms. Foreign fighters are a huge liability in public-relations terms, as I’ve said before, especially when they consist of wealthy lumpen converts from the Sydney suburbs telling Syrians (whose ancestors knew the Prophet) how to be Muslim. The “foreign fighters” are an obnoxious nuisance, and a belated, kind of pathetic echo of generations of Western European male fantasies, but that’s all they are.

They’re not the good guys, or anything close to it. In fact, the whole lot of them, whether there are 30,000 or 100,000 of them raping and massacring their way to Raqqa, aren’t worth the life of the heroic socialist fighting woman who died at their hands just as Kobane was being liberated.

She’s the life we should be celebrating here, but I’ve learned better than to expect any respect for real socialist fighters like her from the fools who pass for leftists in America. All you can ask of these morons, the Chauncey de Vegas and Bill Moyerzez, is just shut the fuck up.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]