What I Learned Working with Jihadists

Sunday 22 August 202101:13 pm

“You think you are better than me? You chose to work with the oppressor while I chose to resist”, murmured solemnly but assertively an ISIS Emir from the dim corner of his seven square metres solitary confinement cell. An abrupt shiver ran down my spine remembering these sarcastic words I heard during an interview in a high security prison in Iraq. This sordid flashback emerged while watching two trillion dollars’ worth of war and stabilization money being thrown down the drain as Taliban tightens its grip on Kabul amid US forces withdrawal.

As a journalist, I am obsessively concerned with my own deontology and ethics. I find myself constantly second guessing my judgement and perception of the mainstream storyline: From what angle are we seeing this story? Whose interests would it serve? What power relations exist within these groups? What is the bigger picture?... and so, I started to suspect that our awareness of what violent extremism is and who the real terrorists are is nothing but yet another construct that serves the agendas of imperialist forces in the Middle East. A sort of Machiavellian markings they will paint on doors to witch-hunt whoever doesn’t conform to their plans in the region. And just like the mid-1400s witch hysteria, many of those who burn at the stake are innocent people.

What if most of the groups in the Middle East that are on the terrorism list today are genuine organic resistance that tries to challenge western hegemony over the region? If not why did the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) fund Taliban in the 80s in what is commonly known as operation Cyclone to counter Russia before deciding that they were extremists? Why did coalition forces in Iraq fight hand in hand with Popular Mobilization Units Al Hashd Ashaby during the Mosul War against ISIS but then see them now as Satan’s henchmen? The list goes on and on. Yet the most important question is why do we constantly fall for masterfully crafted western molded narratives instead of defining our own?

What if most Middle East groups on terror lists today are genuine resistance that try to challenge western hegemony over the region? If not why did the CIA fund Taliban in the 80s in what is commonly known as operation Cyclone?

Insurgency as Indigenous Agency

In social sciences, agency is defined as the capacity of people to act independently and make their own free choices. Due to continuous foreign intervention and client governing elites, indigenous populations in the Middle East have rarely had a say or self-determined their own socio-political models, borders, structures, and even the decision to go to war since early 20th century. Beyond pseudo-liberation movements, there have been very shy attempts to resist the systems in place like during the Shabaniya revolution or the halted Arab Spring. This docility promoted the persistence of new forms of dependency and clientelism with former or new hegemons.

Due to continuous foreign intervention and "client" elites, indigenous Middle East populations rarely had a say or self-determined their own socio-political models, borders, structures, and even the decision to go to war since early 20th century

Whether we agree with it or not, the idea of Islamic Umma and a certain nostalgia to the glory of the forefathers continues to caress the dreams of many Arabs and is the only true challenger to the dysfunctional political systems we have in place. Evidently, these new forms of resistance movements come with a costly list of inconsistencies with western definition of the modern nation state and “universal” human right values. 9/11 marked the dawn of a new paradigm that is still defining how we perceive insurgency today. It demonized all the Mujahedeen that the US has been grooming for decades to counter the USSR and set in motion the western media machine to dehumanize Muslim jihadists and depict them as some 3D alien fighters from Proxima Centauri and not average citizens from the mosque two blocks down the street where you live.

In 2016, when I took the conscious decision to ditch my producer job in London at a comfortable pan-Arab newsroom to work in humanitarian rescue in Iraq, I was looking for the faces behind the events, the human stories, and explanations for why would the sweet kid who sat next to me in class in middle school grow up to behead people and create DIY artisanal bombs. Even now, I can’t pretend to know the answers. However, I started seeing the 1001 shades of grey between the black and white, how monsters are created within loops of violence, how people are simply looking for dignity and recognition, and how you can’t plant thorns in a country and expect to harvest flowers.

The Revenge of Anthropology

In his bestseller the Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan an influential thinker in the DC policy circles, warns of the return of ancient empires that were divided by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. My answer to that is to beware of the revenge of anthropology instead, especially in Bedouin and tribal societies. Ethnographic enquiry is instrumental to understanding the lifecycle of middle eastern cultural groups, and anthropological determinism always wins over foreign conditioning. Hence, what we see from Taliban, Sherougui southern Iraqis, or Houthis in Yemen among other traditional societies that actively rose against imposed western frameworks.

The infamous “civilizing mission” never succeeded in Arab countries, or elsewhere for that matter. There is something intricately wrong with “the white man’s burden” to liberate other people from their malevolent alter egos. Trying to forcefully impose democracy and other European enlightenment values in Hijaz resulted in caricature Gulf states and, in the Levant, and North Africa in the political chaos we are all still enduring to this very moment. Maybe if Al Qaeda appeared 1400 years ago in Arabia, it would have evolved into a new religion or something close to the Abbasid Caliphate. The US will never allow any strong resistance movement with a theological referential both Shia or Sunni to have a chance in our countries and it will methodically continue to abort or divert any local spark. I don’t blame them for looking after their interests, I blame us for being passive spectators.

As a liberal western educated female living in Washington DC, the last thing I want to do is to seem apologetic for acts of violence carried by insurgency groups in the region. I do have my own views on how an Afghan woman should be treated, how to divide power among sects in Lebanon, or how to transit Saudi Arabia out of the oil economy, but who am I to impose my subjective world view on others like what the west is doing. We might disagree fiercely with Jihadist ideology and practices, but what real alternative are we offering on the ground as Arab youth? Our lack of sovereign organic alternatives gives that ISIS detainee the right to question if I am ever going to be better than him. He resisted, tried and failed, while I continue to observe and write from the luxury of my air-conditioned office.

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