Is it really different this time with ISIL?

Is it really different this time with ISIL?

Turkey is at war with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but did you know that this has happened before? Twice, actually. ISIL might be a new organization, but what it represents has been around for a few centuries. Our Ottoman forefathers squashed the menace before. Yet Selim Koru of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) noted that this third time is different. Why?

Lesley Hazleton wrote in her book “After the Prophet” that following the fall of Arab empires, “Arabia would not exert political power again for more than one thousand years, until the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect emerged from the central highlands in the eighteenth century to carry out violent raids against Shia shrines in Iraq and even against the holy places of Mecca and Medina.” The Arabs’ comeback was ISIL. 

Except back then it was called the “Ikhwan.” Note that this group bears no relation to the Ihvan ul Muminin of Egypt, but are an elite force of Arab tribesman known for their religious zeal. In the late 18th to the early 19th century, it was the Ikhwan that started the raids against Shia villages, destroyed shrines and historical artifacts and killed women and children. They followed the Salafist cleric Ibn Wahhab and a tribal chief, Abdul Aziz. 

The Ikhwan was successful at the outset and Abdul Aziz entered the Hijaz as a victor. That was in 1803, mind you. The Ottoman army then had to retake most of the territory that is today Saudi Arabia. Turkish soldiers arrested and punished all the mutineers. In 1818, Amir Abdullah bin Saud, who had dared to declare the Ottoman sultan an unbeliever, was executed in Istanbul. The Ottomans were so offended by the insult that they forced him to listen to music, which Salafis considered a sin, before killing him. That was the first time the Turkish army faced Salafi rebels, and it happened in a low-connection world. When the British supported the second attempt of the Ikhwan in the early 20th century, Saudi Arabia was successfully established. So we won the first war against the earlier incarnations of ISIL, but lost the second. We let them establish a state.

In terms of modus operandi and calls for action, ISIL appears to be a reincarnation of the old Ikhwan. First of all, it was an Arab uprising against foreign Turkish influence at that time. This time it is Arabs against foreign influence of all sorts. Secondly, it was about Sunnis back then, and still is. Thirdly, it was a war for Muslim minds at that time. Ottoman officers were depicted as pork eaters and wine drinkers. That also still holds. 

So what is different? I gather that this war for Muslim minds was a rather local affair at that time. Now it is being piped through the internet. That is why the menace is harder to control and contain. No matter how tightly you control the physical borders, the signal breaks through. There are many part-time terrorists living in our neighborhoods now. A year ago, I remember a guy in Gaziantep who was driving a taxi on weekdays, and hopped the border to fight alongside ISIL on weekends. He sincerely believed that the end of the World was nigh, so he had to kill as many infidels as possible to guarantee his place in Heaven. You can find examples of this in Chattanooga, Tunisia or London. Our world is highly connected, and they are everywhere. 

We really don’t have a way to fight the problem in the long term, because we don’t have the institutions in place to devise those methods. The West does, and their academics, journalists and think-tankers have been hard at work on a solution. That is valuable, but cannot be our solution. Western aid for “moderate Islam,” as Hirsi Ali and others have advocated, is by definition impossible. Any movement that the West supports in this part of the world is automatically discredited; it is a radioactive hug that will make things worse for the rest of us. 

Like our Ottoman forefathers, we must face our own demons. But winning the war this time is not only about eliminating deranged militants. Winning the war is nothing less than a global, ideological struggle for the future of Islam.