“I was like any other regular Canadian. I watched hockey, I went to the cottage in the summertime, I loved to fish, I wanted to go hunting… I was a regular person,” said Abu Muslim in the last video he recorded before his death. And then came his pitch: “Everyone can contribute something to the Islamic State, as it is obligatory on us … If you have knowledge on how to build roads and houses, you can be of use here.”
Andre Poulin, as he was named at birth, was confirmed dead in January of this year and one of the first known Canadians fighting for the Islamic State group in Syria. The recruitment video, released in July as the Islamic State gathered strength, took many experts by surprise for how “slick” it was. But more than that, it played on the paranoia of governments around the world that their citizens could be heading in the same direction.
The establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria poses a far greater threat to Muslims than it does to the west. Western government may worry sleeper cells at home or radicalised Muslims travelling back from Iraq, but it is Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere who have most to worry about from the Islamic State. Even the brutal and horrifying decapitation of the journalist James Foley doesn’t change anything – the number of Iraqis executed by Islamic State fighters is far, far more.
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In many ways it is perhaps the worst development in recent Muslim history since 9/11. There are two reasons for this: First, it is likely to cause even greater unrest in countries where Muslims aren’t a majority, and second, the Islamic State group could tear apart the Middle East and cause further unrest for generations.
In a very short time the Islamic State has become the most compelling and attractive organisation for Muslim fighters around the world, more so than al-Qaeda ever was. India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population, is especially in shock after Islamic State sympathisers have turned up from Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south. There is not one recorded instance of an Indian Muslim having fought for al-Qaeda, but already four are suspected of having joined the group. Now Indians worry that more will follow.
The impact of this phenomenon on community relations – in Canada, India, the US, and Europe – could be devastating. Once again, suspicions will easily be raised by Islamophobes about Islamic State sympathisers in the west and whether they pose a threat. One pollster has found support for the group to be as high as 16 percent in France. The news media will undoubtedly report on American or European Muslims joining the group or calling for violence in videos, further raising tensions and besmirching the Muslim faith.
Secondly and more importantly, the Islamic State has sparked political and theological instability across the Middle East, and if they continue expanding, could plunge the region into even greater chaos. The group has prompted bomb blasts and fighting in Lebanon, and in Jordan and Kuwait the governments are worried that sleeper cells may attack at any moment. But it is Saudi Arabia that is on high alert, worried that the Islamic State group will come after them with force. In a recent interview, a senior Islamic State defector said their next stop would be Saudi Arabia, which includes Mecca and Medina. Its rulers are now in full panic, sending money to the Lebanese army, funding UN counter-terrorism efforts, and even getting senior Muftis to condemn the group. And there is a reason for this panic.
The Islamic State is a direct descendant of al-Qaeda, but there is one key difference: Its leaders believe fighting “apostates” is more important than fighting non-Muslims for now. They want to unite the Middle East under their banner before truly turning their sights on the US and Europe. Their caliphate, say its fighters, will never be truly powerful unless apostates and “fake” Muslims are first weeded out – and their definition of “apostate” expands to include anyone who stands against them.
Al-Qaeda has always seen this as a bad strategy, as it risks alienating Muslims worldwide. But the astonishing growth of the Islamic State, despite their enthusiasm for killing Shia Muslims and other so-called “apostates” – such as the Yazidis – has turned that thinking on its head. In fact the Islamic State declaration has split the jihadi world, with many angry at the upstarts for being so daring while others enthusiastically pledging support. Al-Qaeda itself has been criticised by affiliates in Syria for not condemning Islamic State, most likely because its worried such a move would lose it support.
In the eyes of many jihadis, the Islamic State has established the most successful and feared caliphate in recent history. That in itself has spurred many to join it. The immediate goal of the Islamic State is to forcefully take over other Arab states and bring their subjects under their own banner. The murder of Americans such as James Foley is meant to shock the world, to bring attention and attract more support. But make no mistake: The real threat from the Islamic State is to other Muslims in the Middle East. Sooner or later people across the Middle East will have to face up to this threat.
Sunny Hundal is the author of the recently released e-book, India Dishonoured: Behind a Nation’s War on Women, and is a regular contributor to the Guardian and the New Statesman.
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