Who to blame for ISIL

All events collude and meld into all others; laying the blame on one actor or one event is simply a bias.

An ISIL fighter holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq [REUTERS]
An ISIL fighter holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq [REUTERS]

A traditional story from the Middle East goes as follows: A man in a city square asks a wise man seated near him what fate is. The savant answers: “An endless succession of intertwined events, each influencing each other.”

When the questioner says he doesn’t understand, the wise man points to a procession passing in the street:

“That man is being taken to be hanged,” he says. “Is that because someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy the knife with which he committed the murder? Or because someone saw him do it? Or because nobody stopped him?”

In recent weeks and months, a litany of voices, theories and opinions across the airwaves and social media have laid claim to the idea that someone or another is fully responsible for “creating” ISIL.

Head to Head – Did the US occupation create ISIL?

Many of these ideas focus on the United States being ultimately at fault, the culprit that, through its invasion of Iraq or more nefarious means, created the monster.

In the latest iteration of this diagnostic, the bombast of Donald Trump has blamed Obama and Clinton for creating ISIL. The reasoning behind his claim is unclear but anything goes, as long as it sells.

Blame culture

This blame game is nothing new. We live in a blame culture in which something is always someone else’s fault. It is a kind of commodity where if someone else is to blame, I gain and they lose. Hence the countless conflicted narratives turning round and round in the news.

READ MORE: How evil is ISIL?

However, this common attitude, especially regarding politics, may simply be a distortion of a reality that is infinitely more complex.

Anyone truly interested in what 'created' ISIL ... needs to consider that many factors, woven together like a vast tapestry or web, are actually at play.


Here’s the rub: anyone truly interested in what “created” ISIL (or any situation for that matter) needs to consider that many factors, woven together like a vast tapestry or web, are actually at play, and where those factors begin and end is far from clear. This is not good news for those who seek a black-and-white world. But it is reality nevertheless.  

It is true that the US has more than a hand in events in the Middle East today – including the evolution of ISIL. The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, its “war on terror” and support for heavy-handed regimes in the region over the years have all contributed to the unravelling of states, and a security mentality that begets violent reactions.

However, this remains only one dimension of the ISIL story. Just as the consequences of ISIL range from the European refugee crisis, to terror in the Middle East, to increased airport security and racial profiling, so its genesis is equally complicated.

Blizzard of events

How do we apportion the blizzard of events that have all affected the creation of the group and played into the weave? Take, for example:

– The writings of Sayyid Qutb, the evangelical Egyptian Islamist, executed under Gamal Abdel Nasser. Qutb’s writings swept the Middle East from the mid 20th century, and have inspired one radical group after another;

– Saddam Hussein deciding to invade Kuwait which, combined with Osama bin Laden’s attack on the US, ultimately led to a US invasion and the disintegration of Iraq;

A boy walks past a picture of Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein on a street in Tikrit, Iraq [REUTERS]
A boy walks past a picture of Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein on a street in Tikrit, Iraq [REUTERS]

– Bashar al-Assad turning a blind eye to Syrian militants crossing into Iraq to fight American forces, some of whom had been prodded towards violence, in part, by the Assad trademark of oppression;

– The collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian process, set in motion when Yigal Amir pulled the trigger killing Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and leaving a festering Palestinian wound in the Arab psyche;

– The combined efforts of Iran and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to suppress Sunnis in Iraq;

– The coincidental and unlikely marriage of the wiles of Iraqi Baathist intelligence officers, religious ideologues and social media experts from across the globe;

– Saudi Arabia and Turkey funding and arming the Syrian resistance;

– The police brutality that led Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi to set fire to himself, triggering the Arab Spring and the consequent convulsions that weakened states across the region;

– The availability of technology that permits ISIL to amplify its messaging, transforming them into a cohesive, global movement;

– The decision of every member of ISIL to join its ranks, possibly due to the inability of their countries and cultures of origin to meet their needs and provide normal lives – tempting them tragically towards dark purposes, away from empty and alienated lives.


Cause and effect

All of these factors, and lesser ones that have never been reported, have combined to create ISIL. Where do they all begin and end? How do they all interweave?

To some, this may sound like a cop-out, a non-committal rendering of cause and effect. Certainly, it cannot compete with Donald Trump’s soundbites, nor with the bias of readers who have already decided who their favourite devil is, and apportion blame accordingly.

Yet this is in fact the nature of things: all events collude and meld into all others; all occurrences constitute an organic whole.

This may seem like an abdication of responsibility, yet it may also be its exact opposite. This understanding makes all that we do  (or don’t do), every action and step as nations, cultures and individuals, more important, for we are all contributors. And, therein lies the answer.

Some actions have a stronger effect than others, and some events have a clearer direct cause. However, laying the blame on one actor or one event is simply a bias, a reflection of an agenda and a child-like dependency for a simple black-and-white world. Reality is thus distorted and we become blind to our own contributions and our own role in the rise of greater or lesser evil or good in a complex and interconnected world.

John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

John Zada is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.