To a casual observer of the news in western Europe or North America, it must seem as if a portal to some unspeakable alien dimension has been ripped open in Northern Iraq. A complete anachronism that seems to have no place anywhere in history, least of all in the 21st century, is on the rampage. Since the fall of Mosul in June, one atrocity story has followed another. One carefully-crafted atrocity video has followed another.
The unspeakable and the incomprehensible are unfolding daily in Iraq and Syria. A group called Islamic State (IS), only several thousand strong at the time of their sudden conquests in the summer, seems to be grabbing us by the throat and staring with blood-lust into our eyes. Usually atrocity stories are spread by the enemies of those really or allegedly doing the killing; IS enthusiastically spreads its own pictures and videos of bullets in the head, crucifixion and throat-slitting as a means of spreading terror. A “shock and awe” tactic, you might say.
This image of Islamic State has ruled the airwaves so much so that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in a speech in which he defended sending troops and planes to Iraq, used an interesting new phrase to describe IS. “This death cult is uniquely evil in that it does not simply do evil, it exults in evil,” Abbott pontificated, in a line that wouldn’t make it into the cheesiest b-movie, but was snapped up by the world’s media.
That phrase, “death cult”, sums up everything that’s wrong with how the media and politicians treat IS. It is the usual custom of the rich and powerful to treat every horror in the world as if it fell from the sky, or emerged naturally from human nature. IS has been written off as a “death cult” not just by Abbott but, in effect, by every media outlet that gives top billing to execution videos and zero-to-no historical context or explanation.
For racists, IS explains itself. It emerges naturally from the “muslimness” of its adherents. It is further evidence, in the racist imagination, of all the lurid Islamophobic and Arab-phobic paranoia we’ve ever been subjected to. The “death cult”-obsessed sections of the media and political cliques silently give the nod of approval to this explanation. The “death cult” explanation lets them off the hook.
Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge remind us that, when you bomb a country back to the dark ages, dark-age atrocities are going to take place. That is to say, dark-age levels of barbarity, with modern levels of technology and organisation.
The US bombed Iraq half-way to oblivion in 1990-91, then put the country under crippling sanctions that tore the country apart, leading to hundreds of thousands of excess deaths, for the next 12 years. Then it was subjected to the cataclysmic 2003 invasion and to the worst atrocity of the 21st century so far, the years-long occupation that led to an even greater death toll. During this occupation the US, with no popular support in Iraq, used a sectarian “divide-and-rule” strategy, arming and training Shiite death squads to terrorize the Sunni people into submission.
A horrible civil war resulted, which at its worst saw bodies piling up in the streets every night, and which only wound down around 2010. 2011 and the Arab Spring gave a glimpse of an alternative, when Sunni and Shiite communities protested against the ruling puppet government and the occupation, demanding better living standards.
But 2011 also saw the start of the Syrian Civil War. What began as a genuine uprising against the Assad regime was, over the course of the first year, brutally hijacked. US imperialism and whack-job pseudo-Islamic fundamentalism took over the opposition, outgunning all other forces and turning a social and political war into a sectarian and racial war, and an imperialist proxy war. The war was dragged out beyond its natural lifespan, with infinite brutality, a foretaste of what was to come, and in the midst of the artificial chaos, the forces of IS grew.
Islamic State is a bastard child of US imperialism. Back in the 1980s, it was US imperialism that helped to create modern-day Islamic fundamentalism, by funding Afghan “freedom fighters”. In the 1990s, it was US imperialism that starved and bombed Iraq. In the 2000s, it was US imperialism that deliberately and directly trained Shiite bigots to murder and torture Sunnis, and created a puppet state dominated by Shiites. In this decade, it was US imperialism that tortured Syria and tore the country apart.
Islamic State has found enthusiastic foster parents in the form of international finance. It publishes glossy business reports for its “investors”, detailing successful attacks and supplies of weapons. Between the control of Iraqi oil, the looting of archaeological treasures and the pillaging of cities, IS are a very good investment opportunity. With a net wealth in the eight-digit region, they have a lot to boast of to millionaires from the Gulf and beyond.
This apparent contradiction, of barbarity that would make a medieval knight turn pale and start shaking, married to the most up-to-date and professional business sense, has a simple explanation. Sunni men, tortured by history and enraged by a very real humiliation and oppression, are taking up arms and doing a lot of incredibly horrible and stupid things. Wealthy investors, seeing an opportunity to make a buck, are putting up the cash and making it happen.
IS are less a HP Lovecraft “death cult” and more a very professional outfit, thriving in a ripped-apart Iraq and Syria like infection in an open wound. These are wounds torn open by the business interests represented by US imperialism, and an infection funded by any investor that wants a return.
A system that tortures and tears apart nations, and sets a gangrenous poison in the raw flesh, can be just as aptly described as a “death cult”. Those like Tony Abbott and Barack Obama, who brainlessly tub-thump, feeding into another endless war that breeds more endless wars, are its high priests. The idea that the many searing historical traumas that led to the growth of IS can be fixed, rather than made worse, by guns and bombs is its most sacred doctrine. Its commandments are “Thou shalt safeguard the profits of the rich”, “Thou shalt protect the prestige of powerful governments”, and “Thou shalt kill.”