August 28, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5829

Lebanese Journalist Hisham Melhem: The Islamic State In Iraq And Syria (ISIS) 'Was Produced By A Very Ill And Weak Arab Body Politic'

August 28, 2014
Saudi Arabia, Lebanon | Special Dispatch No. 5829

In an article titled "Enough Lies, the Arab Body Politic Created the ISIS Cancer," senior Lebanese journalist Dr. Hisham Melhem, who is Al-Arabiya's Washington bureau head and a correspondent for the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, comes out against the prevalence of conspiracy theories in the Arab world, which, he says, are the Arabs' way of evading responsibility and blaming their problems on others. He focuses on the phenomenon of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS), pointing out that Arabs deal with its atrocities by either denying them or accusing various forces – whether the U.S., Israel or Iran – of creating this organization. After bringing examples, including even from his own paper Al-Nahar, he goes on to explain that the rise radical Islam is the result of decades of tyranny under which Arab societies became "politically and intellectually arid." "The ugly truth," he concludes, "is that the ISIS cancer was produced by a very ill and weak Arab body politic."

The following are excerpts from his article, which was posted August 16, 2014 on Al-Arabiya's English-language website.[1]

Hisham Melhem (image:

"Conspiracy Theories Usually Reign In Undemocratic Societies Lacking Transparent Institutions"

"Most people are averse to introspection, and rarely engage in self-criticism. Arabs are no different. However, the political culture that developed in the Arab World in the last 60 years, particularly in countries ruled by autocratic regimes, shifted blame from their catastrophic failures in governance to other external, sinister forces. For these countries, self-criticism has become next to impossible.

"Over time, this legacy has created fertile terrain for conspiracy theories, delusions, self-deception, paranoia and xenophobia. If you read an Arab newspaper or many a website in the region, you will invariably encounter some of these symptoms. Admittedly, sometimes they can be entertaining, but in most cases they are downright ugly, reflecting deep pathologies of fear."

"Conspiracy theories usually reign in undemocratic societies lacking transparent institutions, free and vibrant media, and a political culture that does not shy away from dealing with issues that some may consider taboo. Clinging to conspiracy theories, particularly in times of challenge and uncertainty, becomes attractive because it relieves the believers of any sense of responsibility for what is taking place in their midst, [allowing them to blame it on] hidden and powerful forces beyond their control... Denial of reality and/or responsibility is the other side of conspiracy theories. In this manufactured world others, usually conniving, ill-intentioned and cunning, are behind our travails and not us... Of course, conspiracy theories also exist in open and democratic societies, but they are usually confined to fringe groups..."

Arabs Claim That "ISIS Was Made Everywhere Except In Syria Or Iraq Or By Arabs Generally"

"The shocking and unbridled savagery of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which morphed recently into the Islamic State, is a case in point. The unimaginable brutality of this latest manifestation of Political Islam in the Arab world is too much to bear for many Muslim Arabs. So they either deny the atrocities, claiming that Muslims would never commit such heinous acts (even while the perpetrators of the crimes [themselves] assert that their violence is [meant] to spread their puritanical twisted version of Islam), or resort to the easier option and pick one of the many conspiracy theories that are being peddled by Intelligence agencies, political groups, journalists, or self-appointed guardians of religious sects and ethnic groups...

"Even before its swift and bloody [takeover] of one third of Iraq, [which involved] uprooting and killing Christians and Yazidis and occupying Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, [Arabs claimed that] ISIS was made everywhere except in Syria or Iraq or by Arabs generally. Depending on one’s sectarian background or political leanings, ISIS for many was made in America with a little help – as usual – from the Israelis; others, especially those who loath the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis would say with equal certainty that ISIS was made in Iran, with the conniving of the Syrian regime. But those who support the Iranian-led axis would assert unequivocally that ISIS was made by the U.S. in collaboration with a Gulf state, take your pick: Saudi Arabia or Qatar or even Turkey.

"In this twisted political environment, evidence or proof to buttress an argument are not necessary or are flimsy at best, and when the conspiracy is denied, the denial is considered proof. Since conspiracy theories are usually based on imagined causes and effects and by pointing to those who benefit from a development or an event, it becomes self-evident to some to claim that, just because the Assad regime has diabolically benefitted from the war ISIS has waged against the Free Syrian Army and/or other Islamist opposition groups, then Assad is either behind ISIS or is conniving with it directly and operationally. The recent fighting between ISIS and Assad’s forces in Eastern Syria shows that there is no validity to such claims.

"Those who claim Iran is behind ISIS, because Tehran wants to break up Iraq or keep it in [a state of] perpetual struggle, don’t like to entertain a simpler view which asserts that Iran’s national interests are better served by a stable and allied Iraq that would be dependent on Iran or [would] float in Iran’s political orbit, a reality that would allow Iran to extent its influence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean...

"It is true that Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided arms and funds to Syrian opposition groups, including an array of Islamist organizations in addition to Turkey. [But] the large sums of money given by wealthy individuals from the Gulf as aid, which may have reached the extremists including [the Jabhat] Al-Nusra Front and ISIS early on, does not mean that the Gulf States created ISIS, since these states have already designated ISIS as a terrorist organization. Moreover, they are preventing their nationals from joining the 'Jihad' in Syria and Iraq, and are cooperating with the U.S. Treasury Department to prevent the transfer of funds from private bank accounts in Western countries. Recently, the U.S. Treasury Department designated three Kuwaiti ISIS financial supporters as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

"With ISIS's stunning [advances] in Iraq, which forced the Obama Administration to launch limited air strikes against ISIS military formations... a new conspiracy theory about the origin and evolution of ISIS swept the region, alleging this time that no less an authority than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is asserting that ISIS was made in America... Even by the low standards of conspiracy theories in the Middle East this one was particularly jarring..."

The Rise Of The Islamists Is The Result Of Decades Of Tyranny

"Those who have a more charitable view of the prevalence of conspiracy theories in the ME would point out that, since the Second World War, the U.S. and its allies did engage in clandestine activities and conspiracies, including fomenting coups, influencing elections and collaborating with unsavory characters in the name of combating communism and radicalism, and that the invasion of Iraq was based on baseless allegations regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction and [other] lies. That is all true, but that does not excuse the wide tendency of many Arabs, including journalists and government officials, to believe in outlandish conspiracies without bothering to present evidence...

"Ever since the 1967 Arab defeat in the war with Israel, Arab politics have been influenced and mostly shaped by various stripes of Islamists, including the radical and violent groups that constitute the antecedent of Al-Qaeda and ISIS... The rise of the Islamists, such as [Tunisia's] Al-Nahda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the various Salafists, [Egypt's] Jama’a Islamiya, Hizbullah, Hamas and later Al-Qaeda and ISIS has been facilitated by the depredations of the 'secular' Arab regimes, the military strongmen and the one party rule, particularly the depravities of the Baath Party in both Syria and Iraq.

"Over [the] decades, the societies of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Libya and later on Tunisia have been thoroughly wrecked by the brutality and corruption of these regimes. Arab societies gradually became politically and intellectually arid. Progressives, leftists, liberals and enlightened nationalists who [had] dominated political life in many of these societies for decades were hunted, intimidated and deprived of forming any kind of independent political organization. Civil society was gutted, particularly in Syria and Iraq, where the ruling elites controlled every aspect of social and economic life... In the meantime, the Islamists, many of whom were also subjected to the same treatment; either went underground or managed through charities and the Mosque to maintain some political viability and a modicum of organization...

"ISIS Is The First Modern Terrorist Organization That Acts As A Cult"

"It is no longer very useful to talk about Syria and Iraq as unitary states, because many people involved in the various struggles there don’t seem to share a national narrative. It is instructive to observe that those who are ruling Damascus and Baghdad don’t seem to be extremely moved to do something about a force that eliminated their national boundaries and in the process occupied one third of each country and is bent on creating a puritanical Caliphate stretching from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. ISIS is exploiting the rage and alienation of the minority Arab Sunni Iraqis by the increasing sectarian policies pursued by Nouri Maliki for 8 years, just as it is exploiting the anger of the Majority Sunni Arabs in Syria who have been marginalized by the Assad dynasty for more than 40 years.

"For the time being, ISIS will benefit from this deep Sunni disaffection, and time will tell when its growing nihilism and barbaric ritual killings will drive people to rebel against it. ISIS is Al-Qaeda on steroids. ISIS’s standards of depravity (mass executions, beheading, and crucifixions) puts it way beyond the Taliban in Afghanistan. ISIS is the first modern terrorist organization that acts as a cult, and [is] led by a leader who acts like a leader of a secret death cult society, a modern day version of 12th century Hassan-i Sabbah, the Ismaili Persian leader of a small group of zealots sometimes referred to as Hashashin, or 'Assassins,' who waged a campaign of violence and terror from his mountain redoubt in Northern Persia against the Seljuk Turks. The difference now is that ISIS is not ensconced in a mountain redoubt, but has established a primitive form of governance, with bureaucracies, tax collection and religious courts infamous for meting out horrific death sentences.

"ISIS may be the reject of Al-Qaeda, but like Al-Qaeda, it is the illegitimate child of modern political Islam that grew and expanded in what the Arabs refer to as an 'embracing environment.' The ugly truth is that the ISIS cancer was produced by a very ill and weak Arab body politic."


[1], August 16, 2014. The text was lightly edited for clarity.

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