WHILE once controlling a vast swathe of land in Iraq and Syria, today the militant ‘Islamic State’ group is left with a mere sliver of territory in Syria near the Iraqi border. That, too, is under bombardment by the US and its Syrian Kurdish allies, as family members of the militants have left the area in the thousands over the past few weeks. Soon after its rise in 2014, the self-styled caliphate sowed terror in the region under the watch of its ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, throwing an arrogant challenge to governments in the Middle East and sending the international community scrambling for a response. At one point, it seemed as if many other regional states could be vulnerable too, as IS ‘provinces’ sprang up in ungoverned spaces in and around the Middle East. And while the US-led coalition, including Arab allies, played a key role in pushing IS back, it cannot be denied that Iran’s support to the Syrian and Iraqi dispensations was instrumental in dislodging the ‘caliphate’.

Today, as the end of IS looms, some lessons should be learnt. Firstly, it should be acknowledged that Western adventurism in the Middle East — regime change in Iraq and attempted regime change in Syria — played a major role in creating the ungoverned spaces where the IS thrived. While Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Syria under the Assad clan were by no means model democracies, America’s removal of the Iraqi strongman, and its efforts to get rid of Bashar al-Assad created power vacuums which were filled by the IS and their like — a reminder that nation-building exercises in the Arab/ Muslim world should not be indulged in by the West, as what emerges from such experiments can be much worse than the status quo ante. In fact, it is Middle Eastern governments that must lead efforts for organic change by being inclusive of all sects, religions and political orientations. For example, observers have noted that the alleged discriminatory policies of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki helped create support for the IS in disenfranchised communities. And while the IS may be on the verge of defeat, it should be remembered that its ideology lives on and must be countered not just on the battlefield, but intellectually too. The sectarian, atavistic and anti-modern mindset championed by the IS must be challenged by ulema, Muslim governments and thinkers to ensure that such a movement does not re-emerge and attract disillusioned souls with its promises of an extremist utopia.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2019

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