Something has been festering in the heart of the Middle East. A cancer, a disease, gaining strength from the weakness of the body. Like a malignant tumour, militant jihadism has spread from country to country, growing, morphing and becoming stronger, even as the host weakens.
Make no mistake, the Islamic State will not be the last militant group to spread its ideology, win recruits and pose a threat to the stability of the region. That is because the jihadism of the Islamic State is only a symptom of the disease, a reflection of the parlous state of the politics and society of the Middle East.
Like a disease, there is not a clear first cause, an easily pinpointed moment when a general sickness turned into a specific threat.
Everyone has their pet theories about when the Middle East took a bad turn: the entry of Napoleon into Egypt; the end of the Ottoman Empire; the agreement of the Sykes-Picot borders; the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Yet each theory fails to fully address the idea that these events did not come out of nowhere.
There is a swamp of conflict, of failed institutions, of the lack of the rule of law, of the use of religion for political ends that has allowed murderous nihilism to breed. The Islamic State is the inevitable result of the sickness of Middle East’s body politic.
The Islamic State holds the view that the institutions and society of the region are so bad they are beyond saving. Out of that worldview comes a warped justification for widescale murder; of Muslims, of Christians, of other minorities like Yazidis. Their view that everyone is “fair game” in this war comes from a belief that all of Iraqi, Syrian and other societies are inherently fallen; that there is nothing left to do but burn it all and begin again.
This nihilism is inextricably linked to the failure of politics in the wider region. It has been growing steadily; jihadism is merely the latest expression of it. To some degree, even the revolutionary fervour of the Arab Spring was a reflection of it.
It is there in the recurrent belief that “renewal” of the Arab world is necessary. The Arab Spring is only the latest phase of this; before that, it occurred in the post-colonial era and before it after the First World War.
The belief in the necessity of renewal is at least a century old. The end of the Ottoman Empire and the demise of the caliphate ushered in the weakest century for the Arabs since the coming of Islam. The Islamic State is merely a reflection of that. You don’t have to mourn the demise of either to recognise that destroying a system that held sway for centuries would have consequences for decades.
Indeed, what makes the Islamic State so seductive for some and so difficult to deal with for others can be traced back to events more than a century ago.
The lack of a central religious authority for Islam means that warped interpretations easily find favour, with no-one to counteract them. The lack of cooperation between Arab countries – indeed the mistrust and outright hatred in some cases – means that jihadis are merely exported to neighbours. As long as those spreading the hate were not spreading it at home, most Arab leaders were content. But whether they were spreading hate in London, in Kabul or in Mosul didn’t matter: in a connected age, it was the same.
Over the years of conflict, the sickness at the heart of the region has grown. When Hafez Al Assad shattered Hama in 1982, it grew a bit. When Saddam Hussein spread Sunni supremacism and unleashed his anfal campaign against the Kurds, it grew. When the massacres took place in Sabra and Shatila, it grew. When men were tortured in the darkness of Abu Ghraib, it grew.
And now we are left with it. The threat of militant jihadism cannot be solved surgically; it cannot be cut out from the body of the Arab world.
It is a problem that has to be tackled, whether it is tackled today in the countering of the message of Islamic State or tomorrow when another group emerges. This struggle cannot be won by arms alone. It has to be won by ideas.
Those in this region, like the Israelis, or those in the West who believe they can wall themselves off from the threat are cruelly mistaken.
Jihadism has mutated into a battle without borders. The only way to solve it is to make the Middle East whole. To build states that function and respect the rule of law. To build economies that work for a majority and not merely for elites. To build a foreign policy that cooperates, not competes, with neighbouring countries.
None of this will be easy. It will be the work of decades. But the only end to the scourge of jihadism will come when the whole Middle East begins to get better.
Chaos is the original sin of the Middle East. Militant jihadism is merely the wages of that sin.