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  A threat we can’t ignore

A threat we can’t ignore

Published : Jan 31, 2016, 2:44 am IST
Updated : Jan 31, 2016, 2:44 am IST

Will India remain immune to the ISIS virus

Islamic State fighters (Photo: AFP)
 Islamic State fighters (Photo: AFP)

Will India remain immune to the ISIS virus

Between 1936 and 1939, the Spanish Civil War, while fought largely in the precincts of a Mediterranean European country, became the theatre of a global conflict. A left-leaning “Republican” government in Madrid was challenged and overthrown by the “Nationali-sts” led by General Francisco Franco. The Soviet Union offered assistance to the Repu-blicans and Nazi Germany aided the Nationalists.

Countries such as Britain were officially neutral, not wanting either adversary — the Communists in Moscow or the Nazis in Germany — to win. However, many young people in Britain and France were attracted to the Republican cause. Others in those countries, with different political instincts, were concerned about the advance of Communism and backed the Nationalists. Young people and political activists across the world, including in India, were fixated on the war, which in a sense anticipated World War II.

In the end Franco won and began a long dictatorship. However, he did not sign up for the Nazi cause. His motivation was power in Spain, not becoming part of Hitler’s war machine. For the most part, he kept Spain out of World War II. Having defeated his local enemies, he had done enough — and his alliance with Germany or any other external power was pragmatic.

This article is not about the Spanish Civil War, though. It is about the war being fought in the heartland of Iraq and in Syria, with the Islamic State (ISIS) as a principal belligerent. Like the Spanish Civil War, this struggle is being waged in a narrow geography — West Asia rather than the Iberian Peninsula. Yet, like the Spanish Civil War, it has become a cauldron of global passions, prejudices and messianic callings. As young people from far-off countries journeyed to Spain in the 1930s, their descendants, for ISIS has many white European fighters as well as Arab-origin Muslims with European passports, are making their way to Syria.

Beyond a point all analogies are flimsy. The Spanish Civil War and the ISIS challenge are very different and their inspirations and ideological underpinnings are far apart. Nevertheless the ISIS war, like its predecessor, has become, almost by accident, central to how even distant people see the future of the world and the organisation of political power in the immediate region of the conflict and far beyond. Here, the war itself becomes the microcosm of a larger, tectonic struggle for history.

How did ISIS start off It was a collateral as well as manipulated consequence of big power politics. The core of ISIS was created by Sunni militia made of up those disempowered by Saddam Hussein’s removal or demobilised after the Iraqi Army was defeated in the Gulf War of 2003. A degree of American intelligence planning, encouraged by Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is also said to have led to the arming of Sunni rebels against the Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria. In turn, the United States felt the Assad government had instigated Shia extremist groups to attack American facilities in Iraq. There was the backdrop of the Arab Spring too.

ISIS emerged amid this confusion and this welter or games and counter-games as the monster that soon overcame its masters. Today, ISIS threatens the US and Europe, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Iran, as the leading Shia power, is a sworn enemy anyway. At a time when Europe’s economy is faltering, and has little to offer the poor and the young in that continent, and when the decline in oil prices is putting pressure on governments and peoples in the Arab world, ISIS is offering itself as a rallying platform for a whole bunch of disaffected folk for whom religion and the amorphous if distorted idea of a defining war, ending in a Caliphate, seems a hope.

From France itself, it was revealed in the days following the November 2015 terror strikes in Paris, 1,500 French citizens had travelled to Syria in the previous year and over a third had come back. While the numbers are not as large in other European countries, there has been a steady exodus from the continent, and to a smaller extent from the US, to Syria-Iraq. Many of those who travelled to West Asia were of Muslim origin; yet, many too were whites born to Christian families, and attracted to war by a mix of new-found religious zeal (as recent converts) and probably a drug-induced reverie.

Many would see in ISIS a replay of the rise of the Al Qaeda, particularly in the period after 9/11. There are some crucial differences. Al Qaeda barely controlled territory, being a guest of the Taliban in Afghanistan. ISIS has more or less carved a country for itself, in a region that is rich with oil, unlike desolate Afghanistan. Its ability to sustain itself is that much higher, and it can pay salaries to formal fighters, auxiliaries, mercenaries and so on.

ISIS also has the advantage of technology. Its use of social media and the Internet has been astute. There have been numerous reports of self-radicalisation — not unknown for a variety of secular and religious causes, where a person living in a room with nothing more than a laptop and an Internet connection gets absorbed and obsessed with the reality he or she sees on the screen before him. This has happened in India too, and one dare says more cases of Internet radicalisation rather than of actual fighters being recruited have defined the Indian ISIS experience so far.

Will India remain immune to the ISIS virus The larger question is will the series of simultaneous conflicts in West Asia — with the Shia-Sunni divide affecting Pakistani society very sharply and touching India’s borders as it were — be contained in that geography and not cross the Radcliffe Line There is a reason for optimism. After all, despite its failings, the Indian system of integration of its Muslim minorities has so far been much superior to that in either France or Britain (which by themselves follow two separate models). It helps that Indian Muslims are not ethnic “outsiders” who arrived a few decades ago, but residents for as long as one can remember.

Having said that, the manner in which the narrative goes — or indeed multiple narratives go, not necessarily limited to the Muslim community — will depend on how quickly the economy begins to recover. India is balancing a global economic crisis with a domestic youth bulge and with its 21st “demographic dividend” approaching a peak. As per the 2011 Census tabulations, 41 per cent of India’s population is below the age of 20. When one considers India’s Muslims alone, that figure rises to 47 per cent. That young population is India’s strength as well as its weakness — to ISIS, and radical movements of all colours, it may seem an opportunity.

The author is senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at malikashok@gmail.com.