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The problem at the heart of Saudi Arabia's Muslim anti-ISIS coalition

King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia at the White House in September.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia at the White House in September.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

When Saudi Arabia announced it had formed a 34-nation coalition of Muslim-majority countries to fight terrorism, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, in announcing the coalition, that terrorism is a "disease which affected the Islamic world first before the international community as a whole."

The Saudis have been careful to say this coalition is about more than just ISIS, but ISIS is clearly the impetus and the primary aim.

But there is a real contradiction and problem at the heart of the Saudi-led coalition.

It's not just that countries like Saudi Arabia have at times played a role in deliberately harnessing forces of violent extremism that have since grown out of their control. And at least some in the Saudi government seem to understand this. As Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and then ambassador to the US, put it recently: ISIS "is the seed of evil that we have let out of the can in the Middle East. ... It’s our responsibility to vanquish it."

Rather, the problem with this coalition gets to the very premise and point that the coalition exists at all. These countries, after all, are already combating ISIS (many have been victim of their attacks), and they're already declaring ISIS un-Islamic.

The point, rather, is to change the narrative of the war with ISIS. The narrative ISIS wants is one of ISIS representing "true" Muslims versus Western imperialists and the apostate false-Muslim dictators who are their allies. The narrative that Saudi Arabia wants is one of the entire world, including the Muslim world, fighting against false-Muslim radicals.

The problem is that Saudi Arabia, in trying to fix this, is actually feeding into ISIS's narrative. Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern regimes have, for years, co-opted religious establishments to serve their dictatorships. Thus, the more they heighten the differences between establishment Islam and ISIS Islam, the more they paint "establishment Islam" as a synonym for "brutal dictators who cynically exploit Islam for their own gain." Making this a fight over whose Islam is truer — the terrorist's Islam or the tyrant's Islam — offers the world a pretty unappealing set of choices, and it denies space for the vast majority of Muslims who want neither dictatorship nor terrorism.

Iyad el-Baghdadi, a prominent Middle East democracy activist, put this extremely well in a recent interview with my colleague Jennifer Williams. I've included the relevant snips of their conversation below.

His most important point, I think, is this: "The menu of ideas in the Arab world only has tyrants or terrorists. It doesn't have a third option. It's a very narrow menu." Because Saudi Arabia is leading this anti-ISIS, anti-terror coalition, it is exacerbating the perception that Middle Easterners must choose between those two bad options. And as long as those are seen as the only viable choices, at least some will pick extremism.

Here are the interview snips:

Jennifer R. Williams: So when established Muslim scholars, such as the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia or the scholars at Al-Azhar in Egypt, publicly denounce ISIS's actions and ideology, does ISIS care? Or does that actually play into the ISIS narrative?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: That's a good question. That actually plays into their logic, because most of these establishments are funded or founded by the regimes, and the regimes are basically tyrannical. Let's face it: The people in the region who are fighting ISIS are not exactly beacons of human rights themselves.

This is one of the main problems in the fight against ISIS: Unless the religious voice that wants to claim legitimacy is willing to take on tyranny just as harshly as it takes on terrorism, the youth of the region are not really going to tune in, because they know that this is basically government PR given through an Islamic mouthpiece.

So it does play into ISIS's strategy when they can say, "You know what, look at these scholars, they're basically funded by the government, they work for the tyrants, etc." And the scholars don't say anything against the tyrants who are probably doing the same things as ISIS; they're also torturing, they're also killing, they're also exiling people, etc.

There is another reason why this is important. It's that the dominant paradigm of Islam [the one that all of these establishment scholars follow] is rule-based. It's a rule-centric Islam. It's not value-centric. This actually plays very well with ISIS, because ISIS can just use the same rules and arguments that the establishment scholars use. It kind of throws them a curveball, because ISIS can say to them, "You say you're against what we're doing, but look at your own books, they contain this."

One of the most annoying things about this whole debate is that it's become an attempt to establish a center. To centralize Islam, in other words. So ISIS says, "We are the center," then the scholars say, "No, no, no, we are the center." It's a "my Islam is 'Islamier' than yours" kind of a thing.

I mean, the fact is that it's not centralized. That's why we don't know what "Islamic" means. Instead of saying, "Okay, fine, it's not centralized, let's be centralized," let's talk about values instead of talking about rules.

Jennifer R. Williams: What do you think is the most important thing people need to understand about ISIS and its draw? What is missing from the conversation?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: There are two things. First is that it's not really about religion. It's about the defense of religion-based identity. It's better to look at it through the lens of nationalism rather than religion, in the sense that it's a defense of a religiously formed identity called "Islam" or "Sunnism" or whatever; of course we call it Islam.

It follows the same pattern as any kind of closed nationalism or ethnic nationalism. It's the same kind of "otherization." I actually developed a radicalization road map, and when you look at it you can see that it doesn't only apply to ISIS. It applies to all kinds of closed nationalism/radicalization narratives. Religion is not the driver. It's about the sense of identity. That's the main driver.

The second point is that ISIS cannot be defeated. It has to be replaced. If you're in the restaurant and they only serve tea or coffee, you're not going to order a soda or a shake. Even if you don't like tea or coffee and you would like to actually have a soda or a shake. The menu of ideas in the Arab world only has tyrants or terrorists. It doesn't have a third option. It's a very narrow menu.

And if you go into a restaurant that only serves tea and coffee and you look around at all these people drinking tea or coffee, you're going to think: "You know what, it looks like a lot of people here like tea or coffee." But they don't. It's just that they don't have another option.

So you look at the Arab world right now and think, "Oh, there is a lot of support for terrorism and tyranny." But the thing is they don't have another option. It's not that they like it.

So, yes, of course, in order to defeat ISIS, it's necessary to go in and actually take them out militarily. Military action is part of the solution, but if you want a sustainable solution, you have to provide alternatives — additional visions and additional ideas to actually replace what we have on the ground right now.

Jennifer R. Williams: Is there anything you think the United States could do to help counter ISIS's ideology or to make democracy a more viable third option?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: I think it would really help if the United States stopped screwing us over. By "us," I mean the democratic reformers. United States foreign policy keeps legitimizing our oppressors, our persecutors. I mean, there's a reason why I'm a political refugee. It's because a US ally and a good US friend [the United Arab Emirates] persecuted me and expelled me. That fact is that the US keeps legitimizing these regimes, and those regimes come after us, and then the US says, "You know what, we have to cooperate with the regime because there's no alternative." Of course there's no alternative. Because you keep screwing us over. It would help if you stopped screwing us over.

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