After ISIS: How They Won Even Though They Were Defeated

Maj.-Gen. Majid Al-Tamimi died in August 2014 trying to pilot his Iraqi helicopter to rescue Yazidis who were fleeing Islamic State.

Today there is a new monument in northern Iraq’s Sinjar region to his heroism. In the dark days of that year as ISIS seemed unstoppable, there were just a few bright spots that showed through. Four years later, the situation in Sinjar is bleak. The area, also called Shingal by locals, was devastated by ISIS and more than 300,000 Yazidi residents have yet to return home.

It is a testament to the lasting effect of ISIS that most of those areas destroyed during the war and the communities ISIS singled out for genocide and ethnic cleansing – including Shi’ites, Yazidis and Christians – have not returned to their pre-2014 lives. This is one outcome of genocide, that communities targeted by groups like the Nazis often cannot recover. Jewish communities in many parts of Europe vanished and will never return.

The difference between the legacy of ISIS and that of the Nazis is that ISIS was allowed to achieve a form of victory not by winning the war but by the unwillingness of people to confront ISIS crimes. We can see this in the wall of silence in may countries, particularly Europe, about what intelligence services knew and when they knew it about the 5,000 citizens of EU countries who joined ISIS. In 2014, ISIS was open about its goals. It said, “We are going to kill the kuffar,” the word for “non-Muslims” or “infidels.”

On social media, hundreds of thousands of accounts shared ISIS videos of executions, beheadings, machine gunning people into mass graves. It looked like the Holocaust, as though you could have watched the Einsatzgruppen in real time. Yet almost nothing was done in 2014 to prevent thousands of people from joining ISIS. Instead, all that was done was a concerted media campaign to claim that ISIS was “violent extremists” and “militants” and “insurgents” – a whole conveyor belt of terms designed to make us think ISIS isn’t like the Nazis, it’s something else.

Unlike how Western countries confronted the legacy of Nazism and groups like the KKK, by confronting racism and intolerance, almost no effort was put into confronting the intolerance and daily incitement that led to ISIS. We were told that people joined ISIS out of “alienation” or just because they are poor, but when we actually got to interview ISIS members when they were arrested or detained in Iraq and Syria, what media discovered was that these are not poor people suffering discrimination. These are often middle-class and college-educated, sometimes converts to Islamist extremism, who relished the idea of selling slaves and murdering people. They saw traveling to Iraq and Syria to be a kind of vacation where they would get a nice house, emptied of its inhabitants and confiscated from minorities, and they would get slaves and relax.

Unlike locals in Syria and Iraq who sometimes joined for different reasons, the 50,000 foreigners from all over the world who traveled to Iraq and Syria went there purely for the spoils. They bragged online about rape and genocide. These were the SS members of our era, if the SS members had Twitter and Facebook to talk about how much they couldn’t wait to get to Poland to create Lebensraum.

In the Middle East, ISIS is understood in its own context, a jihadist movement that grew out of other movements. Middle Eastern states have found different ways to confront this “extremism,” as it’s termed in the sanitized Orwellian terminology. Extremism, like the Salem witch trials or Inquisition, was extremism. So some states now have state-managed sermons in mosques on a Friday to stop the extremist preachers. Some have sought to “re-educate” radicals. In Iraq they’ve also executed captured ISIS members.

But what about the overall legacy? What if the legacy of the KKK had been to just say, “They aren’t real Christians” and “They are violent extremists” – but then to stop there and not make any effort to teach tolerance and make the ideology of the KKK appear toxic in public? In Washington this week, there was a small march by “white nationalists” and a huge protest against it. But there was never a protest against ISIS in Europe or the countries where thousands of ISIS members transited, like Turkey, to get to Iraq and Syria. If someone sees an ISIS flag today, do they protest it? Does it anger them? Or do they prefer the more easy target to confront, the swastika, because secretly we are still afraid to speak truth to the power of “violent extremism?”

In that sense, ISIS won. It won in Iraq and Syria by destroying minority communities. It won because today the international community is not funding those communities or rebuilding their areas. It won in the West because it was allowed to percolate up and then quietly go away without any real desire to confront it. Some countries in Europe, such as the UK, simply stripped ISIS members of their citizenship. That was a convenient way to wash their hands of the issue. Would it have sufficed after the Holocaust if Germany just stripped Nazis of their citizenship, and then went back to normal?

Certainly some countries in Europe wanted to do that. Ignore the collaborators, the tens of thousands in places like Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and other countries who volunteered for the SS. Let Grandpa hang up his uniform from guarding Auschwitz and go back to being a farmer. What did Grandpa do during the war? Oh, he was picking tomatoes. Like ISIS members who, when captured, always claim to be cooks in Syria and Iraq. Only rarely do they admit to their crimes.

ISIS was a brand, like the KKK, but its ideology still exists. If you don’t defeat the pool of intolerance from which ISIS came, you have not defeated it. Many societies don’t want to go into the pool and protest against intolerance so that the ideologies that underpinned ISIS, primarily religious intolerance, have the same stigma as racism does.

We live in a globalized world today. It used to be that if there was just a little “extremism” here and there one could turn a blind eye to it. But since the 1990s, networks of hatred have spread the ideology that led to ISIS and utilized new media to do so. Why did a suicide bomber seek to target a church in Egypt recently? Why were Druze murdered in Syria recently? It’s not random. Just like pogroms in the 19th century led to the Holocaust, all of these events are part of a pattern.

If we don’t want ISIS to win in the long run, we have to send the message that not only will minority communities be rebuilt in Iraq and Syria, rebuilt stronger than before, but we will fight ISIS mentalities in Europe and throughout the world. Majid Al-Tamimi sought to rescue hundreds of Yazidis trapped in Sinjar. Unlike Oskar Schindler, who initially worked within the Nazi system and only realized at the end he could have saved more, Al-Tamimi always sought to save more people – and he lost his life saving them.

You won’t hear his name in any European city. While he was flying out the Yazidis, the ISIS members were flying toward Iraq and Syria. They won’t build a monument to Maj.-Gen. Al-Tamimi in Europe because it might force people to ask, “When thousands of my fellow citizens went to the Middle East to participate in genocide of minorities, why didn’t I speak up? What did Grandpa do in 1942? What did I do in 2014?”

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum

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