How to Understand ISIS

ISIS: A History

by Fawaz A. Gerges
Princeton University Press, 368 pp., $27.95
Bahraini police dispersing protesters at an unauthorized demonstration by the February 14 Youth Coalition, Manama, January 2013. The coalition is named for the day that Bahrain’s uprising began during the Arab Spring of 2011.
Mohammed al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images
Bahraini police dispersing protesters at an unauthorized demonstration by the February 14 Youth Coalition, Manama, January 2013. The coalition is named for the day that Bahrain’s uprising began during the Arab Spring of 2011.

In his best-selling History of the Arab Peoples, published two years before his death in 1993, the Anglo-Lebanese scholar Albert Hourani remarked on the surprising levels of political stability prevailing in the Arab world at that time. Despite the rapid growth of its cities, and many disparities of wealth between the governing elites and newly urbanized masses who were calling for social justice, calm seemed to rule, at least on the surface. Since the military coups of the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere there had been remarkably little change in the general nature of most Arab regimes or the direction of their policies. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco had seen no dynastic changes for more than two generations; in Libya and Syria the regimes that came to power around 1970 were still in place. In 2000 in Syria, nearly a decade after Hourani’s book was published, leadership passed smoothly from father to son, while in Egypt and Libya the issue of dynastic succession was being widely discussed.

Like many other observers of Middle Eastern and North African history, Hourani interpreted this picture of calm with an eye to the writings of Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), the Arab historian and polymath whose theories of dynastic change and cyclical renewal and especially his concept of ‘asabiyya, variously translated as “clannism,” “group feeling,” or—in Hourani’s definition—“a corporate spirit oriented towards obtaining and keeping power,” provided a prism through which contemporary systems of governance could be viewed. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2004 Arab Human Development Report, for example:

Clannism [‘asabiyya] in all its forms (tribal, clan-based, communal, and ethnic)…tightly shackles its followers through the power of the authoritarian patriarchal system. This phenomenon…represents a two-way street in which obedience and loyalty are offered in return for protection, sponsorship, and a share of the spoils.

Moreover, as both Hourani and the UN report pointed out, clannism in its modern versions has been buttressed by methods of surveillance, systemic brutality, and bureaucratic controls that were not available in Ibn Khaldun’s day, when the powers of central governments were far less strong.

The events of 2011—following on the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003—saw a cataclysmic change in this picture of apparent stability and continuity. Starting in Tunisia, the riots and demonstrations of the so-called Arab Spring spread to virtually every Arab country, with major insurgencies in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, civil uprisings in Egypt and…


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