The deep, perverse relationship between Middle Eastern despots and Islamist fanaticism

The fight against ISIS is not nearly as straightforward as many Western leaders claim

A defaced mural of Saddam Hussein.
(Image credit: Reuters/CORBIS)

It's time to wake up to the deep, perverse relationship between secular despotism and Islamist fanaticism.

The proof stretches back clear to Saddam Hussein, who tapped into the deranged spirit of suicidal jihad more than many would care to recall. Abu Nadil, the ISIS leader U.S. airstrikes recently obliterated, was not just known to the West as the likely spokesghoul infamous from a videotaped beheading of Coptic Christians held in February of this year. He was also an FRL, a.k.a Former Regime Loyalist: a Baathist holdover turned ISIS governor of the Iraqi province containing — surprise, surprise — Saddam's hometown.

"ISIS's roots in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party are deep — many of the group's most devoted commanders, advisers, and fighters started out as Baathists," as clandestine anti-jihad veteran Malcolm W. Nance has patiently explained. "The ex-Baathists essentially run ISIS, and their past is evident in the tactics they are using now."

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The intimate link between despotism and caliphism reaches well beyond Iraq. It is the central feature of life in Syria — where Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State serve one another's ends — and in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has happily cultivated and exploited the deepest of ties with the Assad regime. Syrian rebels, including defectors from Assad's decaying army, have warned of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style transformation of the ostensibly state military, with Hezbollah and Iranian parasites filling and animating the body of the host.

As Assad's once relatively secular dictatorship grows more caliphist, the complementary inverse procedure accelerates just across the "border." In a development Reuters rather naively described as an "unexpected twist," Suleiman Franjieh, childhood friend of Assad himself, is deftly positioned to assume the presidency of Lebanon. "Hezbollah has repeatedly stated its support for the candidacy of [Michel] Aoun, 80, its ally since 2006 and head of the biggest Christian bloc in parliament," Reuters noted. "Yet Franjieh, whose ties to the group are much older, may be a preferable choice for the group as Hezbollah wages war in Syria in support of Assad." You bet your Baath he is.

In one of the more worrying hallmarks of naivety and willful ignorance in the West, Hezbollah's possible complicity in what are presumably Islamic State attacks has failed to show up as even a blip on our busy matrix of fear. (Of course, Hezbollah denounces ISIS as vociferously as Assad, to the scripted delight of, among others, Russia.) But it is Hezbollah that has laid down the tried-and-true blueprint for supposedly "calculating" and "pragmatic" strongmen who know well the value, and danger, of nursing vipers. It is now obvious that Tunisia is being primed by the Islamic State to become Libya's own Lebanon. Thousands of Tunisians have joined ISIS, fanning out across Libya and the Levant alike, with the group's leadership openly calling on more maniacs to indulge their whims. One report puts their number at 6,000, beating out even the granddaddy of absolutist jihad-mongers, Saudi Arabia, for top honors in the world ISIS recruitment finals.

Those who wish to portray our era's marquee conflict as a clash of civilizations may be overstating the case. But at least they are groping toward a way of admitting that mass-murdering illiberalism in the Muslim world cannot be reduced to one kind of worldview or another. Islamism's deranged true believers have long been in league with its least spiritualistic worshippers of raw, unfettered power.

Reasonable as it is for us to try reducing this vile mass to a single dimension, that would be a fatal error. However much a part of the problem Islamism may be, an extreme version of this faith cannot singlehandedly account for the cannibalization of civilization in the Middle East. Civilizations are more complicated than that. Unfortunately for Western civilization, so are the perils we would love so much to reduce down to ISIS alone.

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James Poulos

James Poulos is a contributing editor at National Affairs and the author of The Art of Being Free, out January 17 from St. Martin's Press. He has written on freedom and the politics of the future for publications ranging from The Federalist to Foreign Policy and from Good to Vice. He fronts the band Night Years in Los Angeles, where he lives with his son.