Understanding Islamic State? A conversation with David Pratt

David Pratt is a journalist I rate very highly.  He is the foreign editor for The Herald and Sunday Herald newspapers, and reports with engagement and passion on conflict and humanitarian issues around the world.  He recently wrote a very good column about Palmyra, and I tweeted a link to it with a comment that he then picked up on, and a conversation developed.  I thought it might be interesting to post it here, with a further comment.  Pratt’s original article is here: Caring about people and art is one and the same thing, and I warmly recommend it.

Here’s my tweet, and the ensuing conversation can be read below it (may need a separate tab/window to see it in full; I’ve also created an image of the conversation below; the IS article I linked to is one I wrote for the Critical Religion Association):

Pratt explains that:

Now however, Palmyra’s colonnades, sculptures, friezes and temples stand threatened by the hammers, bulldozers and barbarism of the terrorist army that is Islamic State (IS).

Since this news broke no end of writers have made the case that something has to be done to save Palmyra from IS. But others too have raised the thorny question of whether saving priceless antiquity is as important as saving people?

Quite rightly these same observers also ask why it is that the world is suddenly sitting up and taking notice of Syria’s plight because of Palmyra, while calls for intervention on a purely humanitarian basis have for years been few and far between.

He goes on to find himself surprised to agree with Boris Johnson:

I have never been known to agree with Boris Johnson on anything, but he was correct when he wrote this week that what we are witnessing in Syria and Iraq today isn’t a clash of civilisations, but a ‘struggle between civilisation and nihilism’. Muslims and non-Muslims alike find the scarcely believable cruelty and barbarism of IS an abomination. The treasures of Palmyra like all art, is part of our common human heritage.

The problem that I had with this was the oppositional nature of ‘civilisation and nihilism’ – that kind of binary rarely helps further meaningful understanding (not a surprise when it comes from someone like Johnson…!).  The two authors I mentioned in my tweets are worth reading on this (Gilbert Achcar – and a search will also reveal related shorter pieces/videos – and Timothy Fitzgerald), but there are many more.  In fact, I was surprised that Pratt (although noting that Twitter isn’t an ideal space for discussions such as these), appeared to dismiss thinking about how we might understand IS beyond such binaries, and this is really what I want to comment on here:

How, for example, does a view such as this help us understand anything about IS?

I think, if we want to have any chance of defeating it, we must try to understand what IS is about, what it seeks to do, and why it is winning, as Shadi Hamid argues (it’s worth reading his other tweets/links on this too: intro, 1, 2, 4, 5):

It is not the case that IS is uniquely strong, as Martin Chulov reports in quoting an officer from Ramadi:

“They are not winning because they are powerful. They are winning because we are weak. I’m not sure about Syria, but I think it’s the same there.”

However, we do need to understand why they are as strong as they are.  There is an urgency to this, as reports of horrific brutality emerge day after day, but that does not negate the importance of thinking about it – quite the contrary.  Not understanding its origins, aims, objectives and so on means we are simply flailing around, raining missiles down from a great height with little effect (beyond adding to the horrific carnage on the ground), as the BBC’s Frank Gardner has written.

We must ask the right questions if we want meaningful answers, as I sought to argue in the Critical Religion blog, and making simplistic statements such as Pratt’s ‘IS is not a religion its a terrorist organisation’ does not help us understand IS, nor does it help defeat it/them.  Terror is a tactic, and whilst it can be used in constructing certain elements of an identity (which I presume is what Pratt was arguing here), we need to think harder about what we are combating and why, including what kind of ‘after’ we are wanting to achieve.  IS does, clearly, appeal to some, and so at the very least we have to ask what will replace IS if ‘we’ do succeed in overcoming it.

Of course, it’s not clear to me exactly what the ‘after’ will be – and I don’t think it is to anyone else either! – and whilst at this stage it is hard to see how there cannot be a military element to the present situation, there also has to be much more than that.  A military response is only ever a tool in a wider set of approaches, and thoughtlessly engaging the military is relatively easy in this context, but doesn’t necessarily help in the longer term.  If we don’t bother asking the hard questions and simply portray IS as ‘a terrorist organisation’ (as if that even meant anything in this context!), then we should not be surprised that we have no answers to what these other approaches should be.  That is why, for example, Christoph Reuter‘s work on the background to IS is so important: it shows, amongst other things, that the roots of IS lie in the aftermath of the US/UK-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.  That was an occasion when George W Bush and Tony Blair (in)famously gave very little thought to the ‘after’ – we should not be making the same mistake again.

Conversation with David Pratt - click to make it bigger

Conversation with David Pratt – click to make it bigger

4 thoughts on “Understanding Islamic State? A conversation with David Pratt

  1. Reblogged this on Michael Marten and commented:

    Last week I had a Twitter conversation with David Pratt, the foreign editor of Scotland’s premier newspapers, The Herald and Sunday Herald, and I then wrote a short blog posting about this on another blog I use.

    Some of the themes and issues I address here will be of interest in reflecting on how we think about groups like Islamic State and others. In particular, students engaging with questions of categories and identity questions might find this interaction and my subsequent reflections helpful.


  2. The binaries also points to a bourgeois understanding of arts (I am thinking of what Pierre Bourdieu argued): protecting art is civilised whilst destroying is nihilistic. In many ways, your critique of Pratt’s views is not ‘philosophical navel gazing’ as he has suggested; rather, there is a mystified, misty-eyed understanding of arts when he talks about sleeping in the caves of Bamiyan, etc. That is certainly not a helpful way of understanding either IS or art in these contexts. Yes, art must be protected but they cannot be removed/disembedded from the context within which they exist (or existed, in this case).

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  3. Also, if the implication is the destroying IS will save the art from nihilism, the rationale underpinning this is the same as colonial objects being exhibited in European museums in order to ‘ensure the safety of the objects’. That is rather patronising.
    (Sorry, I clicked reply before adding this second paragraph!).

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