In its article "In Battle to Defang ISIS, U.S. Targets Its Psychology" the NY Times discussed a "brain trust" set up by Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East in order to better understand ISIS. His assumption is that in order to defeat ISIS he will first need to understand its attraction and strength. According to the article they are humble: "We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea." Well, they never will. Their mistake is too fundamental. This is not about just an idea: this is about a winning idea.
50 years ago Arab socialism was in fashion and many in the Middle East believed that Islam was holding the region back. The spirit of Atatürk, who modernized Turkey while sidelining Islam, was still very much alive. So there is nothing in the Arab culture or the Muslim religion that makes the present obsession with radicalism inevitable. That radical Islam became as strong as it is is the result of deliberate decisions by both local and Western politicians:
- From the 1950s on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have played a major role in promoting radical Islamist movements and uprisings. That way they want to protect themselves both from the appeal of Arab socialism and the appeal of Western liberalism. It helps them to keep influence in the region and it keeps the restless at home busy with foreign adventures.
- Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States have not stopped promoting radical Islam. They have only switched from promoting the Brotherhood to promoting Salafism. For the average Jihadi in the West this won't make much of a difference: their Islamic organizations always looked more like individualistic Salafism than like the very organized Brotherhood.
- Afghanistan was another contributing factor. Thanks to US machinations Islamists won there in the 1970s from one of the main superpowers.
- Oil wealth also counts: for the many Arab migrant workers in the Gulf States it is seductive to believe that conservative Islam and wealth are related.
- More recently the US further helped the Islamists by overthrowing one secular leader after another: Saddam, Gaddafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak. Assad is still under attack. It is really amazing to see how easily the US could be manipulated by the Saudi's to support their agenda.
ISIS and radical Islam have now the aura of being winners. That counts more than any specific ideology. And given the many sources of this winner aura and the weakness of the alternative ideologies this isn't likely to change soon.
See also my post from a few years ago Comparing communists and the Muslim Brotherhood. It discusses similarities between how radical Islam is organized now and how communism was organized in its heydays outside the communist countries.