Bombing Iraq: falling into Isis trap?

By Savi Hensman
September 25, 2014

The UK government is seeking parliament’s approval to join the USA in carrying out air strikes on Iraq. The aim is to weaken Isis forces, responsible for various atrocities. But the attack may strengthen them instead.

Isis (a so-called Islamic state that misuses religion to pursue power) has sparked widespread revulsion after releasing videos of western hostages being beheaded. Other abuses include persecuting religious minorities.

Unsurprisingly, many people back military action. However it is important to question why Isis has been so keen to publicise its own atrocities, in ways that make it an obvious target for attack.

One purpose of such videos is presumably to spread terror in the areas Isis controls or is trying to seize. Another is to bolster its prestige. However it seems likely that commanders wish to encourage an attack by the USA and allies.

This may not be simply down to fanaticism or bravado but rather a considered decision that the benefits may outweigh the disadvantages.

While some people are attracted by Isis’ claims, its narrowness and brutality have met local resistance. To regain popularity, Isis may be seeking to exploit the hostility triggered by a display of western military might, with resulting casualties.

The Middle East policy of the USA has largely focused on the interests of oil companies and, to some extent, the arms industry. Out of self-interest dictators have been fêted and toppled, international law upheld and defied.

Isis may wish to pose as an heroic defender of Arab and Muslim honour, bombarded by the same superpower (backed by its UK sidekick) which underwrote the devastation of Gaza. This may divert attention from its misdeeds and assist it in smearing its critics as stooges of the west.

Just as images of civilians executed by Isis have sparked widespread revulsion, so may pictures of the bodies of women and children blasted by US or UK bombs. The propaganda advantages may outweigh the military drawbacks.

Western governments indeed face a difficult situation, in that their prestige may be damaged and commercial confidence affected if they are not seen to take strong measures. Yet even on grounds of pragmatic self-interest, it might be wise not to dance to Isis’ tune.

A drive to promote human rights on a principled basis would probably be more effective in undermining Isis’ power.

In the late 1940s, Muslim and Middle Eastern statespersons, scholars and others, along with those of other faiths and nations, helped to develop a Universal Declaration of Human Rights covering economic and social as well as political rights.

Since then internationally many people, of various religions and none, have helped to develop thinking and practice that advances rights for all, including those at greatest risk of injustice and violence. Yet many are not aware of this history or of how human rights principles overlap with what is best in their own traditions.

Even when governments in the west and elsewhere give priority to corporate interests or their own prestige, citizens can choose to take a different stance. Ultimately it should be possible to counter violent extremism and militaristic displays, whoever is responsible, and form alliances to build a better future.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.