Hussein Ibish

August 13, 2014

Baghdadi Denial Syndrome

The IS should provoke profound introspection in the Sunni Arab world. Instead, various forms of Baghdadi Denial Syndrome are getting all the attention.




An image made available on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin on June 11, 2014 shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) posing with the trademark Jihadists flag after they allegedly seized an Iraqi army checkpoint in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin. Jihadists are pushing toward Baghdad on June 12, 2014 (AFP Photo/HO/Welayat Salahuddin)

One of the most alarming features of Arab responses to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq is a persistent pattern of neurotic denial in the form of conspiracy theories and other escapist fantasies. But running away from the truth will only complicate the ability of Arab states and societies to comprehend where the IS came from, how it has unexpectedly managed to surge into so much power so quickly, and how it can be effectively countered.

One of the most persistent and widespread delusions is that the IS did not, in fact, emerge from Sunni Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria over the course of the wars there in the past decade. Instead, it is increasingly asserted, the IS is a creature of, and was established by, intelligence services such as the CIA or the Israeli Mossad. An extraordinarily large number of Arabs, Muslims and others appear to have taken refuge in these conspiracy theories. Call it Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.

The most outlandish version circulating online holds that IS leader and "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, in fact, a Jewish actor named Elliot Shimon, or some such plausibly-Jewish name. Shimon, it's laughably alleged, was trained for a year by the Mossad in various skills, including theology and rhetoric.

Even some who don't embrace this detailed self-parody are still clinging to the notion that Baghdadi and the IS are, somehow, foreign impositions on the Sunni Muslim social and political landscape of Syria and Iraq. An astounding number and range of Arabs, in my own experience in recent weeks, embrace some version of a conspiracy theory holding that the IS and Baghdadi are not what they seem and are, in fact, the creations of Western or Israeli intelligence services.

In a way, this thinking reflects a positive impulse. There is a desire to reject Baghdadi and the IS, and an unwillingness to accept the fact that such vicious malefactors could actually have been organically produced by elements of Syrian and Iraqi society under extreme pressures. Like Arab and Muslim 9/11 conspiracy theories, it begins with a disavowal – "that can't have had anything to do with any of us" – that, rather than producing serious introspection, gives way to denial through conspiracy theory and a terror of the truth.

And, indeed, the truth is terrifying. For the reality is that Baghdadi and the IS are not the products of the CIA or the Mossad or anything like that. They have arisen, and gained power, in the heart of the Sunni Arab world. Accordingly, they cannot but be recognized as reflecting a profound crisis in the culture and hierarchies of moral and religious values that have taken root in parts of those societies.

Of course it's true that Baghdadi and the IS would not have arisen without the ill-conceived and disastrous American invasion and occupation of Iraq a decade ago. And they would not have swept to power but for the concerted policies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Assad relies on the IS to defeating the Syrian opposition by making the IS appear more horrifying than himself, and has promoted their role in the opposition at every stage. And Maliki's outrageously sectarian and abusive policies created the space for the IS to operate successfully within Sunni communities in Iraq that otherwise probably wouldn't have existed.

And yet, while one cannot hold the entirety of Iraqi or Syrian Sunnis responsible for the IS and its depredations, one cannot exculpate these communities entirely either. Without significant public support the IS would not have been able to seize and control the amount of territory it has acquired in recent months. If its message did not resonate, the group would not have grown so quickly. At the very least, Sunni tribes and other Sunni militias have stood aside while the IS has seized victory after victory in Iraq. Whatever they thought they were accomplishing by either supporting or not opposing the IS, they must bear some responsibility for its outrageous conduct.

Christians have been forced out of newly-acquired IS territories, apparently without any pushback from their Sunni Muslim neighbors. In some cases, there appears to be popular collaboration in this cleansing. Even worse, the murderous assault on the Yazidi minority has also gone apparently unopposed on the ground.


Is it expecting too much to wonder why people are not standing up to these savages when they have the guns and many others don't? Perhaps. But there don't appear to be any real signs that these communities are stricken, or even upset, by IS abuses against their neighbors.

As long as there is a way of blaming others – whether it's the CIA and/or the Mossad via conspiracy theories, or implicating the United States, Iran, Assad or Maliki by emphasizing the context of the IS rise, rather than the rise itself – the true meaning and impact of the Islamic State will be denied. In fact, there is no way to look at the fact of the surge of these extremists without seriously questioning the cultural and moral health of the Arab Sunni Muslim communities in which they are operating and which they claim to represent. It cannot but be a manifestation of the most profound crisis.

And this spiritual and moral crisis cannot be analyzed until it is accepted as fact, and cannot be addressed until it is analyzed. So as long as many Sunni Arabs hide behind conspiracy theories or point the finger elsewhere, the real meaning of the horrifying IS phenomenon will remain unexamined, and a serious response aimed at correcting the social and cultural distortions that have produced it will be unattainable.

And, in turn, that will ensure that the pushback against the IS and similar fanatics is, at best, delayed or ineffective. The Islamic State itself should be delighted. Nothing could be better calculated to facilitate a continuation of their string of successes than Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.


Hussein Ibish is a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE). He is also a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He tweets @Ibishblog




Demetra, Athens

iraq united where Greece fits in this , who the hell Greece invaded, why you mess greeks with this hell...GR was invaded by germany, italy, bulgarians, TURKEY for 500 years what the hell you want...it wasn't a part of crusaders, whatever i don't argue with embattled area people, God guide you


Simply, trying to distort the reputation of Sunni Arabs, ignoring that all these crisis were initially triggered by the American invasion of Iraq and the US continuos and unconditional support for Arab dictatorships.


Are sunni terrorists worse than shia terrorists ?


I am an Iraqi Sunni Muslim. The article has some really good points. However your opening paragraph states your hypothesis/bias. So you emphasized data that support your point and completely marginalized points that don't prove your hypothesis. And by doing that you lost credibility because let your bias dictate and some really good points got lost. I agree with your point that ALL Sunni Arabs Governments MUST MUST publicly denounce IS and ALL THEIR BELIEFS. It is not Islam that I know and practice. Then they need to go a step further and prosecute and punish those who espouse hate and crimes in the name of religion. As we all know, anyone can interpret parts of any of the Bible, Torah, Quran to make it fit their bias - so religious group can escape that. Muslims are not 1 country. So first order of business, stop generalizing. It is as useful as saying more have died at the hands of Christians than any other religion in recent history (US, British, French, Soviets, Germans, etc.) There is always the flavor of the decade, that causes war, divisions, and sell more weapons. Communists in the 60's and 70's, Iran in the 80's, many in the 90's all over the world, Taliban and Al Qeada in 2000, so it is in keeping with a trend: must find an enemy to fight a war to sell weapons. 3 questions you should have contemplated to make your argument complete are: 1. what suffering do people have to endure to lose hope and do things we do not expect? 2. who in Iraq was committing similar heinous crimes in the last 5 years but no one reported on it? where was the outrage then? 3. So all colonials and empires of history who fought wars to concur lands and occupy people are no different in that sense? US (how many americans were killed in the civil war, native americans were killed, vietnamese, , The British, The French, The Germans, The Greek, The Italians/Romans, The Irish and IRA . . . . all these peoples had to admit they kill for no good reason? Thi

Jacob the aggressive watcher

2jews sitting on a bank reading newspapers, one read an Israeli paper, the other an Arab one. The jew asks the other how come that you read this Arab paper? It is full of wrong Infos. He replied, well, if I read the Jewish paper, I only see the quarrels between us, how bad we are seen in the world, etc. I, on the contrary love to hear in the Arab outlets how we control the world, the banks, Hollywood. This makes me feel strong


Before ISIS, over a million and a half Arabic-speaking Christians were driven from their homes in Iraq by their Sunni-Arab neighbors in the last decade alone. Before ISIS, the large Assyrian-Christian community was wiped out by the Sunni-Moslem young Turks, in 1914-15, in a giant genocide in Upper Mesopotamia. Before ISIS, in the 1930s, Baghdad--yes that same Baghdad--had a 30% Jewish population: the "Farhud" of 1941 and subsequent attacks on Jews reduced that to zero. The entire ancient Jewish populations of the Middle-east were destroyed by Sunni and Shiite Moslems; most of these million people fled to Israel where today they and their descendants make up over half the Jewish population. This happened after the failed attempt of the armies of 5 Sunni-Arab states--Iraq too-- to ethnically-cleanse Israel of its Jews, a failure known as the 'Naqba' and still bitterly mourned and regretted by Sunni-Moslems world-wide. I suggest that though ISIS is especially brutal and rapid in its predations on other populations, especially non-Muslims but not only them, this phenomenon is part and parcel of the whole Arab Conquest and Islamic Domination paradigm. It had its start with Mohammad and his unprovoked slaughter of the Jewish community of Khaibar, Medina province. It has not ceased to this day. It is the core nature of expansionist Islam that Sunni Arabs and Shiites too are in denial about.


Good article. But I'm astonished that Mr Ibish makes no mention of ISIS' real international sponsors Turkey and Qatar. This is the second ISIS related article that omits information about ISIS sources of funds and weaponry and its close ties to the Turkish government and intelligence services. Who are you afraid of offending Mr Ibish? Are you simply unaware of the machinations of these pro-Brotherood regimes or are you suffering from your very own denial syndrome?


LOL . . . or Christian, or Jewish, or Chinese, or wait . . . Russian? Awesome and such wonderful observation. One is a freedom fighter, the other is a killer . . . which is which is defined by your bias.