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The Islamic State, gardening metaphors, and misinformation

The dangers of analysis and misrepresentation that flows from strained gardening metaphors by an influential columnist.

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    Sometimes a vine is just a vine: Sheep take on invasive kudzu in Tallahassee, Florida.
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Thomas Friedman yesterday likened the so-called Islamic State to an "invasive species" ("IS," get it?). Comparing the ideology of Islamic State to an invasive, noxious weed that needs tearing up by the roots is attractive for the purposes of writing a column. But Mr. Friedman, a New York Times columnist, is on shaky ground here, and his representation of IS is both wrong and analytically useless.

At the outset, he cites an unnamed Iraqi official saying that the pejorative term for Shiites "rafidah" was unheard of in Iraq before IS came along. Not true. I heard it plenty during the US occupation of Iraq. Even before then, state-run media featured pejorative attacks on Shiites. At the time, the biggest domestic challenge to Saddam Hussein's secular, but Sunni Arab dominated regime, were Shiite Islamist underground movements that were to benefit from his fall. 

Moreover, in the final years of Saddam's regime, many Sunni Arabs were finding the austere Wahhabi religious ideology of Saudi Arabia more attractive. And Saddam – reeling from the bloody draw of the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf War, and a decade of harsh sanctions – tried to wrap himself in a cloak of Sunni religious legitimacy.

But no matter, Friedman is off and running. Based on the word of one man, he declares that "ISIS operates just like an 'invasive species.'" He then recommends that we take a page out of National Arboretum on how to deal with kudzu: "Use systemic herbicides carefully" and "preserve healthy native plant habitats." In his framing, US airpower is the herbicide. The healthy habitat? A unity government in Baghdad "with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds together." 

The most dangerous element is the insistence on the "foreignness" of jihadi ideology, as if that really matters. Modern Iraq has experienced waves of religious and demographic change. At the dawn of the 19th century, Shiites were a distinct minority in the country. But a wave of conversions among Iraqi tribes in the center and particularly the south of Iraq, in part encouraged by investments in canal infrastructure around two major shrine cities by Shiite states in India, changed all that.

Was this wave of Shiism into Iraq a foreign, indeed an "invasive" import? British colonial rulers believed so. They preferred the previous Ottoman arrangement of administering through mostly Sunni local elites and keeping a lid on Shiite tribes. Then along came another "foreign" ideology among Shiites of Iraq: Communism. For poor farmers and laborers, Marx's ideology had a certain appeal, which is why Shiites dominated the influential Iraqi Communist Party.

In time, the appeal of communism faded, but this is the point: Human history has been defined by the flow of ideas across borders, good ideas and bad ideas. Local ecosystems, to adopt Friedman's framing, are constantly accommodating new ideas, remaking themselves in the process. 

It may appear that more Sunni Arabs in Iraq ascribe to Saudi Arabia's Wahabbi style of Islam than in the recent past. This is certainly the case among IS jihadis and their followers. But calling that "foreign" as if an answer stems from this claim doesn't get you very far. "Foreign" things have a way of becoming domesticated. (And while Friedman says foreign jihadis are "especially" coming from Saudi Arabia, that distinction appears to belong to more tolerant Tunisia).

Friedman's piece also fits squarely within a consensus of many Washington pundits and policy makers that the US, if it only shows enough will and spends enough money, can remake these human ecosystems. Perhaps the US effort to create a stable democracy in Iraq failed because it didn't stay the course, or was applied by the wrong people. But this analysis blithely ignores the agency of Iraq's major factions.

The leading Shiite parties who came to power after 2003 saw themselves as correcting a historic injustice at the hands of their former overlords, the Sunni Arabs. The Kurds? Their ultimate interest is Kurdish independence, something most Sunni Arab and Shiite Iraqis strongly oppose. 

Nevertheless, the answers seem simple to Friedman:

We should be pressing the Iraqi government, which is rich with cash, to focus on delivering to every Iraqi still under its control 24 hours of electricity a day, a job, better schools, more personal security and a sense that no matter what sect they’re from the game is not rigged against them and their voice will count. That is how you strengthen an ecosystem against invasive species.

...We always overestimate military training and force and underestimate what Arabs and Afghans want most: decent and just governance. Without the latter, there is no way to cultivate real citizens with a will to fight — and without will there is no training that matters.

Ask any general — or gardener.

The US wasn't capable of providing these things Friedman says are necessary when it had over 100,000 troops occupying the country, and calls for the US to "press" the Iraqi government to do better are risible. Neither IS, nor Iraqi security forces who have tortured thousands of Sunni Arabs in recent years, nor corrupt Iraqi politicians and generals are akin to cane toads in Australia or lionfish off the coast of Florida, mindlessly reproducing and expanding into fresh territory. They are people calculating their own interests and acting on that basis.

Extended gardening metaphors aren't going to change that.

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