One can almost hear the creaking of the machinery as the US and UK, backed both by NATO and a sizeable number of regional states, begin to move directly against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIS has metamorphosed into the Islamic State, and has at its head Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, now the soi- disant caliph.

There are two very prominent features about the new IS. First, that it is attracting many foreign fighters. Second, that it has executed two Americans, both journalists, and a Briton, an aid worker, which seems to have raised more ire in the US than its reported atrocities against religious minorities.

The IS is being portrayed as something the US has wanted since the beginning of the War On Terror: pure evil. Because neither it nor its allies are willing to admit to any mistakes in the Middle East, it would like to portray militancy as a product of motiveless malignity, rather than a reflex-reaction to historic wrongs. The apparently reasonable Western devotion to dialogue has never stopped it from using violence whenever it has suited it. It is nevertheless interesting that there are many narratives in the Western media which say that the US itself is to blame for causing the IS to develop. However, even these narratives portray the IS as a band of thugs. Their violence is not motiveless, but it is still violence.

The purpose of portraying any caliph as a violent thug seems to be fulfilled. This would justify extreme actions against anyone challenging the prevalent orthodoxy, and would make any future Caliph liable to being dismissed as a violent thug, which is how he will be portrayed in the Western media. The IS caliph does not fulfil those criteria, something shown dramatically because of his remaining in hiding. The Caliph is supposed to rule over an area in which he is secure. He is not supposed to be a militant commander, but a head of both state and government. He must be able to receive the baia of the people freely, not be forced to hide behind a wall of security. We are already used to the image of Caliphs as effete Oriental despots (as they were portrayed in later Ottoman times); now we are being introduced to the image of a cowering terrorist.

It must not be forgotten that IS is not primarily a state, but a militant organization. It may well have broken down the border between Syria and Iraq, but it has thus engaged two Arab governments, not to mention the Kurdish government. There is an element involved of leading towards the disintegration of Iraq, and its portioning into three separate units, a Sunni area, a Shia area and a Kurd area. However, the breakdown of that border does challenge the entire post-Ottoman settlement, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement which underwrote it. That Agreement provides the background which allowed the Arab states of today to come into existence, and thus the very countries which back the ISIS, are threatened by the Caliphate.

That is because the Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain, as well as the Emirates of the UAE and Qatar, are rivals to the Caliphate, having been founded after the demise of the Caliphate, as substitutes which took them into the Western state system, and led the first three to use a title for the head of state abhorrent to Islam theologically. Thus the IS does not ask the Kings and Emirs to give its Caliph baia, or allegiance, but deposes them. It also does so to Western-style Presidents. One of the ways that the US is blamed for the IS is its support for the very regimes that are supposed to have helped found the IS. These regimes are supposed to be Sunni and conservative.

The IS is thus seen to be scratching at the scab of sectarianism. It is not a coincidence that while Syria is ruled for over 40 years by a minority regime, post-occupation Iraq has seen a sectarian regime in place. IS may well represent a Sunni reaction, but it also reflects the failure of the belief systems tried since the beginning of the 20th century to address the problems of the common man. One result has been that people have turned to Islam. Within this context, it is possible to see the IS as being compelled to declare a Caliphate. After all, that is the default model for the Islamic state, one which Al-Qaeda, from which the IS was expelled, shares.

That people in the region are calling for change is also visible in the sit-ins occurring in Islamabad, which are a critique of democracy. Indeed, the calls by Pakistan Awami Tehrik chief Tahirul Qadri for major social and economic changes reflects an aversion not just to democracy but also the capitalist system that underpins it. IS has attacked the only two Arab countries that had Baathist regimes, thus representing a negative judgement on socialism. The turning to Islam thus represents the failure of both capitalism and communism to improve the lot of the common people.

Within this context, Pakistan faces two challenges. The first is that there may be a shifting of militancy toward IS. That would take a large number of Pakistani militants to IS-controlled areas. Another complication is that a lot of the Britons and Americans now going to Syria would be of Pakistani origin, possibly with travel in Pakistan. Past experience shows that could be troublesome for the government. This would be particularly problematic for a government trying to adjust to the changes from the US drawdown in Afghanistan. The war against the IS implies that the War on Terror continues, and it is not just Western countries that should worry about blowback.

The second problem will be the request for Pakistani forces. It would be best if the request was not made, but in the two American wars against Iraq, the request was made. The US seems to associate the Pakistan Army and Iraq with each other. However, the Army is occupied with Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and cannot be expected to make the effort. Even in the first Gulf War, while Pakistani forces were deployed, they were only to be used for the defence of the Sacred Places of Mecca and Medina. That excuse might be made again, and must be met similarly.

 The writer is a veteran journalist  and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

maniazi@nation.com.pk