Making predictions about the Middle East is probably a fool’s game, but consider this possibility: The hyper-radicalism represented by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have crested. His brutal effort to build a caliphate has left behind only a pile of ashes, and many young Muslims seem to understand that.
Baghdadi created a movement that was a theater of violence. Its trademark was the videotaping of extreme cruelty: beheading prisoners, drowning them in cages, setting them on fire. This pornographic mayhem was meant to shock and enrage; and also to draw young recruits. At first, it succeeded on all counts: It’s hard to remember now the toxic energy that drew Muslims from around the world to the self-proclaimed Islamic State at its apogee in 2014.
But the caliphate’s moment has passed. In the weeks before Baghdadi’s death, young Arabs were in the streets in Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad and other Arab cities demanding change; but not in a reversion to the time of the prophet Muhammad’s birth in the 6th century. The new protest movements are secular and generally peaceful.
The Islamic State still poses a deadly threat, especially as its embattled remnants seek revenge for their fallen leader. But the survivors will have trouble finding a successor who matches Baghdadi’s combination of pious scholar and bloodthirsty executioner.
“It seems as if there’s a pendulum that’s swinging again toward mass protests,” says William McCants, author of the “The ISIS Apocalypse,” one of the best books about the group. That said, he notes that the popular movement known as the “Arab Spring” preceded the Islamic State’s eruption. “If the protest energy isn’t productive this time, you have the possibility of another violent explosion,” he cautions.
“The Arab world may be at a crossroads,” said one well-placed analyst. He noted that the Islamic State is severely damaged: It has lost its caliphate, its popular momentum and now its leader. Young Arabs now have different options available to express their anger.
The street protests that have hit Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt in recent weeks have a common theme: popular rage at the corruption of public officials. The three regimes are very different, but they have all been buffeted by similar bottom-up demands for change.
This change movement is visible even in authoritarian countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. In both countries, a big factor has been women’s push for greater social and political power. In both Riyadh and Tehran, for example, vocal movements are demanding that women be allowed to appear in public without the hijab, the traditional Islamic headscarf.
Saudi Arabia was once a hidden source of support for Sunni fundamentalism, which was a backstop for extremist groups such as the Islamic State. But that’s less true in recent years. A spokesman for this more moderate Saudi religious view is Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Riyadh-based Muslim World League. I asked him in an interview last week what he would do if his daughter decided to remove her hijab. Issa said he would try to talk her out of it, on religious grounds, but if she insisted, he would accept her choice. That’s not the old Saudi ulema.
Lebanon’s protest movement may be the most interesting, because it has brought together young Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians. The protesters are demanding the replacement of the entire political establishment; not just the wealthy political tycoons, but the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia as well. Demonstrators in the Sunni city of Tripoli in the north are chanting support for Shiite protesters in the southern city of Tyre, and vice versa.
“Lebanon may be the first Arab country to enter the post-sectarian era,” says Robert Fadel, a former Lebanese member of parliament who has been in the streets with the protesters, in a telephone interview from Beirut. Facing this popular onslaught, Hezbollah has tried to cling to the status quo.
The political culture of the Arab world is so fragmented that popular demands for change often degenerate into chaos that, in turn, brings a new round of authoritarian government. That’s what happened in Egypt and many other nations swept by the Arab Spring in 2011. Popular movements didn’t generate leaders who could make change something more than a slogan.
The post-Baghdadi vacuum could produce another charismatic extremist who will ignite the fires of rage again. So vigilant counterterrorism is still the essential requirement in dealing with what’s left of the Islamic State.
But there’s something else animating the Arab world these days, and it isn’t the Islamic chanting that accompanied videos of beheading. It’s something different: a militant, secular movement demanding change.
Follow David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost.