Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

Middle East facing own dark shadows

Arab governments are starting to face up to the root causes that led to the rise of extremist groups like ISIS

THE long and often frustrating debate over how to respond to the vicious mayhem in the Middle East is over: Up to 40 nations are now either taking part or supporting the United States-led military operation against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Yet the truly critical fight is that being waged inside the Arab world, by governments determined not only to "degrade" ISIS as US President Barack Obama put it, but to destroy it, and prevent the rise of another murderous fundamentalist Muslim organisation in its stead.

It is a battle which will take years, but which has to be won if the Middle East is to escape from its seemingly never-ending cycle of sectarian violence. Yet it is also the sort of battle no Middle Eastern government has ever successfully waged before.

Outside observers often fail to appreciate the grave impact which the rise of ISIS has had on Saudi Arabia, by far the Arab world's richest and most influential state.

Quite a number of ordinary Saudis sympathise with the organisation, and particularly with its claim to be fighting on behalf of Sunni Muslims against Iran and its alleged Shi'ite proxies.

The fact that ISIS espouses the same strict, purist Wahhabist interpretation of Islam which is officially embraced by Saudi Arabia is considered another attraction.

But, as Saudi Arabia's royal family knows only too well, the rise of ISIS is a mortal threat to the Middle East's current political structures.

ISIS' deft media propaganda, complete with gory videos of beheadings, is not only intended to frighten opponents, but also to project an image of radical purity which bypasses the credibility of Arab monarchies.

So, what to many governments in the West looks like just a destructive, mediaeval organisation bent on burning and pillaging comes across to the Saudis and other Arab monarchies as the negation of everything they and their countries stand for.

And, as Mr Alastair Crooke, a retired British spy who currently researches regional politics, argued in a recently published study, ISIS not only threatens to sweep away Arab crowned heads, but may also light the fuse to a far bigger explosion in the Middle East.

Taking on the ISIS

TRYING to confront ISIS as an organisation while avoiding too much of a discussion about its ideological roots and its claims to religious purity is the task facing Arab governments. And unsurprisingly, this is easier said than done.

The initial reaction to the rise of ISIS was one of stunned silence. Paradoxically, it was Al-Qaeda which first spoke up against the group, mainly because the older and more established global terrorist outfit felt directly threatened by ISIS, an organisation it dismisses as just an upstart.

It was only late last month that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the country's highest cleric, issued a fatwa - a religious edict - in which he declared that "the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way, but are the first enemy of Islam and Muslims".

Since then, Arab governments have plucked up courage to go further. Sheikh Jabr al-Saad of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced recently the "close monitoring of sermons delivered at mosques, as well as lectures and religious lessons, to ensure imams are not inciting people to fight abroad".

The kingdom's authorities are also now enforcing a strict ban on the individual issuance of fatwas, which were previously used to justify just about any action. From now on, only officially sanctioned religion committees have such powers.

And Qatar, a Gulf monarchy which hitherto has been reluctant to move against Islamic fundamentalists and often provided them refuge on its soil, has expelled some fundamentalists and issued emergency legislation to regulate charities, the traditional route for channelling cash to extremists.

Speaking with one voice

ARAB leaders were also at pains to speak with one voice during the current session of the United Nations General Assembly, by stressing the importance of a coordinated international response to ISIS. "Those who say 'this is not our business' are wrong. The security of every nation will be shaped by the fate of the Middle East," said Jordan's King Abdullah II, speaking for all his neighbours.

The Jordanian monarch also reminded the world that his country is already home to a staggering 1.4 million refugees from Syria alone. That is also a massive but often ignored contribution which Arab states make to stability in their region.

However, the ideological battle between Arab governments and ISIS has only just begun, and is already producing some curious twists.

In an effort to regain the upper hand in the dispute over the interpretation of Islam, the Jordanians recently released from jail two senior activists previously branded as extremists on the expectation that they will start making anti-ISIS pronouncements.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has increased the number of officially sanctioned beheadings of people convicted of criminal offences. Last year's total of 79 executions in the kingdom has already been exceeded, a trend which many Middle Eastern observers attribute to Saudi Arabia's desire to show that it upholds its own version of austere Islamic purity.

A collective responsibility

YET perhaps one of the most interesting developments has been the rise of a new trend of self-criticism among Arab intellectuals, who are increasingly willing to say in public that the rise of ISIS should be seen as part of a broader narrative of failure in the Middle East.

The present crisis, wrote Ms Hanin Ghaddar, a Lebanese-based intellectual, "is more about understanding our shortcomings, rather than actually overcoming them". Arabs, she claims, are currently being presented with only one of two options: either freedom, or security, but "never the two in tandem".

The real lesson from ISIS, says Ms Ghaddar, is that political Islam has proved "an untenable form of governance and that its real effectiveness is as a popular opposition platform, but no more".

Fighting ISIS, she concludes, requires Arabs to "assume responsibility for the collective failures that have produced all these awful tyrants and fanatics".

Mr Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of the Al Arabiya TV network, owned by none other than Saudi Arabia, is even more forthright in his recently penned criticism. He laments the "slow death" of the sophisticated, worldly cosmopolitan Middle Eastern cities such as Beirut, Cairo or Damascus, and their replacement by the boorish extremism of ISIS.

But he lays the blame for this "death of Arab civilisation as we knew it" squarely on local leaders and their failed policies.

"Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that takes hold over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the sick thugs of the Islamic state?" he asks.

For the moment, these are lonely voices which have no impact on ordinary Arabs. It is notable that both Ms Ghaddar and Mr Hisham initially published their criticism in English.

But the fact that such vocal expressions of self-criticism are being officially tolerated is an indication that Arab governments at least realise the magnitude of the challenge facing them, the fact that for the first time in decades they are being confronted by an Islamic extremist group which, if left unchecked, could successfully spawn a mass political movement.

The current US-led military campaign against the fighters of the ISIS is intended to give Arab governments the necessary respite to provide a political solution for, as everyone agrees, it would be politics and not missiles which will defeat ISIS.

But the magnitude of the task remains daunting. For it requires not only rebutting the perverse message of hate which ISIS puts forward, but also a policy of social inclusion which drains the pools of volunteers for this murderous organisation.

For the moment, both the political noises and the actions coming from Middle East governments remain encouraging.

But then, this is a region which, with alarming regularity, never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com