On November 13, armed radicalised Muslim youth indiscriminately opened fire on crowds in cafes, stadiums and bars in Paris. With over 130 dead, and hundreds others injured or maimed, the Paris attacks – 13/11, as they shall be known – form the most deadly assault on a major western city since 9/11. As is usual, the post-attack trauma gave rise to a vociferous debate on Islam and its role and culpability in motivating hundreds of youth into becoming murderous psychopaths. But the debate this time was different.

Given the frequency of such attacks by radical Islamists and perhaps tired of apologising for Islam, the mainstream consensus among politicians in the western world was that Islam did have something to do with it. President Francois Hollande omitted making any plea for considering “Islam as compatible with democracy” or that “French Muslims have the same rights as Frenchmen”, as he did after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The Republican presidential field for the 2016 US presidential election either doesn’t want to allow Syrian refugees into the United States or wants a Christians-only policy for their entry. European far right parties, long opposed to letting in Syrian refugees and unabated immigration, now see polls tick.

In effect, this critique, reproduced in India by the likes of Tavleen Singh and S Prasannarajan, runs as follows: i) the attacks were gruesome; ii) there is no use pretending that Islam had nothing to do with it; iii) essential root of this violence lies in Islam “being a religion that converts, conquers and kills” and its general absolutist tendencies that prey on lone wolf psychopaths to join the Islamic State or become suicidal in the name of Allah.

Litany of disasters

Yet, to a layman in Paris, Mumbai or New York, a more relevant question could be – in spite of the West spending more than $2 trillion on the “War on Terror” in the West Asia region, how exactly has the monster of ISIS been able to raise its head and coordinate devastating terrorist attacks in the heart of the West? In other words, the question is not whether the majority of Muslims – like most Germans’ disposition to Nazism under Hitler – are tacit supporters of such killings, but how did a “terrorist organisation” manage to bring an area almost the size of Uttar Pradesh or California under its control.

The Islamic State, contrary to popular myth, is not really a terrorist or guerilla movement anymore. It is effectively a full-fledged political entity with civilian and military bureaucracies which do things that most states do – regulating traffic, collecting taxes, maintaining basic law and order, and espousing propaganda. Yet, it has, on the lines of Revolutionary France or Leninist Russia or Revolutionary Iran, committed itself to a set of ideas – the resurgence of the Caliphate – that inevitably puts itself at odds with the world around it.

Once this reality of ISIS is understood, so can its chief causes be. Given its status as the chief guarantor of political stability in north-western Iraq and eastern Syria, it is clear that ISIS sprang from the wreckage and travesty that was the Anglo-American intervention in the Iraq war.

The Iraq war effectively sowed the seeds for anarchy in Iraq and West Asia in general by destroying the state institutions under Saddam Hussein – which kept order among the antagonistic communities of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – and by committing disastrous administrative mistakes like the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. The first tide of disorder was stemmed by an American troop surge. But that work was soon undone by the Nouri al-Maliki’s partisan Shia government – an unsurprising consequence since the US focused more on token elections than building the basics of rule of law and public administration.

With the Arab Spring fuelling the disintegration of neighbouring Syria and the departing American forces leaving behind a vacuum, Baghdad’s parochial government soon lost control of Mosul – the second largest city in Iraq – and Tikrit to an increasingly powerful jihadi group called ISIS (previously affiliated to Al Qaeda in Iraq). Today, many of the top military officers of ISIS are former Iraqi soldiers or former Sunni Baathist party members.

Dictatorship or chaos?

Yet, the Iraq war – as criminal as it was – did not mark the end of the litany of bad foreign policy choices by the West. President Barack Obama’s rushed departure from Iraq in 2012, which effectively left Maliki to his own partisan devices, was soon exacerbated by what can be best described as foolish reactions to events in Libya and Syria.

Labelling Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as criminals for the way they treated their citizens, the West – especially the US, UK and France – repeated the mistakes of Iraq. They removed or helped remove a dictator with nothing to replace him with. Gaddafi – whose forces were bombarded by NATO in the Libyan Civil War – was soon found and murdered on the streets by the “rebel militia” in the fall of 2011. Early attempts at forming a workable democratic government soon dissolved into an anarchist nightmare mirroring the situation in Iraq. The result is that Libyan Civil War rages on for all practical purposes between warring jihadist and militia groups.

Similarly, the American and French attempts to “punish” Assad – cheered by the same policy establishment that urged the war on Iraq – effectively handed ever greater Syrian territory to ISIS, which is in reality the only workable opposition to Assad. The charade of helping “moderate” rebels, which Hillary Clinton now uses to justify her disastrous intervention, is exactly that – a charade.

Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in the US and Western Europe have not realised that democracy cannot be planted somewhere, and while a democratic government may be better than a dictatorship, a dictatorship is better than chaos. As Thomas Hobbes noted over four centuries ago, life without a sovereign – however cruel he may be – is “short, nasty and brutish” because there is war of “all against all”.

Whenever the inevitable – that is, the rise in chaos and growth of radical regimes – occurs, votaries of interventionist western foreign policy evade the admission of culpability and lay the blame on the purported cultural incompatibility of Islam. British historian Niall Ferguson, for instance, likens Syrian refugees to the barbarians who sacked Rome and blames the West for the “mess it is in now”. He conveniently ignores his role in promoting what has been the biggest breach of international law in the 21st century – the invasion of Iraq.

Learning from history

To blame Islam by quoting selectively from the Quran is essentially meaningless. Selective reading of the Bible has been used to justify slavery. For that matter, selective reading of Hindu texts can be used to endorse continued discrimination of the lower castes.

And while there may be a grain of truth in the claim that Islamic societies in general – and Arab societies in particular – have not undergone the kind of Enlightenment or Reformation that has changed Christian societies in Europe or to less extent the Hindu society in the Indian subcontinent, it is hard to imagine an Arab version of Voltaire springing from the internecine conflicts that have gripped West Asia or being able to battle the religious-industrial complex financed by Saudi Arabia, “an ISIS that has made it”. The appeal to reason usually follows peace and stability, not hatred and propaganda.

Now, with Europe facing the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, and with Iraq, Syria and Libya effectively reduced to dysfunctional nation-states, the world doesn’t know what to do with the chaos in West Asia. While the options range from bad to worse, it would be better if we begin by analysing the actual causes behind the rise of ISIS and its spillover effects in Paris.