The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Barbarism of ISIL, the Taliban and Wahhabism and collapse of hegemonic ideology

One of the particulars of my writing and thinking which confuses many people is that I am able to respect the worthy qualities of individuals and groups whom I otherwise despise.  So I can say that George Bush was a great man (he changed the nature of his country and made it stick), while also despising him.  By the same token, Hitler and Osama Bin Laden were great men. They also had great gifts: it is jejeune to not admit, for example, that Hitler was a great orator, one of the greatest in the 20th century.  Without his great gifts, he would have been far less dangerous.

In the same regard, I can admire the pre-9/11 Taliban for their apparent genuine belief: their actions were in accord with their theology.  I can admire them for all but eradicating the opium crops and for bringing peace to most of the country.

I can admire, likewise, the fighting ability of ISIL and, to a lesser extent, their belief.  I can admire the breadth of the dream of creating a new caliphate.  I can admit that these are dangerous people and that their belief makes them more dangerous.

For that matter, I can admire Putin’s abilities while noting he’s committed many many war crimes: I haven’t forgotten what happened in Chechnya, and the sheer brutality Putin used to put down the Chechens.

People think that because I can admire something about individuals or groups they hate, that I like those groups or people.

In many cases they’re simply straight up wrong. The Taliban and ISIL are, to me, barbarians.  When the Taliban dynamited the giant Buddhas, I lost all sympathy for them.  Only barbarians do such things, and any faith that requires such actions is my enemy, straight up.  In a world ruled by the Taliban, I would have no place.

Likewise ISIL’s destruction of the Syriac Archdiocese is just barbarous.  I suspect this is a perversion of the Islamic faith, which always mandated respect for other religions of the book, but it occurs nonetheless.  Their treatment of non-Sunni Muslims is likewise atrocious in the true sense of the word: it’s an atrocity.  They are backwards, uncivilized and barbarous, savages who can only destroy the finer products of civilization, not appreciate or conserve them.  They are provincial bigots.

I also have no time for any movement which treats women as second class in the way the Taliban and ISIL do.  Some will say that this is my own provincialism, but I am heir to a universal ideology, in its own way as powerful or more powerful than Islam; one which says all humans are equal before the law.  Like all ideological statements of justice, this cannot be proved.  I can’t say “I am right and they are wrong” because of arguments based on logic back to first principles.  Those first principles, whatever they are, are always axioms, and unprovable.

Such ethics, morals and values need arguments, they need logic; they need revelation too, often enough.

But at core those ethics and the ideologies they are fostered by, are choices, and choices that say who we are, embedding our treatment of others—and ultimately it is how we treat others that speaks to who we are.

It is for this reason that while I don’t agree with, say Hezbollah, about everything, that I have respect for them overall: they have non Shia members.  After the war they rebuilt non-members houses.  They restrict themselves to military targets much more so than any of their enemies (the attack on the marine barracks was an attack on a military target, in response to US shelling of Shia villages, non-military targets.)  To the extent they are Islamic, they embody much of what is, to me, admirable in Islam.

Hezbollah’s ethics, as they are played out in the real world, are not antithetical to mine.  They can exist in a geographic space, I can exist, we could be friends (we’re not, for the dull).  Their values do not demand my destruction.  If ISIL took over a city I was in, I’d be beheaded.  They would treat large classes of people in ways I find deeply unethical, even evil.  And they are barbarians.

Because a group is barbaric does not mean eterna-war.  Sometimes the best response is no response, containment or simply slowly destroying them ideologically.  The inability to understand which barbaric groups are a threat to spread, and which aren’t a threat to spread is constant, as is the understanding that ideological war must be fought materially and ideologically, but only rarely with guns.

Taking out unpleasant regimes and creating power vacuums which real barbaric threats could arise is another constant mistake.

I have no mandate for Qaddafi, for example, but the Libyan war was a mistake.  Qaddafi was better for his population and for the West, than what has come since.  Syria’s Assad is a monster who tortures, and who seems to enjoy torturing (similar to George Bush in this respect).  His regime is deeply distasteful.

Syria under Assad was far better than Syria in civil war, with ISIL controlling a large chunk of it and using it as a base to invade Iraq.

The inability to recognize real enemies is ongoing and pernicious.  The ultimate source of the barbarism of movements such as ISIL is Saudi Arabia.  Containment of Saudi Arabia’s influence should be a cornerstone policy of the West, because their noxious form of Islam spreads barbarism.  Making deals with Saudi Arabia and using them as instruments of US policy has lead to endless problems far larger than they were meant to cure.

This is true as far back as the original Afghan war against the USSR.  This was not a war the West needed to interfere in.  Arming the Mujahideen there is the grandfather blowback decision which has led to virtually all of the problems discussed above (much of the rest is Israel/Palestine based).  The war in Afghanistan did not just destabilize Afghanistan it corrupted, destabilized and radicalized Pakistan, which had been on a secularizing path before all that dirty money started flowing into the country through networks infected by a noxious variant of Saudi Islam.  As with pictures of Afghan girls in Kabul wearing skirts, Pakistan was a far more liberal nation in the 70s, socially, than it is today.

Don’t use barbarians as your proxies.  Saudi Wahhabism and its offshoots is fundamentally in opposition to secular Western enlightenment society.  Doing business with such people undermines the core ethics of our own system of ideology.

This does not mean neo-con style perma war.  It means showing that our ideology produces better outcomes for them than their own ideology does.  Through the fifties and even into the seventies, secularism rose in the world because it was seen as providing better outcomes.  It was constantly undermined by the actions of the United States in overthrowing democratic governments they didn’t like.  Noticing that the West didn’t believe in its own ideology (at least not for Muslims, and today not even for its own citizens), and that they could not share in the prosperity of secular democracy and socialistic capitalism, is it any wonder that many turned to another strong ideology?

This disease is the disease of unaccountable elites.  Elite families, even in democracies, would rather deal with other elite families than with messy democracy.  A Shah seems more amenable than a democratic Iran.  It’s easy to do business with Saudi Princes, you know who to talk to.  Deals can be cut, and if they don’t work out for most of the population, who cares?

Playing the game as a chess-board; using whatever proxies or allies come to hand, and violating your own ideology undermines the true basis of your power. Western hemegony was based on blood and iron, to be sure; but it was also based on the very real promise of emancipation, freedom and prosperity.

Deny the fruits of western ideology to those who reach for them, and of course they will turn against you.  Pervert them even within your own countries by undermining your own democratic principles and by concentrating wealth and income in the hands of a few, while impoverishing the many; make it clear that modern neo-liberal capitalism doesn’t spread prosperity to even the core nations, and you have set up one of the preconditions of not just hegemonic collapse, but of internal collapse of a civilization.  People who do not believe in the genuine goodness of what they are fighting for, hardly fight for it at all.

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It really is kind of Israel to help Hezbollah


Media Coverage of Israel’s killing of Palestinians


  1. Celsius 233

    Ian, I think this is one of, if not the best, expression of a set of universal values I’ve read anywhere. Sustainable values that would enable a world of tolerance and fair play. Recognizing, accepting and respecting differences while not compromising one’s core values and humanity. I feel you’ve expressed that very well indeed. I agree with everything you’ve said here. Bravo…

  2. hu

    Saudi Arabia is one with the West. It is the creation by the West after the Wests destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Its not a threat to ‘secular Western enlightenment society’ it is the embodiment of it. What you call “socialistic capitalism” is only for the “Western”-“white”- nations and Saudi Arabia protects their vital national security interests without which the West looses its wealth. If the destruction of Afghanistan was not in the Wests interests then they wouldn’t have repeated it in Libya and Syria. The central planners are not fools, they know whats in their interests- including sometimes chaos .

  3. Ian Welsh

    Category confusion. What is perceived as good for Western elites is not the same as what is good for the West.

  4. Dean Flemming

    I might perhaps use the words “(extremely) important,” “(historically) significant” or “influential” rather than “great,” but your points stand.

  5. Dan Lynch

    Agree with everything you said, Ian. While it is a minor point, your photo shows a church burning in Egypt, not Iraq.

  6. markfromireland

    All true — and it says much about our current circumstances that you even have to write it. As for barbarism I agree with Simone Weil:

    I would suggest that barbarism be considered as a permanent and universal human characteristic which becomes more or less pronounced according to the play of circumstances.


  7. Ian Welsh

    Thanks Dan.

  8. Texas Nate

    Great piece Ian. Would prefer you used ISIS rather than ISIL just because its the sexier acronymn and neither is really an absolute translation but extremely minor nitpick. Proud to be a supporter of your work.

  9. nationalist

    “Some will say that this is my own provincialism, but I am heir to a universal ideology, in its own way as powerful or more powerful than Islam; one which says all humans are equal before the law. Like all ideological statements of justice, this cannot be proved. I can’t say “I am right and they are wrong” because of arguments based on logic back to first principles. Those first principles, whatever they are, are always axioms, and unprovable.”

    Wow, pretty honest for a liberal.

    Actually you believe more than this…”all humans are equal before the law.” You believe in a priori biological equality. Blank slate-ism. This is a purely religious belief with no basis in fact.

    You believe in the moral goodness of equality, enforced or otherwise. I glad that you admit this.

    (No, I believe in none of that, and you’re a fool who hasn’t read my corpus, who is reading in assumptions, if you think I do. – Ian)

  10. Ian Welsh

    Thank you Nate, I’m honored that people care for my writing enough to donate.

  11. amspirnational

    You are being charitable calling the Libyan overthrow a “mistake.”
    Some of the Taliban leaders of a decade or more ago were saying they had to be tough until order was restored then they planned on loosening the reins a little. Not sure if they represented the majority.
    ISIL might allow you to live if you paid the dhimmi tax and didn’t rock the boat.

    At any rate, I can’t see the GOP establishment allowing Rand Paul to get the nomination and the rest are hawks who might not even pull the reins in if a Collapse starts. Russophobe Peter King is doing his thing today.
    As for the Dems, Hillary might get away with more warmongering than a Rubio could.
    And even financially progressive Warren has the AIPAC crowd surrounding her as advisors on foreign policy, so hold on to your hats.

  12. oldskpetic

    So true, great article.

    But you can see the deterioration in the west’s ‘puppets’ over time. In the past, with some obvious exceptions like the Khmer Rouge and the Sandinistas, most of our efforts were in establishing totalitarian regimes with friendly to the west elites. At least they were States of a sort of functioning kind.

    But over time we have increasingly supported/created barbarians and systematically destroyed whatever stands in their way (even if they are regimes we have put in place/supported before).

    The west (especially the US) in affect had become ‘anti-state’, even ‘anti-civilisation’ in that many states now are in the firing line to be broken up, to become barbaric. The most barbaric people on earth are now our chosen weapons of choice.

    This is actually a logical outcome of a policy of full spectrum dominance (reducto ad absurdum basically). The only way that the US (west) can guarantee continuing dominance without being economically or militarily challenged is, in affect, to destroy every other functioning State, reducing them to warlordism and barbarity.

    There in an irony here in that the US itself is collapsing into internal barbarity…..but that is another story.

    Note, for the western Satraps out there, that I fully expect the US would do the same in any
    western country (EU, UK, Australia, whatever) if it started to stray (or even if it was suspected of starting to stray). This now their standard modus operandi.

    As Pepe Escobar calls it, ‘the empire of chaos’. And I suspect this is only the beginning….

    I have long said that the US empire is not going to go down quietly like the UK and USSR ones did…they’ll take everything down with them if they can. And as they decline further then they will become ever more desperate and take ever greater risks.

    The Ukraine being the classic example. The probabilities of war with Russia grow by the day and the US is not going to back down, not one little bit, it will just keep escalating.

  13. Katherine Calkin

    I wish this commentary could be published on the front page of every newspaper and news website in the US. You really pinpointed the sources of and reasons for many of our major problems, foreign and domestic. Meanwhile, I read books on astronomy and cosmology, do pretty jigsaw puzzles, and watch live, streaming eagle cameras, still hoping to win the death bet.

  14. Spinoza

    It’s a testimony to the dishonesty, cowardice, and careerism of those in the the public eye that you had to address that. And to the unthinking acceptance of propaganda by ordinary people.

    Perhaps, folks have never heard the garbled phrase, “give the devil his due”?

    Good day, sir.

  15. Ian Welsh

    Off-topic, but amusing, MoroccoBama has gone completely deranged with hatred of me, MFI and even Lisa Simone.

  16. Charlie Dozen

    The Taliban didn’t defeat the USSR, rather they defeated those who had. They weren’t even around in the 80s; the movement started out sometime early 90s. It took to fighting in 1994, two years after the fall of the communist government.

  17. Ian Welsh

    Thanks for the correction, Charlie, totally correct, and my bad.

  18. oldskpetic

    Ok checked that link.. and wow…well living proof of what drinking boot polish does to the brain…..

  19. Celsius 233

    @ Ian Welsh
    July 20, 2014
    Off-topic, but amusing, MoroccoBama has gone completely deranged with hatred of me, MFI and even Lisa Simone.
    Wow, one sick puppy. Thanks for posting the link; I almost fell out of my chair laughing.
    Hope he gets better; or not….

  20. nihil obstet

    On the MoroccoBama post — I feel so snubbed!

  21. Tom

    @Charlie Dozen

    “The Taliban didn’t defeat the USSR, rather they defeated those who had. They weren’t even around in the 80s; the movement started out sometime early 90s. It took to fighting in 1994, two years after the fall of the communist government.”

    All the Taliban members did fight the Soviets and their militias also administered justice and education during the war, then disbanded when the Soviets left. The sheer anarchy in 1992-4 brought them back out to end the violence.

    Every founding member of the Taliban were veterans of the Afghan War 1979-1989. Mullah Omar lost an eye during the fight.

  22. John Measor

    “The inability to recognize real enemies is ongoing and pernicious”

    Excellent point. Is this not a result of not thinking through who we are and what we want?

    … and the desire of Anglo-American power to have an endless line-up of both puppets and enemies (many who serve both functions)?

    Regardless, the reactionary bent and its accelerated pace has provided free reign to the most irresponsible. The rush to judgement over the downing of the Malaysian jet, the calls for concrete action with regards the kidnapped women in Nigeria, the fears of a ragtag militia taking a provincial capital in Iraq … and all of it without a clear understanding of what is actually occurring, what possible outcomes could be, what (if any) impact policy could have, nor with any eyes and ears ‘on the ground’ in these locales … yet tremendous confidence on the airwaves and the speculation generated!

    You name the gorilla in the corner – The Kingdom. Although I would temper the notion that the political elite in Pakistan wasn’t a more willing accomplice (while much of the middle class was – and is still – liberalizing, the military junta was certainly not, for liberalizing puts them out of a job).

    Excellent critique Ian – hopefully you will continue to provide your voice.

  23. Off topic but for the record. Google page rank of Catcher in the Lie = 0. = 5. Appreciate this isn’t about mine being bigger than yours but MoroccaBana doesn’t exist according to Google. But hey, everything is a lie right?

    As an aside, I haven’t read an overview of a blog that is more pseud than Catcher in the Lie. Ever.

  24. Celsius 233

    Well, I made the honor roll over at Cold’s blog. I’m so proud to be associated with y’all;
    Very heady company indeed and a very disturbed (to put it mildly) young man.

  25. Ian Welsh

    Yeah, the more I reflect, the more sad it makes me. He really has gone deranged.

  26. Celsius 233

    Ian Welsh
    July 21, 2014
    Yeah, the more I reflect, the more sad it makes me. He really has gone deranged.
    Yes, to all…pity.

  27. Formerly T-Bear

    Being in the habit of elision concerning certain opinions from certain entities, I have not joined in this exposé and have no information (other than what is above) about what has transpired. But it should be a concern when anybody ‘flips out’ for all who are acquainted with that person, given the state of health services in certain countries (unindicted). There is a great probability that the condition, either transitory or fundamental will remain untreated and the person will continuously suffer as a result (that and all the associated social stigmas for a medical condition). I certainly have no standing to agree with this person but likewise have no desire to wish them ill. I do hope the episode is transitory and this becomes the end of discussion.

  28. tzimisce

    Re: Free Speech

    On the off topic discussion… Freedom of speech is a protection from government, not others, never mind the tension between “free speech” and property rights. I for one am glad that you delete, deride, or edit obvious troll posts. Nothing takes an interesting topic and discussion off course as the obvious trollbait.

  29. Ian Welsh

    I very rarely delete non-commercial-spam comments. People have to really go off the rails for that.

  30. Yes, sad about MB. He sounds as though he is deeply hurt from spurning(s). Which is dangerous (ref: Elliot Rodger.)

    Simeone, really?

  31. Hole Cold Feld In

    Actually, the hole Cold fell into is revealing. And as long as he keeps digging, he very well may get to the bottom of all this. I, for one, am on the edge of my seat. Anyone else notice that:


    rearranges into:



    That’s Ian’s agenda, but you have to pay attention. The Palestinians? Nope, that’s just a misdirection. It’s AMERICANS. Hole. Dig. And all that.



  32. Brian M

    does anyone comment at Catcher in the Lie but the blog owner himself? It looks like a conversation with himself

  33. Formerly T-Bear

    @Brian M

    There isn’t much of a problem in talking to oneself.

    Nor is there great danger in answering oneself from time to time.

    However there might be a major problem, asking oneself a question to which your response is:


  34. Adrena

    Catcher In The Lie is caught in her/his own Lies. She/He has a gift for taking everything out of context.

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