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On 26 December, I reported the latest speech by Islamic State (Isis) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Twitter. A Russian media outlet made the incredible mistake of reporting that I was him, and that caught on in several more papers. Before the end of the week, even Twitter briefly blocked me before realising its mistake.
But as well as being incredibly sloppy journalism, it's quite poignant that I was confused with the IS (Daesh) chief, seeing how the two "Baghdadis" are ideological competitors. I am an Arab Spring activist who campaigns for an Arab world in which human rights are inviolable; he is the theocratic leader of a terrorist organisation pretending to be an Islamic State.
Except for the black headgear, I don't share much with the IS chief by way of resemblance. But pointedly enough, the Arab Spring and IS arise from the same pool of frustrations – they are both native revolutionary movements demanding radical change, competing for the psyche of the region's youth. The future Arab world they see can't be more different – but they both offer promises of dignity, unity, autonomy, prosperity and revival.
The Arab Spring arose from a stagnant, unjust Arab order that failed to offer hope or dignity to its young population; it signalled a rejection of the status quo, which it sees as corrupt and wishes to replace it. It sought to apply relentless pressure to achieve reform – by ballots if possible, or by the overthrow of tyrannical rulers if necessary. It expressed an idealistic, non-chauvinistic pan-Arabism and sought to rediscover and correct Islam's role in our future.
Respectively, IS arose from a broken Arab order, exploiting instability to ride a wave of disenfranchisement, despair and humiliation. It used the brutality of tyrannical regimes to amplify its message and appeal. It is virulently hostile towards all Arab regimes and seeks to undermine and topple them. And despite its unapologetic sectarianism, it paints itself to its followers as a pan-Islamic "state" in which Muslims are equal regardless their ethnicity.
But while the two movements are "revolutionary", the similarities seem to end here. Once we delve into how completely different the changes they want to bring, and how diametrically opposed their preferred mechanisms are, we start to see why Arab Spring activists such as myself are absolutely infuriated at IS and abhor it and its ilk. IS's vision is a horrific zombie of the Arab Spring's dreams.
The Arab Spring wanted to achieve unity through a deep acceptance of diversity; it called for an open, civic nationalism. It campaigned for individual rights, and had Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, men and women protest shoulder to shoulder. It rejected sectarianism and "otherisation", and demonstrated an anti-authoritarian tendency that mistrusted anyone with too much power, demanding transparency and accountability.
IS, in stark contrast, wants to impose a brutal "unity" through enforced uniformity, informed by a dismal black-or-white world view. It is an overtly sectarian state that unapologetically oppresses minorities, and even other Muslims. It sees individuals as dispensable and tramples their rights in the name of the collective – much like many of the old regimes do. It does not want to end tyranny – it only wishes to forcibly impose one with a religious mandate.
Most importantly, the Arab Spring expressed a deep belief in the power of non-violence to bring about change; it started with a symbolic self-immolation rather than a violent attack. Its tool was mass protests filling the streets and squares of Arab cities to demand change. Although violence did break out occasionally in Arab Spring demonstrations and marches, the vast majority of it was directed at the protesters by officers or hired thugs of the regime.
IS, on the other hand, deeply believes violence is the only way – one of its key manifestos is literally titled The Management Of Savagery. IS's blood lust is evil incarnate – proudly posting snuff videos in which they behead, burn, blow up and drown hapless prisoners. It openly boasts that its target is not peace but perpetual and unrelenting war against everyone who opposes it by any means necessary, be it terrorism or asymmetric warfare.
Youth and radicalisation
You can perhaps begin to see why it's infuriating for an Islamic libertarian to be confused for a terror mastermind. But what causes me the most anguish is IS's attempts to radicalise young men and women and sell them on its vision and ideas. What drives me to study radicalisation is the fact that the Arab Spring and IS compete for the psyche and support of youthful, angry, hopeful Arabs and Muslims.
We offer these youth diametrically opposite interpretations for the humiliating state of the Arab world; I insist it's because we have allowed unchecked power, abuse of rights and unaccountable rule. The "other" Baghdadi, on the other hand, says it's caused by native traitors and foreign conspirators because we failed to properly apply religious rules, leading to divine wrath and vengeance.
What makes a young person susceptible to radicalisation revolves around identity, purpose and meaning. IS recruiters targets these soft spots, presenting a closed identity and a violent vision blasphemously packaged as "Islamic". It crushes me every time someone falls for its evil – I wish I could have an hour's conversation with each one of these young people and make them see there's another way.
Arab Spring as solution
IS had guns but we never did. Eventually, two counter-revolutionary axes assaulted our Arab Spring – one spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and another by Iran. The two regional powers continue to fight over the region, over the crushed homes and bodies of countless innocent civilians. But they cannot stem back the tide forever, as the demographics of the region mature and the world realises tyranny can no longer bring stability.
IS and other extremisms are on the menu of ideas because they claim they'll achieve certain things – dignity, justice, unity and revival. The best and most sustainable way to defeat them is to outperform them in achieving those promises. We need to rob them the grievance that they continue to exploit. The best and most final revenge against IS is an Arab future in which they're irrelevant; an Arab future in which we find dignity without them.
The Arab Spring is the world's best hope to end the cycle of tyranny and terrorism that the Arab world is stuck in. In the regional chess game, we are the underdog; but we also represent the concerns and aspirations of the average young man or woman who wants to live in peace, get along with his neighbours, and be free to pursue his own prosperity. The Arab Spring was never the problem; it's the solution.