Is the Islamic State 'crumbling'? Long-form magazine journalism excels on such topics

Fellow journalist Robin Wright, not to be confused with the “House of Cards” actress of the same name, is as credentialed as it gets. Deservedly, she has received the National Magazine Award, United Nations Correspondents Association Gold Medal, National Press Club Award, Overseas Press Club Award, and more (see www.robinwright.net).

The veteran foreign correspondent (a fellow U-Michigan alum) has a piece in the Dec. 12 issue of The New Yorker with perspective worth careful attention from any journalist interested in foreign affairs, especially those who monitor religion.

Wright also demonstrates that long-form magazine journalism by a beat specialist is as good as it gets in our business, and that analysis enriched by shoe-leather reporting is superior to mere arm-chair musings by professionals in the chattering classes.

The article’s tour d’horizon of the Mideast mess has a tantalizing headline: “After the Islamic State.”

Wright’s lede proposes that this “deviant strain of Sunni fanatics” has been “a disaster for all Sunnis across the region” and may now be “crumbling.” That’s hinted in this May quote from the No. 2 commander of Islamic State (hereafter ISIS): “It is the same, whether Allah blesses us with consolidation or we move into the bare, open desert, displaced and pursued.”

Wright figures the U.S. claim of 45,000 I.S. fighters driven off the battlefield may be high, but personnel losses “have been staggering” and the influx of new young foreign recruits is waning. ISIS territory has declined 57 percent in Iraq and 27 percent in Syria. U.S. bombing raids are backing operations to liberate the major I.S.-ruled city, Mosul and the headquarters town, Raqqa. In October, ISIS even lost control of tiny but symbolic Dabiq, Syria, where many Muslims anticipate an Armageddon-like apocalypse.

In this Trump Era of would-be withdrawal from world woe, we’re warned that military conquest will not end the threat. Wright says defeated jihadis will simply recede into inaccessible enclaves in the Mideast and foster more lone-wolf attacks around the West.

The official ISIS magazine, for instance, urged that vehicles mow down innocent pedestrians, exactly the terror tactic at Nice, France, and Ohio State University. Meanwhile, Al Queda, the ISIS rival that equally despises the West, is rebuilding, in league with Syria’s dangerous Nusra Front (now renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or JFS).

A broad geographic caliphate “was probably never sustainable,” we’re told, but dreams of such a Muslim utopia, roused by ISIS, are now “entrenched” and will persist as part of the global landscape of ideas.

Consider the situation in Lebanon, which adjoins Syria with its own brutal civil war. As a result, one-fifth of current residents are Syrian, a trend with echoes of earlier waves of persecution of Christians in Syria. The current wave is the equivalent of 65 million refugees flooding into the United States. Grassroots Christians have no faith in the U.S., the West otherwise, or the Vatican, and thus look to Shi’ite militias for protection.

Across the Mideast, Wright portrays a horrid scenario for Sunni Muslims. The region’s hoped-for sources of power and ideology are dead or dying -- leverage from oil wealth, Nasserism, Baathism, pan-Arabism, Palestinian solidarity and the rest. Public discourse on campuses and elsewhere is stifled.

Even heavily-armed regimes are “fragile.” Shi’ite Iraq squandered years of freedom and ignores Sunni grievances. Saudi Arabia is vulnerable. Investments and tourism are drying up in Egypt.  A third of Arab youths are unemployed.

Upsumming: With “severe economic distress” across the region (except for Israel) “the long-term sustainability of some Arab states is in question.” Sunni dictators and monarchs formerly dominated the Mideast but “their world is in ruins.” What news stories will emerge from their frustration and rage?

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