Syrian friends here in Lebanon often tell me that some Syrian refugees have chosen to leave Lebanon and return to parts of Syria that are under ISIS control. These anecdotes usually emerge as part of a larger conversation about why ISIS still receives support in some Arab countries, albeit often tacit and inactive.
When I ask why these refugees return, the response is always the same: 'They simply don't believe that the media reports of the atrocities taking place are actually true'.
Perhaps the death of Jordanian pilot Moath al Kasasbeh changed that. In Lebanon, often a barometer for regional issues, there was a palpable sense of shock on the street among all sects that a Sunni had been killed by ISIS in such an unholy way. A recent article on the Palestinian response to the slaying of the Jordanian pilot appears to confirm that prior to his death, some were wavering about the true nature of ISIS. But it seems the way in which he died (denounced by Islamic scholars), and the fact he was a Sunni Arab, touched people around the region in a way that the deaths of foreign journalists and aid workers perhaps did not.
But even prior to the incident, in conversation I eavesdropped on during shared taxi rides, the phrase ma fi din, ma fi shi (no religion, nothing) comes up when drivers and passengers speak about 'Daesh'. In bars and cafes the locals joke with me: 'It's alright for you, you're Christian, ISIS just want to drive you from the region. I'm Shi'a — they want to kill all of us!' In fact, I have never had a conversation with anyone in Lebanon that didn't involve expressly denouncing the group, whether with Palestinians, Lebanese Christians, Druze, Shi'a and Sunnis. Even Salafis in Lebanon do not appear to agree with ISIS.
However, there are pockets of sympathy for ISIS in Lebanon, often attributed to political and economic factors.
Weak leadership has led to the feeling that Sunnis are under-represented at the political level (as compared to the Shia). This is combined with dire economic conditions in Sunni areas of northern Lebanon and parts of the Beqaa Valley. Sunni leaders in Lebanon are perceived by the people there as not doing enough to ameliorate their poverty.
But what about other parts of the Middle East?
In Syria itself there is good reason for people to remain in areas under ISIS control, caught as they are between a rock and a hard place: regime attacks or ISIS authority. Formally, Muslim and Arab institutions such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the leading Sunni clerical institution Al Azhar have repeatedly put out statements denouncing ISIS. Less formal responses come in the form of memes mocking ISIS which have emerged online all across the region.
My sense is that most Middle Easterners recognise that ISIS does not reflect genuine Islamic values and believe the group is just opportunistically seeking power. A survey of the region in 2014 found ISIS received almost no support in Arab states. Interestingly, Sunni support for ISIS is described as high by some Western and Israeli commentators.
However, 'almost no support' is not the same as 'zero support', and in Egypt and Jordan, active support for ISIS has emerged. It is fair to assume that in these cases socio-economic factors are partly to blame, something President Obama referred to in his speech at a recent anti-extremism summit. The summit received minimal attention from Middle East media owing to the local belief that US policy in the region is the root cause of extremism there, and because states at the coalface of extremism, such as Lebanon, did not attend. Local politics also play a role. In Egypt, support for ISIS is in part a response to the Government's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups.
There is also the lure of the Caliphate itself. The fact that ISIS has managed to capture territory is crucial, because in theory it means there is an actual place where Muslims are governed under the banner of their religion, which is a powerful symbol even to those who utterly reject ISIS's methods. There may also be a sense among devout Muslims who were on the fence about the group that, as practicing Sunnis, they themselves had nothing to fear from ISIS.
Resistance to the West is another powerful force in the Middle East. Perhaps some people could not help but approve of the fact that the West is finally being challenged. The Charlie Hebdo attack, which brought the magazine's editorial content to the attention of many Muslims for the first time, may well have demonstrated to them that the West has never had any good intentions towards Islam anyway.
Other than shock and awe, it is hard to know what ISIS was thinking when it killed the Jordanian pilot, because it has alienated ordinary people who might have had latent sympathies towards it, and erased doubts on the street about the truly indiscriminate viciousness of ISIS.
When considering their strategy towards ISIS, the most significant point for the US and other countries to consider is that low support for this group should not be conflated with levels of regional support for other Islamic groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Keeping the war on ISIS separate from these other more established groups is essential.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Hossam el-Hamalawy.