Book Review: From Deep State to Islamic State by Jean-Pierre Filiu

It should be said at the outset that very little of the book is actually about the Islamic State. Filiu covers some of the very recent developments of the Islamic State in chapter 8, “The Evil Twins in Yemen and Syria”. For those who want to read about the actual members and development of the state-for example the Al-Qaeda networks and details of the chaos in Iraq post-2003- the work by Hassan and Weiss I reviewed here is a much better choice.  However, for those with some knowledge of the region, this work is a worthy read that should not be ignored. The author, Jean Pierre Filiu, makes a nuanced and original reading of 20th century Middle Eastern history. This will certainly have its critics and detractors.

Traditionally, the historiography saw a series of dictators, some ruling through monarchies and others through republics. A different categorization groups these regimes into those which have and haven’t normalized relations with the West and/or Israel. These regimes also cooperated with the West to try to fight various terror groups and shared intelligence with the West- Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, all of the Gulf countries, Yemen, Oman, and finally Algeria renewed relations with the USA just before 9/11. Libya, Syria, Iraq (pre-Saddam) were those still in their own category, largely hostile to the West. More recently, a phrase coined by King Abdullah of Jordan stuck, labeling the Shiite Crescent as Iran, the Maliki regime in Iraq, Syria, and Hizbullah in Lebanon, clearly contrasted with the rest of the countries which are overwhelmingly but not exclusively Sunni Muslim.  Filiu doesn’t use any of these traditional categorizations and adds a different reading. He argues for a different categorization of regimes he calls “the Mamluks”, including Yemen, Algeria, Syria and Egypt. This term comes from Middle Eastern history itself and refers to a military caste of people, many of whom were slaves, who ascended in power across a wide swath of land and remained influential in the medieval and early modern periods. Filiu refers specifically to:

“…the original Mamluks who ruled Egypt from 1250-1517 along with Syria from 1260-1516. I draw a parallel between the legitimacy derived by those founding Mamluks from the vulnerable ‘Caliph’ under their control and the one derived by the modern Mamluks from the popular ‘votes’ held under martial law.”

Filiu then connects this categorization of the Mamluks to the concept of the deep state from contemporary Turkish history. When Filiu says deep state, he is referring to a series of secretive and opaque institutions and actors who guide important policy decisions out of public view. His example from Turkey is a shocking story from 1997 when a car accident in the city of Susurluk exposed a previously secret reality for Turks. A local police chief, a gangster with right-wing nationalist connections, his girlfriend, and an MP aligned with the Kurdish PKK were all in the car together when it crashed, killing the first three I described. These men who were supposed to be on opposite ends of everything ideological were secretly working together. Filiu proceeds to describe the next 18 years of Turkish politics and the rise of the AKP, the party represented by current President, and former Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He characterizes the Ergenekon trial and a later trial known as “Sledgehammer” as examples of the AKP using the police and the courts to go after the deep state. He emphasizes that these were very divisive tactics which arguably broke the deep state but had a lot of collateral damage in Turkish politics, especially in polarizing the various parties.

Filiu uses the vast majority of the book to set this argument up and trace it through the specific countries he argues to be “neo-Mamluks” which are Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Yemen. Each of these includes a detailed reading of the history to set the reader up to understand how these “Mamluks” came to power in each one. Filiu argues that “(T)here lies a clear distinction between, on the one side, the Arab Mamluks, and, on the other side, police states like Tunisia (under Bourguiba or Ben Ali) or would-be totalitarian regimes like Qaddhafi’s Jamahiriyya or Saddam’s Iraq. Monarchies who had survived the turmoils of the early 70’s (Black September in Jordan and the two failed military coups in Morocco) were also spared the Mamluk curse.” (p. xi). Filiu does not argue that the regimes have secretly colluded along these lines or publicly identified as such, but rather argues we should classify and understand them as the Mamluk regimes.

Once Filiu has developed this idea, he turns to the most recent events from the American invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring until the present. He looks at Egypt and Yemen in chapter 7, “The tale of Two Squares” which refers to Tahrir Square where the first mobilizations of January 25 took place in Cairo, and Rabiya al ‘Adwiya, where a large group of Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered post-June 30 Coup and some 1,000 plus were massacred by the Egyptian state. It is here we find the most explicit new formulations of argument and ultimately the connection to the Islamic State. Filiu argues that these Mamluk regimes all played with Jihadi fire in their counterrevolutionary actions to deal with the Arab Spring (some before as well) and in doing so, fed the beast that grew into the Islamic State. All of these regimes, in their own unique ways, saw these groups emergent and quietly supported or tolerated them because they met various needs- most centrally the justification of security rents that Filiu focuses on in Yemen and Egypt. When Filiu refers to security rents, he means money supplied to the government from outside donors to preserve security there. I’ve read this idea of a state nurturing a jihadi presence to justify security rents from the West before in The Warrior State, an interesting book about Pakistan.

To this reviewer’s mind, his answer to how Tunisia came out so differently from Egypt (an already fraught topic) gets some parts right and others wrong. Filiu is correct to point to the use of the justice system in Tunisia to deal with post-revolutionary terror as a more effective means than the brute state violence used by the Mamluk regime in Egypt. For Filiu, Tunisia represents a successful path out of the problems. Despite (or because of?) Tunisia’s transition and new constitution, it has been one of the largest sources of jihadis going to join the Islamic State. He emphasizes the power of the established trade unions in Tunisia as something that helped the revolution succeed, but I was left scratching my head because Egypt indeed has a complex and strong tradition of trade unions. It has been studied in depth by Beinin and Goldberg among others, so readers can go to them and judge whether Filiu is wrong to write off Egyptian trade unions as he does. Another headscratcher for me came when Filiu seems to argue to let NATO off the hook for the chaos in Libya by instead arguing the problems there came from the failed implementation of plebiscites and compares these to more successful ones in Tunisia.

Ultimately, I see Filiu’s argument here to be less than stellar. He describes in the beginning of the book how he invests heavily in a new conception of the “Mamluk” regime, spends the better part of 200 pages developing it, and then argues it to be the strongest causal factor leading to the rise of the Islamic State. This reviewer indeed agrees that authoritarian regimes and their willingness to tolerate and even foster jihadi groups is indeed real, and it is indeed part of what brought about the Islamic State. Is it, however, the largest factor? Does it justify the book-length development of the argument? This reviewer finds it highly questionable at best. I would have preferred to see more here about the prosecution of the war on terror, especially by the USA, and how this has certainly exacerbated the problem of global terrorism rather than smothering it. Filiu should get credit here for addressing this in regard to the Mamluk regimes, but he does not address it more broadly. I would likewise emphasize to a much stronger degree how the outbreak of the Syrian uprising that turns into a civil war ripped open whatever fragile gains had been made in Iraq after the combination of the Sahwa and the US surge. What of the roles of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? They are not present. Finally, given that we now know that many ex-Ba’thists are involved in the Islamic State, these dynamics of the failed invasion of Iraq and the changes in Saddam’s regime post-1991 need a more thorough examination here. If I had to rank the factors in strength, I would put the failed invasion of Iraq and the consequent issues there above the consistent support of jihadis by authoritarian regimes in the region, regardless of whether the categorization of “neo-Mamluk” can hold water. I see no real opening for ISIS to control territory or create chaos on the level they have absent the power vacuum created by the wrong-headed overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It is indeed counterfactual, for we can’t know how Iraq would have changed or how its own people and regime would have reacted to the Arab Spring playing itself out there. Given the events of 1991 in Iraq, it is not unreasonable to assume that Saddam would have responded with brute force as he did before. What that would have become is something we can only imagine.

Finally, in praise of Filiu, his use of the ‘deep state’ concept that he takes from Turkey in the 1990s is quite stimulating. This places the AKP in a unique position as the one example here that succeeded in breaking the deep state, and begs the question, on a new level, of whether or not we can then think of Turkey as some kind of model for other states in the region, or at least the other Mamluks as Filiu classifies them. This would clearly be different than the way many have talked about Turkey as a model for a so-called “Muslim Democracy.” One cannot help but notice that Turkey’s reaction to the Gezi Protests and the way it has carried itself until today bears striking resemblance to the patterns Filiu outlines in Yemen and Syria where the regimes deliberately provoked wars with the jihadis and presented themselves as the saviors to protect people from terror, much as Erdoğan’s AKP now does with regard to the PKK. Clearly, the PKK is not the same as Al-Qaeda. Neither is the democracy in Turkey, however weak, comparable to the regimes in Yemen and Syria. It does, however, then beg the question of what this will lead to in Turkey and whether or not Filiu should be thinking of the AKP as similar to the Mamluks. Should Filiu then be willing to say authoritarianism is a part of the the condition to be a Mamluk, if supposedly democratic Turkey is acting in a similar manner to the Mamluks? That Erdogan is also willing to start a war with the PKK to stay in power? History will have to play itself out before that question can be answered.

Let me reiterate again that whatever criticisms I have here are my attempt to hold a strong historian accountable for his arguments and to evaluate them in a reasoned, scholarly manner. The book is worth reading for anyone ready to get into the deeper dynamics of 20th century history that led to the emergence of the Islamic State.

Here is a great documentary that goes into more depth about the Yemeni state supporting Al-Qaeda there as Filiu talks about:

If you’d like to purchase a copy of the book, you can go here. Thanks to Hurst Publishers for providing me a review copy:)

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