It’s really interesting actually that nobody on the “anti-imperialist” left has bothered to defend ISIS (according to their own metrics), with most in fact tacitly or actively supporting airstrikes against them or ignoring them. To make my view clear in the beginning (which is unfortunately necessary), I would use the term “fascist” to describe the generic ISIS. But the reality is regardless of its leadership or its activist/expansionary forms, the rank and file base of ISIS is essentially one of a social movement (regardless of its ideological colours) composed of people marginalised by the US occupation and the regime it left behind. By “anti-imperialist” standards, there is no greater force attacked by “imperialists” in the world than these people (and they’ve been attacked historically as well as immediately). Not a government that’s coordinating airstrikes or a government which is travelling around Europe signing business deals (the variants of “anti-imperialism” large segments of the Left find itself putting up). This contradiction is generally ignored, or some segments of the left actually (hilariously and yet also morosely) deny the thousands and thousands of airstrikes on ISIS (and with them the civilians dead and wounded and disabled etc). (and btw, the “West” (or to be more specific the US and its pro-aggression allies) is not clean from ISIS – there is complicity in the rise of ISIS – from the Iraqi genocide they began in 1990s, to the 2003 Iraq invasion, to the sectarian Iraqi government that they backed even when they lost an election in 2010, to the Syrian government they allowed to use a domestic airforce for a historically unprecedented length of time and then actively coordinated with and bombed every single main faction opposing it, etc.)
And the reason for this comes down again to an a) anti-Islamist platform (and no I am not saying that ISIS represents Islamism or that anyone who’s against ISIS is against Islamism – I will explain what I mean in a minute) and b) fear of turbulence of such a region coming to affect them (hence perhaps the noticeable proliferation of “stability” arguments on the Middle East in the “revolutionary” left).
Why it belongs to an “anti-Islamist” (and when I say those two terms it should be noted that it is increasingly clear that there is often a degree of Islamophobia associated with them, as the arbitrary use of “Islamist” has been adopted by so many as a term to disguise those who have serious problems with Islam) platform is as follows: imagine the group that was doing he beheadings, etc. was leftist in character. Imagine the group that was marching people in Guantanamo overalls were leftist in character. Imagine it for a second.
Now whilst beheadings etc would be condemned, there would be infinitely more a) (mainly) apologism/contextual argumentation and b) also some active support for such a group. The extremities of the group would be explained as things like this: “and whilst a lot of their behaviour is to be condemned, they want to create such scenes so that they send a strong message to the West to back off” (and indeed, with ISIS – which it should be remembered is composed of the former Iraqi regime’s rank-and-file – there is an argument that it doesn’t seek worldwide domination, but rather seeks to establish itself as a rooted force there to stay with its visual violence presented to Western audience a form of deterring any future Western attack). Or outraged editorials on “The hypocrisy of our politicians who speak with such outrage of head choppings, as if a head taken off by our decades-long bombing of these countries is more civilised”. Or “The media’s usual inanity in its overwhelming focus on this clearly deterrent-seeking form of visualistic violence (notice the Orange jumpsuits) is merely a form of ignoring the far larger violence inflicted on the people suffering the Western bombs in Syria and Iraq”.
But you have none of that in the context of ISIS, and of course that context is not an exception but rather part of a trend which informs my claim; for example the complete absence of coverage of Western airstrikes on rebels in Syria, or the lack of opposition to the military coup in Egypt (which brings me to my next point in a bit). There is also the fact that ISIS has been used to essentially beat its ideological competitor of “Islamism”, which emerged top after the Arab Spring, to a pulp, with active propagating by some sections of the left, but generally the ignoring of this phenomena/lack of opposition, to arguments which in some way seek to draw links between ISIS to political implementations of Islam. Thus in short ISIS has been allowed tacitly as a tool to beat up “Islamism”.
It also brings into contrast the left’s relative silence on the coup in Egypt. Look at when there are large protests against Maduro in Venezuela – anti-imperialists of all shades on the left (with perhaps a few exceptions) will unite in defending the elected Maduro government, despite the clear presence of popular opposition to it (regardless of whether they are from a certain socio-politico ideological milieu or whatever – this distinction was not proffered to Egypt). Whilst the “liberal” end-all of ballot-box electoralism is routinely shedded off by the Left, it is a holy red line in the contexts where they are the beneficiaries. Their outrage at when an elected leftist government is overthrown exceeds anything election-oriented “liberals” can offer. They may say they “oppose coups”, but really, they won’t really go out of their way to prevent them (or stop a course of action leading to them) if the opponent is an establishment-challenging (i.e. also competitor to them) newcomer.
Notice thus that even anti-war figures don’t claim that the coup in Egypt – which if you consider the strong support for the Egyptian military (separate from the elected government) had infinitely more Western preparation than the rebellion in Syria or elsewhere – is “Western orchestrated”. Because within their milieu there are many secularists who would strongly reject such a statement and who they know would be alienated. (Of course in my opinion the reality is that the coup in Egypt wasn’t a matter of Western orchestration in the first degree, but primarily a matter of local politics which possibly could have escaped the external will if handled differently – to say that it was only the West would be the usual nonsense of ignoring local realities).
So there you have it. The biggest myth of this variety of Western “anti-imperialists” may not be its apologism for other forms of imperialism, or their neglecting of the people suffering imperialism, or their lack of understanding of the dynamics between competing + collaborating imperialisms (i.e. the literal basis of the Middle East’s modern foundations), but it is in fact the fact that even according to a Western-centric focus they’re not anti-imperialist at all, and are very selective with the forms of Western imperialism they highlight and seek to challenge.