Look around, ISIS's acolytes are just apprentices at atrocity

The civil war in the Congo has claimed over five million lives and offered up some of the worst atrocities of any age. So why again are we focusing so much more attention on ISIS, Neil Macdonald asks.

WARNING: This story contains graphic content

An ISIS soldier celebrates after the capture of the Syrian city of Raqqa earlier this year. The offshoot of al-Qaeda has committed a number of atrocities over the past six months that have captured the world's attention. (Reuters)

Back in July, Barack Obama signed an executive order punishing anyone responsible for some of the hideous excesses of the Congolese civil war. 

Hardly anyone noticed Obama's order. But for the record, the people it targets have reportedly committed: mass rape (of men and women, by rebels and government soldiers) often in front of communities and families, or forcing people to rape each other, as a weapon of war; inventive torture (forcing men to copulate with holes in the ground lined with razor blades, forcing women to eat excrement or flesh of relatives); casual and varied forms of murder (including firing weapons up women's vaginas); use of child soldiers; and ethnic cleansing.

The list goes on.

The Congo war has killed five million people, directly and indirectly, since 1998 — more than the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq put together, as one national newspaper here noted recently.

Obama's punishment for the culprits? Financial discomfort. 

He broadened the reach of U.S.-UN sanctions to take in a wider group of participants. (They'd better not show up in America, or open a bank account here, or they'll be sorry.)

Then, a month after he signed the order, Obama invited Congo's unsavory president, Joseph Kabila, to the White House for dinner.

Compared to the acts committed by Kabila's military and the rebels fighting it, and the interventions by neighbouring Rwanda, the 20,000 or so fighters of ISIS are tenderfoot apprentices in the atrocity business.

Yet ISIS merits what is obviously just the beginning of a full-scale American re-invasion of Iraq, and perhaps even Syria.

'The heart of darkness'

House Speaker John Boehner on the weekend became just the latest prominent American to predict the inevitable deployment of U.S. ground forces.

Meanwhile, the campaign to soften up a mildly skeptical Western public is blaring at near-feedback levels.

ISIS has now become the arch-villian, the Keyser Söze of revolutionary groups. 

It is denounced as "the heart of darkness," (Obama), a "death cult" (Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott) and a genocidal terrorist caliphate (Stephen Harper).

None of those leaders spends much time at all talking about the Congo (the subject was last raised in the Canadian House of Commons three years ago).

Soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo patrol against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) rebels near Beni in North-Kivu province. Democratic Republic of Congo is struggling to emerge from decades of violence and instability, particularly in its east, in which millions of people have died. (Reuters)

When they do, they speak in far milder terms than they do about ISIS, even framing it in the mournful abstract.

At a Francophonie summit in 2012, Harper gently asked whether Canada could help find "solutions" to advance "peace, development and democracy in the DRC," the Democratic Republic of Congo, where all the fighting is.

So why the cognitive dissonance?

Moral relativism

The most charitable view is that national leaders tend to act on the fears and desires and preoccupations of their voters, and while ISIS has terrified Americans by beheading a handful of Westerners, nobody really cares what goes on in the Congo.

It's far away, in the middle of a continent widely perceived as dirty and savage, and the victims are all, well, black Africans.

Western politicians also take their cues from news outlets, and while editors don't like to discuss such things, Africa (along with a few other wretched parts of the Earth) barely makes the news menu, if at all.

A struggling baby panda in some zoo will easily knock an African genocide off the nightly newscast.

It's not a conscious racism — journalists profess, probably sincerely, concern for suffering and death everywhere. And the level of education among editorial staff, like diplomats, can be remarkable where world affairs are concerned.

But what makes it onto front pages and newscasts and national agendas tells the story.

Passenger liners that crash in Africa barely make world briefs, or "in other news" sections voiced over by the anchor. Jets that go down carrying Europeans or North Americans stay on front pages and newscasts for days.

The current Ebola epidemic only began grabbing serious space on American newscasts when Obama said its spread had become "exponential," and declared it a threat to American national security.

Move over Keyser Söze

But even within the Middle East, where brutality and savagery are often considered normal governance, ISIS has assumed a special status as evil incarnate.

Yes, ISIS has carried out beheadings, often for apostasy, which in ISIS's book means not following its deranged interpretation of Islam.

But so has the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose princes walk hand in hand, sometimes literally, with American presidents, and are welcomed in the society salons of Georgetown.

The Saudis have beheaded 46 people so far this year, including 19 in the first three weeks of August. Like ISIS, the Saudis favour public beheadings, and have sometimes strung the decapitated corpses up to rot in public.

Grounds for beheading in Saudi Arabia include sorcery. Seriously, sorcery.

And, of course, apostasy. (The Saudian Arabian version of Islam, Wahabbism, isn't all that different from the ferocious ISIS interpretation.)

Yes, one might argue, but the Saudis are America's allies, not its sworn enemies.

Well, setting aside the fact that that hardly excuses beheading apostates, or sorcerers, in the 21st century, most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudis, and wealthy Saudis have funded some of the most anti-Western radicals worldwide, not the least of which were the Taliban.

Incidentally, they have also funneled an awful lot of money to the opposition fighters in Syria, which of course means ISIS.

Which probably brings us to what's really at issue here: oil.

The Saudis have lots of it, and as long as they're willing to be good fellows and keep selling it on the open market, well, their virulent extremism is just the religious quirk of a close and valued ally.

ISIS, meanwhile, made the gross error of beheading some white people, and has taken over oil refineries, and sold the oil, and threatened the order of things, and there are few crimes more serious than that.

So, to war? Again?

Oh, and will someone please check up on those Congolese bank accounts?


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.