President Obama calls the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant a “cancer.” Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, describes ISIL as a “monster.” Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, ranks al-Qaeda and ISIL, also known as ISIS, as “Enemy No. 1″ of Islam. And President Hassan Rouhani of Iran warns Muslim states to beware of “these savage terrorists,” for “tomorrow you will be targeted,” too, by ISIL.
The unanimity of hatred and fear toward the ISIL militants rampaging through Syria and Iraq is testament both to the threat they pose and to an unusual opportunity. Not since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait 24 years ago have the region’s most powerful players expressed such animus toward a common enemy. That’s because ISIL’s goal of replacing national boundaries in the Middle East with a Sunni Muslim caliphate threatens not just the usual “infidels”—Christians, Jews, Shiites, and other non-Sunni Muslim minorities—but the nation-states themselves.
With U.S. involvement heating up, a de facto coalition of the willing is already confronting ISIL. Hezbollah guerrillas are fighting the militants in Lebanon and Syria; Kurdish soldiers and U.S. warplanes are hitting ISIL militia in northern Iraq; Saudi troops are facing down ISIL along the southern Iraq border; and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, according to Reuters, are protecting Shiite holy sites near Baghdad.
Whether the common fight against a mutually reviled foe can help thaw other rivalries—such as the regional face-off between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia—may ultimately depend on how tough a fighting force ISIL turns out to be. Might a sustained campaign against the militants have a silver lining of broader cooperation?
For now, the rhetorical echoes across the region are striking. President Obama, speaking after an ISIL fighter apparently beheaded American journalist James Foley last week, assured “friends and allies around the world” the U.S. “will continue to confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with a sense of hope and civility.”
Days earlier, Hezbollah’s Nasrallah called on “every Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi, Syrian, and any Gulf national to leave sectarian intolerance behind.… No one should regard this battle [against ISIL] as a sectarian one,” he said. “It is a takfiri war against anyone who opposes it.” (A takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy, traditional grounds for holy war.)
And in June, Iran’s President Rouhani, while recounting how Shiite and Sunni Muslims coexisted peacefully for centuries, advised “Muslim countries that support the terrorists with their petrodollars to stop. … Wash your hands of killing and the killing of Muslims.”
Fanaticism, like beauty, is in the eye the beholder.