Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland fifteen years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

ISIS: Talking ill of revolution

Approx Reading Time-11Revolution, even in its most recent form of ISIS, has never been the avenue to lasting change – Ingeborg van Teeseling


Recently, the news from Syria managed to bring a wry smile to my face. Not nice of me, I know, but I couldn’t help it. Through trustworthy channels, the word came through that eight Dutch ISIS fighters had been executed by their own. Horrible, of course, but also intriguing. Apparently they had attempted to desert and mutiny – and strangely enough, that had not been welcomed by their old comrades in arms. In fact, the whole Dutch contingent, consisting of about 75 men, was picked up and put in jails in Raqqa and Ma’dan, probably in preparation for their own beheadings. Comments from the Dutch Government aren’t in yet, but they will most likely run along the lines of, “if you lie with dogs, don’t be surprised if you get flees.”

According to Dutch ISIS-watchers, the majority of the jihadis from Holland have a Moroccan-Dutch background. Their parents or grandparents came to the West from the 1960s onwards, mostly to work. Generally they were badly educated and ended up in dead-end jobs and poor housing, which did not make their families happy or endear them to their new country. Their children and grandchildren were raised not in authoritarian Morocco, but in live-and-let-live Holland, where rules were only guidelines and negotiating the core value. At home though, the old language and the old regime still reigned, and this split the second and third generation in two. They were influenced by the democratic and laissez-faire attitude of their classmates, but also had to carry the burden of their heritage. ISIS must have felt like an easy option to them, an environment where there was only black and white, not those horrible greys that complicate all our lives.

Unfortunately, they were probably already infused with Western ideas, like talking about things and even compromise. But that is not what ISIS, or any other revolutionary group, is about. A revolution, any revolution, runs along the same lines. It usually starts underground, as a secret society. The problem with secret societies is that they are paranoid. They see traitors everywhere, and because betrayal can blow up the organisation, traitors are severely punished. Years ago, I was “invited” (read: bundled onto the floor of a car) to witness the punishment the IRA administers to members who are considered defectors. The standard penalty is knee-capping, which in this case was done with a baseball bat (the right side) and a bullet (the left side). I was the only one in the room who was appalled and angry. For everybody else, this was a normal, everyday occurrence; the consequence of the battle against the British and Protestants. They viewed it as justice. They were convinced that the end justified these means.

A revolution, any revolution, only works if it has a simple goal, whether that is a caliphate, “British out” or the head of the king. To reach that objective, three things are necessary: absolute obedience by the revolutionaries, the acceptance that dirty hands are unavoidable and strict rules administered by a totalitarian leader. That is all very well for a while but in the end, all these regulations run contrary to human psychology. We can be obedient for a short period of time, when there is a crisis situation and we realise that doing what we are told might save our skins. After that, we inevitably start to ask questions. Our species rules the world because we haven’t been compliant and docile. We are in charge of the other animals because we ask “why” and let our “yes” be followed by “but.” The necessity of dirty hands also has a flip side. Most people have a problem with killing. But after we’ve done it once, it becomes easier, and after ten or so it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Morality has shifted, conscience silenced, and that is an issue for a revolution, because if you don’t mind killing, then it is just as easy to kill your own. Lastly, the strict rules and the dictator. History has taught us that one of the easiest ways of losing your life is to be the leader of a revolution. Robespierre actively advocated for the French Revolution, only to fall on the guillotine himself in the end. Trotsky was one of the architects of the Russian Revolution and the founding father of the Red Army. For his troubles he was put on trial, first expelled and then assassinated. The adage that “the revolution eats its children” is almost always proven right.

That is unavoidable, because after the first flush, discussions inevitably start, and because of their paranoid background, even the smallest of disagreements will lead to more killing and more totalitarianism. Monty Python once brilliantly visualised this issue in a sketch about the hatred between the “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s front of Judea.” I don’t know anything about the backgrounds of this particular ISIS infighting, of course, but I am guessing that what we are watching is the second phase of the ISIS revolution. The eating of the children has started, which is bad news for them, but good news for us. Real change is hardly ever obtained by revolutions and I am convinced it will not be so now, either. Maybe it is time to start listening to our own fabulous astronomer Fred Watson, whose slogan goes like this: “‘What do we want?’ ‘Moderate change.’ ‘When do we want it?’ ‘In due course’.”

Yes, talking is boring.

But revolution is worse.

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