The roots of ISIS leave few unstained
ISIS (also known as ISIL) is the acronym for the terrorist organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant). Since June 2014, the group has been referring to itself simply as the Islamic State (IS), and has conquered a large swath of land that straddles the Syria-Iraq border with an estimated area equivalent to the state of Jordan.
The Iraq War and Syrian Civil War
ISIS has its origins in Iraq’s Al-Qaeda offshoot which, in 2006 began calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). Though Al-Qaeda had no significant presence in Iraq prior to the 2003 Iraq War, and was indeed hostile to the regime of Saddam Hussein; in the chaotic aftermath of the war, Al-Qaeda was able to establish itself as a terrorist force in the country. While Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, it is the Bush administration’s choice to start a second Gulf War that should be seen as one of the most important causal acts in creating the precursors of ISIS in Iraq.
In addition to a destabilised Iraq, the Syrian uprisings have also been an important factor. The current conflict started after incipient peaceful protests against the Assad regime in early 2011 were met with violent state repression. Such repression helped create increasingly radicalised opposition groups that countered the transgressions of the Assad regime with similarly gruesome crimes. It is this violent anarchy in Syria, which persists to this day on a horrifying scale, that has provided fertile ground for the establishment of ISIS.
The Rise of Sectarian Tensions
Perhaps the most immediate cause for the extraordinarily rapid expansion of ISIS in these regions is that it has faced almost no resistance from the populations in the primarily Sunni territories it has conquered. This is because, with the rise of bitter sectarianism between the Shi‘a and Sunni populations following the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War, both the Sunni majority in Syria and minority in Iraq have suffered much persecution at the hands of the ruling regimes.
Iraq’s most important leader of the last decade, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, had become notorious for his calculated attacks against Sunni political leaders and populations, exacerbating sectarian tensions and alienating Sunni regions that felt powerless and disenfranchised. Similarly, in Syria, most of the opposition targeted by the Assad regime is Sunni. In the territories conquered by ISIS, with its virulent anti-Shi‘ism, the tables have now turned completely.
Of course, no geopolitical situation of this scale ever has a single cause. Some go back in time and blame the postcolonial dismemberment of the region. ISIS appears particularly exercised by the ‘evils’ of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. One could also cite the long history of interference of major Western powers, most notably the United States, which has tended to support brutal dictators in the region, who in turn have kept civil society severely emasculated.
Regional powers also hold a good deal of the blame in dealing with the aftermath of the illegal American invasion. The problem with the blame game, however, is two-fold. Firstly, superpowers never accept blame, but rather act in accordance with the insightful remark of Tacitus, that ‘their crimes once exposed have no refuge except in audacity’.
Secondly, it is always possible to go back further into history, taking another step along the chain of events that led to the current predicament. This allows people’s biases to influence which starting point they choose, however specious it may be. Hence, much of the mainstream western media effectively blames the same region that they clamorously and disastrously demanded be invaded in 2003.
Is ISIS popular among Muslims?
An important question arises as to the popularity of ISIS among Muslims worldwide. Among a global population of around 1.6 billion Muslims, even according to the highest estimates, ISIS forces make up a negligible 0.0006% of the Muslim populace. And yet they are by far the largest Muslim terrorist organisation by numbers. Most Muslims around the world are horrified at their behaviour, which has been condemned by Muslim leaders and organisations the world over.
The only place they seem to have support is among some Sunnis in parts of Iraq and Syria, but this is widely acknowledged to be due to their opposition to the Iraqi and Syrian regimes that have been persecuting the Sunni opposition for many years. The popularity of ISIS among these Sunni groups at present is almost certainly not because of the sudden popularity of jihadist ideology, but because of the manner in which Sunnis have been terrorised in both Syria and Iraq over the past few years.
Under such circumstances, ISIS, who persecute the Shi‘a at every opportunity, can present themselves as saviours of persecuted Sunnis. The grave danger this entails is that it can only make ISIS more popular in the Sunni regions of Syria and Iraq. Perhaps the most effective way to prevent the growth of ISIS is to do what we can to prevent the ongoing cycles of violence in both Syria and Iraq that only exacerbate sectarian tensions in the region. Sadly, the cycles of violence seem destined to persist for the foreseeable future, at least in Syria, given the lack of any meaningful efforts to put an end to the violence on the part of international powers.
There’s no question that ISIS plays up its Islamic bone fides. But can a group that claims to be Islamic automatically be considered representative of Islam as followed by the majority of the world’s Muslims? For many commentators, this is simply taken to be the case, particularly by those who are not experts on Islam. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims, by contrast, will do what they can to dissuade others from arriving at the conclusion that Islam plays a central role in the formation of such organisations.
A Bleak Future?
The reality is that all ideologies, religious or otherwise, are liable to have both moderate and extreme manifestations. The European Enlightenment, seen as a legacy to be proud by much of modern Western civilization, gave us Secular Liberalism, but it also gave us Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. Christianity is the modern world’s largest religion, and is a source of solace for millions, but there also exists the extreme Christian right in the US, whose Presidential candidate of choice, George W. Bush, helped create a death toll in Iraq of appalling proportions—far greater than what any extremist non-state actor in the 21st century has managed to rack up.
Ultimately, the negligence and paralysis of the international community, alongside the inefficacy of the region’s states in the face of the Syrian conflict has permitted the creation of horrors that may haunt us for many years to come. When all sides have blood on their hands, who can be a saviour?
Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/16/terrifying-rise-of-isis-iraq-executions
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