Every day it seems we are inundated with hyperbolic images and stories of the ISIS. From the media story, ISIS popped out of the ground around this time last year, and have been cartoon super villains in public culture ever since. Here I am going to discuss ISIS as a confluence of factors in the region, and help us understand why it exists, and why it seems so successful.
ISIS arose from a series of circumstances from the 8th century to 2014.
The story of ISIS can go back as far as the First World War. Today’s Iraq and Syria were both parts of the Ottoman Empire, and after the war that empire no longer existed.
The Europeans decided that the Arabs were ‘not ready’ for self-government, so they devised something called the mandate system. The idea behind it would be that European powers would colonize these regions, and get them ready for independence. The European powers did not make much consideration of the religious, tribal, and ethnic boundaries of the region. Syria would become a French mandate, and Iraq a British one
What this resulted in is a state called Iraq whose borders are arbitrary. In reality, the country could be split into a minimum of three, but possibly many more states to give the different groups native to the region autonomy. Instead, the government ruled over a Shia Arab majority, with significant Kurdish and Sunni minorities.
Those Sunni Arabs do not exist entirely in Iraq however. They live in the borderlands between Iraq and Syria, split between two states since the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Saddam Hussein was a member of this group. He kept the disparate factions of Iraq together with a Stalinist brutality. He violently repressed the Kurdish rebels, and the Shia majority went unrepresented.
His government was called the Ba’athist party. Oddly enough, for all its brutality, Ba’athist Iraq was one of the more secular states in the region.
The brutal stability would not last forever. On fabricated charges, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. After the conquest, Ba’ath party members were thrown out and banned from participating in Iraqi politics.
The first leader of the post-invasion government was Jawad al-Maliki. He was a Shia Arab who upon getting power proceeded to act as a sectarian, mistreating the Sunnis who used to rule under Saddam Hussein. In 2011, ISIS was fighting al-Assad’s government in Syria, and in June of 2014, when al-Maliki ordered an offensive against a Sunni uprising, ISIS returned its interests into Iraq.
Who is ISIS made of? ISIS is an assortment of fighters from around the Sunni world, and many of those generals and politicians that the new Iraqi government kicked out for working under Hussein. These aren’t your normal terrorists; these were politicians, military commanders, and civil servants. ISIS is not a terrorist group, it’s a rebellion.
There is no shortage of scare pieces about Muslims from the west getting tapped to go overseas and fight for ISIS. A shooting in my home province of Ontario, claimed by ISIS, led to a brutal totalitarian new law that might as well be the Canadian patriot act. ISIS in the west seems to be a new way to scare people.
Who are these people going abroad? Investigating Muslim communities has found that these people who go abroad are the disaffected. Young Muslim men who are discriminated against, have no job opportunities, and are marginalized in their host society. ISIS, with its slick social media presence, gives them something they feel is important.
With ISIS declaring a new Caliphate, Sunnis from around the world are coming in at the tune of 2,000 a month. Many of them come from the Islamic world, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Pakistan.
Caliph is a strange title. Think of it like the pope for Sunni Islam. The first ones were the direct descendants of Muhammad himself, and the last one was the last Ottoman emperor.
ISIS is a terrifying organization. Their campaign has committed horrible acts of ethnic cleansing, and their recruiting power should make us nervous.
However, they are not a terrorist group. The word terrorism has been watered down to become “violence we don’t agree with, especially Muslims” which is not a viable definition. Terrorists are stateless groups that commit random acts of violence in order to create a state of fear and enact political change. ISIS acts more like a government, and their attacks are more like military engagements.
Through their black-market oil sales and remittances from supporters abroad, ISIS has an actual economy. They run a hotel, are minting coins, and have widow’s pensions for their soldiers. The intent is to make a new country.
How do we move forward? I am merely a history student, but looking at the situation through the lens of history there may be some ways to really take the wind out of ISIS’s sails.
First of all, we in the west need to stop interfering in the region. The reason ISIS grows so much is because drone bombs, invasions, and arms dealing has made the west reviled in the minds of many people in the region. Some go to fight for ISIS not because of religious zeal, but as opposition to our meddling.
Second, to limit recruits, we could stop treating Muslim populations in the west terribly. All sorts of crimes are a result of people who feel they have no future. Providing the economic assistance Muslims in the west need to join the economy would go a long way. Through economic and social action we need to let Muslims know that they are welcome as part of western society, not aliens in a hostile land.
Lastly, the wars in Iraq and Syria are an opportunity to really redraw the borders of the region. Iraq and Syria are too big and unrepresentative. Perhaps the regional powers should hold their own version of a peace of Versailles and really figure how to make a region that does not involve one group dominating over another.
My question for you is that knowing the context of this organization, what should the world’s response be? Will bombing fix the problem?