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Yemen

ISIS’s unpredictable revolution

The editors of Oxford Islamic Studies Online asked several experts the following question:

The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the US was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?

Sociologist Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina shares his thoughts.

Revolutions have been surprising experts for generations. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, for example, the CIA commissioned a report into why it had predicted, 100 days before the fall of the monarchy, that the Shah‘s regime would ride out the protests. During the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011, President Obama reportedly chastized the intelligence community for not having warned him in advance. Academics have a similarly checkered track record.

The reason is that revolutions are inherently unpredictable. They depend on the interactions and perceptions of large numbers of people at moments of confusion when normal routines and institutions are breaking down.

After a revolution, though, it is common to demand explanations that make the unexpected seem inevitable. Many experts are happy to satisfy our desire for a causal narrative, selecting evidence from the run-up to revolution that might serve as a sort of retroactive prediction.

So why did a revolutionary group calling itself al-Daula al-Islamiyya fi’l-’Iraq wa’l-Sham (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) manage to occupy territory in Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014? I might point to its extreme violence (though the Iraqi and Syrian governments were capable of extreme violence as well), or its ideology of self-sacrifice (also visible among other Syrian revolutionary groups), or the support it received from foreign governments (no greater than the support that the governments received), or its leaders’ strategic brilliance (knowable only post hoc), or any number of other factors. These are stories we tell to make ourselves feel that the world is an orderly place, where even the events we find most outrageous or troubling can be tamed through the causal logic of social science.

The real story of the revolution is that one group with weapons persuaded other groups with weapons to surrender or retreat, instead of shooting back. It persuaded large numbers of unarmed civilians to obey them or flee, instead of mobbing the revolutionaries and handing them over to other groups with guns. Those moments of conquest, enacted in confusion and panic with lives on the line—that is how this revolution occurred.

This is part three of a series of articles discussing ISIS. Part one is by Hanin Ghaddar, Lebanese journalist and editor. Part two is by Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Headline image: Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 by Email4mobile. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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