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?
Lebanese journalist and editor Hanin Ghaddar shares her thoughts.
To answer this question, one has to go back to the roots of this organization. ISIS did not come from a vacuum, and it is not this shadowy bunch of militants that mysteriously managed to control large areas of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been around for a very long time, and its roots go deeper than its current military achievements.
As an organization, ISIS originated from Al-Qaeda’s group in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, a member of ISI, established Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria in 2011. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formed ISIS in Syria, differences over ideology and strategy between ISIS and al-Nusra soon led to infighting, and eventually to a public repudiation by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri after Baghdadi refused his orders to leave Syria and return to Iraq.
Due to the difference in strategy, Baghdadi sought to create the Caliphate and his main priority was to self-sustain the Islamic State by strengthening its economy. This practical side of ISIS is very significant for its quick logistical and military success. According to many news reports, ISIS’s financial assets amount to $2 billion, with money secured from oilfields in eastern Syria, banks in Iraq, in addition to military supplies captured in Mosul. In addition, ISIS’s ability to operate as a real army lies in the fact that their military council is made up of former officers from Saddam Hussein’s army.
However, the popularity of the group lies somewhere else.
The states where ISIS is expanding and flourishing are visibly Iraq and Syria — the two states where Sunnis have suffered marginalization, humiliation, and brutal killing by the pro-Iranian Shiite and Alawi regimes. In both countries, the state did not offer a safe haven for citizens; on the contrary, the sectarian rhetoric practiced by community and political leaders added to the Sunni-Shia rift.
In Iraq, former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s inability to engage in dialogue with Sunni tribes, who helped fight al-Qaeda, led to the fall of Fallujah into ISIS hands in January. Maliki alienated these tribes and refused to share power with them. After the US withdrawal in 2011, these tribes went into open revolt against Maliki.
A feeling of betrayal also boosted this revolt, as the US started talks and unstated bargains with Tehran. It is not a secret that the International Coalition’s war against ISIS Syria did not stop Assad from bombing rebels in areas where ISIS is not in control. Ignoring the brutality of Assad by the West did not help reassure the Sunnis.
When Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Quds Force Commander, and Iranian-backed militias like Asa’ib ahl al-Haq in Iraq and Hezbollah in Syria are left to wage war against the Sunnis in both countries, and aid the regimes in killing and torturing them, many Sunnis came to see ISIS as the most powerful defense against Iran’s persecution.
But it would be too naïve to only blame regional leaders and Western powers for the rise of ISIS, and enjoy the role of the victim. We are very much responsible, as people and communities. ISIS flourished in these two countries also because of the heightened sectarian rhetoric by the people everywhere. In the streets, traditional media, social media, and inside homes and families, everyone is practicing sectarian hatred, and judging each other’s commitment to Islam.
Our governments have denounced ISIS and promised to secure all available resources to rid the world of its threats, but have we really condemned ISIS when our media, political leaders and Imams at mosques still speak the same sectarian rhetoric and call for hatred?
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran condemned ISIS and pledged to fight all terrorism. But authorities in both countries are still practicing public executions in public squares. Only recently, Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Nimr was sentenced to death. His prosecutors called for his execution by “crucifixion”, a punishment which in Saudi Arabia involves beheading followed by public display of the decapitated body. How is this really different from ISIS’s beheading practice?
Many of us condemned ISIS beheadings, and called them barbarians, yet very few objected to Hamas’s execution of the suspected informants after the recent Gaza War, or Iran’s hanging of gay teenagers from construction canes.
ISIS is a product of our culture of sectarian rhetoric, violence and hatred. ISIS thrives on the injustice and corruption razing our state institutions and communities. Therefore, any policy that aims at fighting and destroying ISIS has to take this into consideration.
To make sure another ISIS does not emerge, the roots behind ISIS’s power and popularity should be targeted. Justice needs to prioritized. Iran should not be treated as the better evil and its regional militias need to be stopped as we are trying to stop ISIS. Assad, who has caused the death of almost 200,000 people, should leave power and he and his lieutenants should be prosecuted under the auspices of the International Criminal Court (ICC) without delay. Otherwise, sectarian hatred and violence will never stop, and ISIS will only get stronger.
ISIS and Hezbollah today feed into each other’s rhetoric of violence and acts of terrorism. Without Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, ISIS and al-Nusra wouldn’t have gained any popularity, and without ISIS’s power, causing fear among the Shia community and other minorities, Hezbollah would have suffered more pressure to leave Syria, even by its own community. They should be dealt with consistently.
In addition, our media and religious institutions should be held accountable for inciting hatred and sectarianism. Those who call for violence through TV channels and inside mosques should be punished, even if they haven’t personally spilled blood.
Our governments, regimes and leaders might not like to tone down this sectarian rhetoric, because sometimes it serves their regional political agendas. Therefore, this should come as a condition for them to join any international effort or regional initiative. International funding for governments should also come with cultural and social conditions, aimed at alleviating sectarian rhetoric and boosting citizenship.
It is a very extensive and difficult route, but it is the only way. You cannot bomb ISIS away; it will grow back. It should be eliminated from the roots.
Heading image: Ar-Raqqah Roof Tops (Ar-Raqqah is the de facto headquarters of ISIS/ISIL) by Zeledi. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.