By Dan Zuchegno
Early in the event, the panelists pointed out that ISIS and Sunni jihadism have a long history and have been present in various forms before Al Qaeda. Each panelist referred to the complex set of historical religious and political relationships that render a simple approach to ISIS inappropriate. Attempting to paint a broad picture of these relationships, we can look into the political and religious geography of the area. In Iraq, although the majority of the Iraqi population is Shiite or Shia, Saddam Hussein was a devout Sunni. Over time, Hussein and the Baath party obtained political power in Iraq and Hussein ruled the nation from 1979 till 2003 when the US attacked Iraq and overthrew Hussein. The fall of Hussein led to the establishment of a Shiite majority government in Baghdad and the beginning of recriminations against the Sunni minority,
In nearby Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi movement led to a “model” society of Sharia observance and moral virtue. Although Saudi Arabia is largely Sunni, the government does not share the radical ideology of violence prescribed by ISIS and does not publicly condone the actions of ISIS. Jordan, like Saudi Arabia, also has a Sunni majority that does not share ISIS’ radical views. Unlike the government of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan has shown to be more willing to join the fight against ISIS. King Abdullah’s involvement, however, represents a fine political tightrope as many Jordanians wonder why their monarch has joined the American-led coalition against jihadists from the Sunni dominated Islamic State (ISIS).
In Syria, the political and religious factions are more interwoven. President Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, a form of Islam that dates back to the 9th and 10th century, which has suffered from periodic persecution by the Syrian Sunni majority. The rise to power and continued execution of control by the Al Assad family is the result of a complex set of historical alliances between leaders of the Sunni Baath party and the Alawite minority. The civil war in Syria, beginning almost seven years ago, has led to an ever more complex series of rivalries in the country with minority religious groups tending to support the Assad government, while the overwhelming majority of opposition fighters are Sunni Muslims, not necessarily ISIS.
A discussion of ISIS must recognize the connection between ISIS and its control over territory, in particular, a strong connection to specific areas in Syria and Iraq. The conflict in Syria has made for a patchwork of control over vast areas of Syria. The chaos in Syria and the lack of a strong central government in Baghdad have combined to provide an opportunity for ISIS to claim control over vast areas of territory in both nations and an opportunity to proclaim a home for its newly created Sunni caliphate. The reality of ISIS is that the Islamic State is Islamic, very Islamic, following a medieval tradition of fundamental Islamic teachings which have been absent for hundreds of years. Although much of what ISIS looks like appears nonsensical, it can be seen as a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and creating a formal caliphate to enforce traditional Islamic mandates of the prophet Mohammed. Giving support to the growth and presence of ISIS and laying the foundation to the question, what ISIS really wants, Anjem Choudary comments, that, “Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives… These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate.
The final discussion of the evening addressed two interrelated questions; what are the similarities and differences between Al Qaeda, and why have so many westerners abandoned their homes and families to migrate to ISIS? It was agreed that unlike Al Qaeda which was a clandestine operation resulting in substantial intelligence being expended by the west to search out and find members of the organization, ISIS is a twenty first century social media organization which uses Twitter, Facebook, and other global social media. Through the continual communication and dissemination of its ideology, ISIS has become a “caliphate of the imagination”, spurring individuals from the west to take action, to play a part in the creation of a utopia based on the strict adherence to the ISIS form of Sunni Islam. It seems that the ideology has given many recruits a sense of purpose, a belonging that fills the void for many who believe that their lives and society have failed them.
All the panelist agreed that ISIS ideology is a serious threat to the world and argued that it is a threat that cannot be defeated on one front and is a struggle the US cannot win alone or quickly given the complexity and magnitude of the issues in question. Everyone reiterated that this fundamental ideology was driven in part by widespread bad governance, shifting social mores, and the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil. Ambassador Hill added that without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete and that the best approach to addressing this myriad of issues is a multi-faceted approach that does not rely on military intervention but instead addresses some the foundational issues of religion, development, and justice upon which the ideology is based. This long term multi-pronged attack must be based on defense, diplomacy, economic development, and aid.
A conclusion for the evening can be found in Ambassador Hill’s statement that the US must stay engaged with all the parties involved in the issue arguing that the US must lead the resistance to ISIS collaboratively being careful not to try and impose our will on others.
I thank all the panelists for their many valued writings as well as their comments during the World Denver event that made this discussion of the topic possible. Daniel Zuchegno
For more information on ISIS and the region, the following links provide a broad spectrum of information.