By Adam Stromme
Whether you call it the Islamic State (IS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the classic Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the militant Sunni insurgent organization rocking Iraq and Syria is unparalleled. It has made a name for itself, especially on social media, as being virtually synonymous with evil. Spawned from the chaos of the Syrian civil war, it has proven to be utterly ruthless and depraved in action, and its tenacity in combat is clearly evidenced by its capacity to thrive for three years in the cutthroat environment that the conflict has produced.
To answer these pressing questions, we need to understand a little bit of the religious dynamics at work before situating them in the present context, specifically with regard to the ultimate catalyst for much of the tumult of the Middle East: the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
First, regarding the religious dynamics of Islam. Islam is broken down into two distinct branches, the Sunni and the Shia. The division between the two is rooted deep within the history of Islam and the first succession after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. Although a mundane distinction for the typical Muslim, religious extremism– particularly those flamed by sectarian Wahhabi Islamists in Saudi Arabia or funded by the United States to combat the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979– has ripped open the wound in recent years, straining relationships between the sects in multiple countries.
Shia-majority Muslims are distributed along a string of countries referred to as the “Shia Crescent,” which includes Iran (the center of Shia Islam) Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and Iraq. Of these countries, only Iraq and Iran have solid governmental majorities that are not complicated by either a secular government– as in the case of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet state– or Bahrain, whose government is majority Sunni.
The problem with Iraq was that for the longest time it was a majority Shia country with an overwhelmingly Sunni government under Saddam Hussein. With the coming of the Iraq war, these dynamics were all thrown into disarray. Investigative journalist Mark Danner argued that “The basic political task of the occupation of Iraq… was to somehow switch power from the Sunni minority, to the Shia majority and to do it in a way that the Sunnis would accept it, nonviolently.” Previously, conflict between the Sunni and the Shia was limited. The utter lack of planning on the part of Bush era policy planners for post war reconstruction, and the dissolution of the Iraqi army– itself one of the only effective governmental pillars left standing after the war– all led to tensions that could not be contained.
In short, ISIS is living testament that the basic political task failed to be realized.
Former soldiers, now fragmented and insecure, coalesced into multiple insurgencies, including ISIS. ISIS is largely the product of radical, or simply financially insecure Sunnis who saw opportunities within the chaos of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The basic political task of the occupation of Iraq was to somehow switch power from the Sunni minority, to the Shia majority and to do it in a way that the Sunnis would accept it, nonviolently.
Taken from its humble origins as one of a number of insurgent organizations, the organization founded by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was revamped by its pragmatic leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and now operates on thin contiguous strips of captured land of geostrategic importance. By acting dramatically, ISIS has sought to draw attention from comparable Islamic fundamentalist sects such as Al Qaeda and, some have argued, bring back the United States in order to drain its finances akin to what happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
ISIS’ ultimate objectives are, like it’s tactics, grim. They seek to establish an exclusionary Islamic Caliphate fashioned from a myopic reading of the Quran and the Hadiths (sayings of Muhammad). If their precedent says anything, it will entail the wholesale raping, pillaging, and slaughtering of all other religious denominations, including Shias and the Yazidis— a small religious sect that is viewed with suspicion by regional Muslims.
Thankfully, their implementation is also about as fanciful as their ideology, and with time, the scholarly consensus is that ISIS will likely collapse from the collation of forces organized against them. If history has a lesson to teach ISIS, it is that you can only make so many enemies before you need more friends.