Debates around ISIS tend to focus on the question of why ISIS does what it does. It is in this context that ISIS’ Islamic or un-Islamic character suddenly becomes important. Are ISIS activities inspired by a textual interpretation of Islam? Or are they rather the acts of a group of psychopaths that have sequestered one of the world’s Great Religions? Very little time (if any at all) is dedicated to the more important question of how was ISIS capable of existing in the first place.
Think about it. Even before the murder of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasba, 86% of Kuwaitis, 95% of Saudi Arabians and 97% of Emiratis had a negative or fairly negative opinion of ISIS. Similar polls have found equal results in Egypt and Lebanon. Yet if one grabs a map of ISIS’ areas of control, there will always be two bands of color, one that represents areas of actual control and another that represents areas of active support. What exactly sets the average Egyptian, Saudi or Lebanese apart from the average Northern Iraqi? Why is ISIS capable of operating and have areas of support in Iraq, when it would have none in so many other places in the Middle East?
To answer this question, the Islamic or un-Islamic nature of ISIS is irrelevant. Rather, we need to understand ISIS not as a religious group, but as an insurgent group. A group trying to take control over a specific plot of land in order to establish its own form of government. Granted, ISIS’ specific form of “government” is influenced by millenarian tenets with Islamist trimmings, but just as it would be silly to try to stop the Maoist revolution of China by arguing that Maoism is not really Communist, it is equally silly to think that ISIS’ downfall will come from proving that its particular brand of millenarianism is not truly Islamic. If the goal is to stop ISIS (and the goal should definitely be to stop ISIS), arguing over its Islamism is simply pointless.
We rather need to understand where ISIS fits within the ongoing civil war that has plagued Iraq ever since the end of the American occupation. Indeed, when the United States toppled down Saddam Hussein, it trampled with a very delicate political balance, where a Shiite majority country was ruled by a Sunni dictator. Once Saddam Hussein was removed and his entire government apparatus dismantled, Sunni Muslims and former Ba’ath party supporters felt left out of the “new Iraqi order” and were quick to devolve into an insurgency of Sunni-led militias. As sectarian violence increased, Shia militias were also formed, leaving Sunni populations in Northern Iraq lost in the crossfire.
One of the earliest Sunni militias to be established was led by one Abu Musaq al-Zarqawi. This group quickly pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and became known in the Western world as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI). AQI, however, had continuous disagreements with al-Qaeda’s headquarters, specifically on account of its sectarian roots, seeking to target Shia Muslims alongside US troops, calling them “servants of the crusaders”. After the death of al-Zarqawi in 2006, the group went on to establish alliances with various other Sunni insurgent groups, rebranding itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and seeking to establish a Caliphate that extended beyond Iraq’s borders. Disagreements between the new leadership of ISI and the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, over ISI’s purported desire to expand operations into the Syrian Civil War led to ISI’s ultimate expulsion from al-Qaeda and its final transformation into what we now know as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
It is this background, and not the underlying religious beliefs of each group, that we should be obsessing over. ISIS the Sunni insurgent group taking part in the Iraq Civil War, not ISIS the Islamic literalist group following Sharia Law. Once we understand ISIS the insurgent group, we can understand how to defeat it. After all, defeating an insurgency is a rather standard kind of operation, regardless of whether the insurgents in question are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Communist or Fascist.
An insurgency –any insurgency- feeds off the grievances and fears of the local population. It seeks to offer the local population public goods that the local official government is unable to provide: security, justice, food, or even health services. Insurgents win wars not by winning sufficient battles, but by winning over sufficient hearts and minds, effectively robbing the government of its most important asset: its legitimacy. So the real question is who is ISIS fighting for?
Now that we understand how the Iraqi insurgency works, we can accurately say that ISIS’ main strength lies in that it is operating in a largely Sunni territory, where government-backed Shiite militias have been placed in charge of combating the Sunni insurgency. In a society as divided as that of Iraq, it is really not hard to imagine that these Shiite militias are not really model troopers. As Human Rights Watch has reported, these militias have engaged in a series of abusive practices against the civilian Sunni population that may include war crimes. It is this fact that sets the average Saudi, Lebanese or Egyptian citizen apart from the average Northern Iraqi. ISIS’ success depends on the local population fearing the Shiite militias more than they fear the Sunni terrorists. So far, this is working, and it’s why we seem to be unable to stop ISIS.
Airstrikes will do little to win a war of counter-insurgency. The Obama Administration knows this. The U.S. Army & Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual clearly says so itself: “the primary objective of COIN operations is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government”; i.e. not just airstrikes (¶1-113, p. 37). Counterinsurgencies are complex military, civic, political, and psychological operations that require government forces to win over the local population through the provision of exactly those public goods that the insurgent group purports to provide: security, justice, food, health services, etc. Human rights abuses, an absent government, and lack of basic services are a recipe for disaster in any counterinsurgency operation, and this is exactly what the U.S. strategy of air bombardment is enabling to continue.
In order to defeat ISIS, Iraq would need a highly trained and mobile force that refrains from committing human rights abuses, is culturally sensitive to the Shia-Sunni split, and is able to take swaths of territory from ISIS’ hands in order to build and provide basic services therein. It is only after this is accomplished, that the local population will be in a position to safely decide to side with the Government, thus suffocating ISIS into oblivion. The question is, however, does such a force exist in today’s world?
The U.S. has already shown its limited capability to properly deal with the Iraq insurgency in its original 2003-2010 run. It would seem unlikely that American boots on the ground today would be able to solve the insurgency problems that their predecessors were unable to solve in the first place. The new Iraqi Government of Haider al-Abadi, while allegedly interested in asserting higher levels of control over Shiite militias, also seems to be unable to end the cycle of violence on its own. Kurdish militias, while able to lead successful military operations, do not seem to have much regard for the wellbeing of local populations either. Finally, other Middle Eastern nations don’t seem to wish to have to engage in a costly war of counterinsurgency in the territory of a neighboring state, regardless of how many of their citizens ISIS kills. And even when they do get involved, they seldom follow the letter of actual counter-insurgency doctrine.
So perhaps instead of asking whether ISIS is Islamic or not, we should be talking about the absolutely chilling conclusion that what we are doing today simply will not stop ISIS nor generate lasting peace in Iraq at all.
How’s that for a talking point?