The Islamic State: A Political or Religious Phenomenon?

Graeme Wood, of the magazine ‘The Atlantic’ wrote a rather interesting article recently attempting to give an analysis of the Islamic State (read it here if you haven’t done so already; it’s well worth a look, at the very least for its’ meticulous research and thorough nature.) At the heart of Wood’s thesis is the claim that the Islamic State is fundamentally a religious group who see their caliphate as a weapon of divine providence which is making manifest the will of God. This is one of the most widespread beliefs about the group and, I believe, one of the biggest misconceptions.

The Islamic State was once known as the Islamic State in Iraq. It was a Sunni extremist group founded by a Jordanian thug going by the name of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is often said that the invasion of Iraq ‘unleashed sectarian tensions’ but in reality the early post-invasion years were characterised by nationalist rather than Islamist violence. Ba’athist and Iraqi Nationalist groups were the main nuclei of resistance against the multi-national occupation. Why? Because Iraq had never been an Islamist nation. Even during Saddam’s reign, Islam was not the main ideological theory behind the regime – rather, Ba’athist pan-Arabism was. Though Saddam might have cultivated a clique of Sunni leaders, this was more tribal than religious; hence the preponderance of men from the areas around Saddam’s birthplace of Tikrit. Saddam’s right-hand man was a Christian – Tariq Aziz’s real name was Mikhail Youhanna, a Chaldean Catholic. Symbolic gestures like the addition of the shahada to the flag aside, Ba’athist Iraq was not divided on sectarian lines.

This explains why, in the years after the invasion of Iraq, the insurgency was a nationalist one. For Iraqis of all sects the invasion was a slight on national pride – more than that, a humiliation by the USA, who had been characterised as the national enemy in Ba’athist Iraq. But swiftly this transformed into a sectarian conflict. The cause of this was the perceived favouritism shown towards the Sunnis by the Americans. The sectarian constitution post-2003 called for a Shia prime minister, and many of the key cabinet positions were dominated by Shia. In addition, the de-Ba’athification of Iraq affected Sunnis disproportionately, as the Ba’ath Party had traditionally been ideologically close to Sunnis. Pan-Arab sentiments ran deeper amongst Sunnis than Shia, the latter of whom were dismayed by the vociferous anti-Iranian sentiments of the Ba’athists. But the political marginalisation of Sunnis in Iraq was comparatively insignificant compared to the civil persecution that they felt. The Americans and the Baghdad administration turned a blind eye to Shia militias like the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organisation. These claimed to be non-sectarian ‘police organisations’ but in reality were comprised mainly of violent criminals who had benefited from the general pro-Shia tenor of the new Iraq. Shia militias constantly committed atrocities against Sunnis, especially in mixed areas like Baghdad. In many cases, men with Sunni names would be stopped and killed at Shia checkpoints abruptly erected outside Sunni neighbourhoods.

It was this which led to the sectarianisation of the Iraq conflict. Aggrieved at their increasing persecution (and conscious of their status as a minority out of favour with the authorities) explicitly Sunni militias began to form. Essentially as a counterpoint to Shia fervour, they became explicitly Islamist in their tone and rhetoric. But even at this point the sectarianism was within a national framework, no different to Islamist movements in any other country. What transformed it into the jihadi terror we see today in the form of the Islamic State was the arrival of al-Qaeda. Contrary to American claims, al-Qaeda never co-operated with Saddam. Though al-Zarqawi was present in Iraq before the invasion, he worked in a Kurdish enclave beyond the access of the Iraqi Army. For the first few years of the insurgency, he and his followers confined themselves to nationalist groups. However he swiftly began to synthesise international jihadism with Sunni defence. When terrified Sunni citizens called in groups to defend themselves against Shia death squads, Zarqawi sent in al-Qaeda. The prime example of this was in the village of al-Dora south of Baghdad. Prior to the war, al-Dora was an affluent mixed neighbourhood with significant Christian, Sunni and Shia populations. After the invasion, Shia militias began to police the area to the chagrin of the Sunnis there. They invited in al-Zarqawi and his organisation. What followed was a horrifying back-and-forth game in which one side would gain dominance and terrorise the civilians of the other confession, before being forced out by the Americans, leading to a vacuum filled by the other side.

But again, we must note that sectarianism was simply the ideological flag around which Sunnis could rally to fight against the obvious injustices of the Shia-dominated government. Most Sunnis in a village like al-Dora are not interested in jihadism; equally, most would see no contradiction in supporting al-Qaeda. Sunnis in Iraq feel under siege and humiliated, and in such a situation groups like al-Qaeda thrive. The administration in Baghdad had numerous opportunities to set matters right; the most obvious one would have been to edit the constitution to remove the articles barring a Sunni from ever becoming President or Prime Minister. But instead throughout the decade the injustices meted out to the Sunnis increased. This was somewhat justifiable, considering the astonishing brutality with which al-Qaeda treated Shia. But throughout the insurgency, the Sunnis in general remained secular, with al-Qaeda merely a small subset. In the 2010 elections, every Sunni-majority governorate voted for the secular al-Iraqqiya bloc; every Shia-majority one voted for Shia Islamist parties. As atrocities increased on both sides, Sunnis felt more and more that siding with the jihadis was a price worth paying for protection from the depredations of the Shia extremists.

The final straw was the catastrophic mishandling of the Sahwa movement. The residents of Anbar Governorate had facilitated the entry of al-Qaeda as a result of frustration with the central government. But the brutality of Zarqawi and his allies was too much for them; the Islamic state being created in Anbar was not what the majority of Sunnis wanted. Therefore they organised themselves into Sahwa militias which (with American support) expelled al-Qaeda from Anbar with remarkable celerity and efficacy. This should have been a triumph for non-sectarianism, and a model for the rest of Iraq, with local forces dealing with local problems rather than the corrupt Shia-dominated central army mishandling the situation. Instead, the government in Baghdad saw the Sahwa militias as a threat to their authority. Rather than working with them, they abruptly dissolved them, leaving hundreds of thousands of Shia men unemployed and feeling betrayed by the government they had fought to preserve.

This leads us to the present situation, and the fallacy of presuming (as Graeme Wood does) that the current conflict is a religious one. What we are experiencing in Iraq is a jihadi group capitalising on a civil rights movement. The number of core mujahedeen in IS numbers almost certainly merely in the low thousands. Wood is correct in assuming that these men are religious fanatics; they do indeed believe that they are fulfilling Islamic prophecy. But the majority of Iraqis supporting the Islamic State in eastern areas care very little about jihadism. They tolerate and support the group because they mistrust the sectarian central government far more than they do IS. But how does this explain the religious rhetoric with which the Islamic State appears to be imbued? Several factors need to be considered here.

Firstly, the Islamic State jihadists must be separated from the populations which they operate in. The population of the areas controlled by IS comes to several millions. However, the number of jihadists is roughly 30 000. The rest of the people involved in the organisation are those who support it by default as the protector of Sunnis against the central government. The Kurdish government gave the frankly ridiculous estimate of 200 000 IS fighters; however, when we apply the above framework and distinguish IS from their supporters, that estimate approaches the truth. Including their Ba’athist allies and pro-IS tribes, 200 000 is not unreasonable.

Secondly, the importance of foreign fighters should not be underestimated. Jihadists from outside Iraq and Syria make up at least a third of the Islamic State’s fighting force – possibly more. These people are genuinely radicalised in their beliefs. They don’t support IS because they see them as the guarantor of Sunni rights in Iraq; they do so because they are violent sociopaths who believe that IS will herald an age of Islamic dominance over the world. These people are what give IS its’ character as a primarily religious organisation. However, it is fallacious to assume that the majority of Iraqis and Syrians hold such beliefs when these countries have never been known for religious fanaticism (unlike Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Maghreb, the main sources of foreign IS militants.)

Finally, every political movement needs an ideological motivator. Traditionally in Arab countries this has been communism or some variant of Arab nationalism. However, the last few decades have shown that both of these ideologies are bankrupt and discredited. The former has been disproven in general as a political belief, whilst the latter has been tarnished by the number of despots who have claimed to support it whilst utilising it to enrich themselves. It so happens that the most effective way to motivate the people of the area is to invoke Islamist rhetoric; it is that which convinces their soldiers to die for their cause. But ultimately it serves little purpose beyond inspiration.

So what does this political analysis of IS predict will be the eventual outcome of the organisation? Graeme Wood rather optimistically suggests that ‘As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken.’ But this only applies if it is viewed solely through the lens of religious rhetoric. What appears more likely is that as the religious fervour melts away, and the foreign jihadists return home, the group will revert to what it has always been; a political movement for Sunni autonomy. Another awakening will inevitably occur to cast out the jihadists, but it will become increasingly evident to Iraqi politicians that a lasting solution will involve a federalisation of Iraq. The Islamic State will then lose its’ base for operating in Syria as foreign jihadists leave and Iraqi jihadists return to Iraq. Increasing assertiveness by Kurdish and Government forces means that in Syria the Islamic State will likely atrophy. However in Iraq IS appears likely to transform itself into a political organisation in order to survive. The Caliphate was never necessary for it to achieve its’ political goals, many scholars and soldiers alike are rueing its’ declaration, and it may prove to be IS’s worst strategic decision.

In conclusion, the general analysis of IS as a religious rather than political group fails to account for the marginalisation of the Sunni minority in Iraq and the social factors which caused the Sunni residents of Eastern Iraq to feel necessitated to invite in foreign actors to protect them. Whilst religion is used as a rallying-post by the organisation, in reality only a small cadre of jihadists genuinely believe it. The majority of so-called IS fighters are in reality disenfranchised Sunni fighters who see themselves as caught between Shia expansionist extremism and IS, and are choosing the latter out of frustration. A lasting response to neutralise this threat must be cognizant of this fact.


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