Following the beheading video of James Foley, my last post focused on the brutality of the Islamic State and their intolerant ideology. However, in the rush of disgust caused by the video, it is easy to forget to look at why these people do such things. Islamic State didn’t arise in a vacuum, and within the last year they have created what is in many ways a functioning state. So what is it actually like to be one of the millions governed by the Islamic State? How does history and Islam explain their rise? And can they hold on to the territory they cover?
As I stated in my last post, the Islamic State is extremely intolerant. This intolerance is mainly directed at those they see as apostates – Shi’as, Yazidis, Alawites and secular Sunni Muslims. However, while they pay lip service to the idea of protecting ‘dhimmis’ – Christians and Jews living in an Islamic area – in reality life for those groups is extremely dangerous under IS. To even stay alive they must pay a special tax, and still churches have been converted into mosques and thousands forced to flee.
However, for Sunni Muslims willing to accept the strict laws of IS, life has not gotten too much worse. The fact is that in most of the areas they control IS provides functioning courts, arbitration, taxation and public services. Due to the civil war in Syria and the discrimination against Sunnis by the Shi’a government, these things have been lacking for many years. When a group like IS offers security and actual governance, it makes it easier to accept their strict laws. It’s similar to the initial support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, who offered stability after years of warlords and civil war. The risk though for IS is that they will push their creed too far. It’s a fine balance they have to walk to keep their Sunni population satisfied.
It is not only security though that drives support for IS, but also age old religious ideas. From the era of Muhammad onwards, Muslim lands in the Middle East were united in a Caliphate under a religious and political leader – in theory at least. During the Golden Age of Islam the Middle East was one of the most advanced and progressive areas on earth. After the early 1500s, the Middle East was one political unit under the Ottoman Empire, with the Sultan/Caliph combining political and religious authority. This Islamic unity was seen as fulfilling the commands of the Prophet, and as a natural state of being.
But in the 19th century European armies, with their technology honed by centuries of warfare in Europe, began to make inroads of conquest into the Middle East. The Industrial Revolution enabled the Europeans to take control of the Ottoman Empire through finance, extracting concessions and beginning to tear the empire apart. The whole process culminated in the European division of the Middle East after the First World War, when France and Great Britain divided the region with complete disregard for history and culture. Since then the Middle East has been torn between nationalists and state governments, and groups who want to reunify the lands of Islam.
The Islamic State is merely the newest and most brutal of these groups. They look back on the last few centuries and extract the lesson that following the European path of nationalism and modernism has brought weakness and foreign domination. Therefore, they aim to abolish national borders and return Islam to a caliphate of unity and strength. The difference between them and most other supporters of this idea is that IS have no problem killing anyone they have to, including fellow Muslims, to achieve their aim.
So is there any future for their idea of a caliphate? As this BBC journalist notes, this isn’t the first time that jihadist groups have controlled territory – look at Somalia and Mali, where the West had to intervene to deny jihadists control. Iraq and Syria are a far trickier problem because the West has no real alternative they can support. In Syria IS is fighting the Assad regime, who the West is in theory committed to overthrowing. In Iraq IS is fighting an ineffective Shi’a dominated government who under the previous Prime Minister heavily discriminated against Sunnis. Intervention by the West would mean involvement in two bloody civil and religious wars with no clear way out. Couple that with an understandable reluctance on the part of the US to go anywhere near Iraq, and the chance for real intervention is low.
The Islamic State has already shattered the modern Middle East. They have broken down borders, forced ethnic and religious cleansing of Syria and Iraq, and are providing a decent amount of governance for Sunni Muslims in their self-proclaimed Caliphate. With no one government in the region strong enough to take them on alone, and the US cringing at the thought of troops on the ground in Iraq, fighting IS will require an unholy alliance between powers that are more used to fighting each other – Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the Kurds, the US and maybe even Bashar al-Assad. However, Islamic State is still its own worst enemy. With their level of brutality, it remains to be seen whether they can maintain loyalty in their new state.