ISIS’ exploits dominate headlines, horrifying witnesses around the world. As a history graduate who specialised in researching the rise of Islam, its culture, and its creation of a complex and inspiring civilisation, the recent destruction of millennia old artefacts have almost reduced me to tears. As we now watch and condemn the destruction of priceless heritage, how far can we truly be shocked at the rise of ISIS?
The resurgence of the ‘caliphate’ should not come as a surprise. I have dedicated considerable research into the development of Islam as first a religion, then as a rapidly evolving political and cultural entity. Islam’s power entrenched the use of a caliphate from the time of the Rashidun Caliphate in 632AD to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. When the caliphate collapsed at this time it was naïve to assume that the caliphate as a fully established institution (although fluctuating in importance and power) would disappear forever. It is a system of government that was respected and successful enough to exist for approximately 1,291 years in various forms; it is only logical, therefore, to assume that the concept would resurface.
The form that it took, however, has not been pleasing to most. It is interesting to note the specific way in which ISIS has chosen to re-establish what they believe to be the epitome of power within the Islamic world. This article will argue that this form is ultimately detrimental to ISIS, in their fight to re-establish a monopoly of power following a series of destructive events for the region.
Crucially, we must begin with the creation of Iraq following the carving up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The Treaty of Sevres in August 1920 established the British Mandate of Iraq defining the terms of a decades-long conflict across the region. This came about as a result of the division of ethnicities, including dividing the Kurds between four sovereign states, as well as inserting divisions between different Shia and Sunni sects predominantly in Iraq. In this way, a country was artificially created that would suffer from the treaty’s repercussions until the current day.
The clear trichotomy of the country was evident and further entrenched during Saddam’s time, with Shiism in the south, Sunnism in the centre, and the Kurds in the North. Each seemed to determine their own course for existence, with the Kurds fighting for independence from the moment of the country’s creation, to Shi’ites in the South establishing Shi’a holy sites that stand protected even today. The Iraq war, however, is when the trouble began to bubble dangerously close to destroying the country itself. Study of this conflict enables us to begin to see how ISIS exploited a perfect opportunity.
Saddam’s Sunni dominated government, although by no means advantageous to Sunnis, concentrated the focus of power away from close-knit Kurdish and Shi’a groups respectively. Following the collapse of Saddam’s regime during the Iraq war, this in effect diverged power away from the Sunni population and left a power vacuum that was filled by groups opposed to Saddam, many of which were Kurdish. The Iraq war was, thus, not just an opportunity for the West to move into an oil rich plateau. It also provided an opportunity for the Shi’a south to strengthen ties with their natural allies in Iran, and enabled Kurdish movements to rekindle independence efforts. This inevitably left the Sunni centre at the mercy of a new Shi’a Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and a Kurdish President Jalal Talabani.
The situation was exacerbated by US policy-makers’ botched understanding of the political make-up of a government in transition, an army whose loyalty was uncertain, and an obvious three-way split in loyalties across the country in general. The disbanding of the army was the first decisive factor in the rise of ISIS. The army was fully functioning, armed, and trained, and their loyalty was yet to be decided. Yet the decision to leave a military jobless within a destroyed and impoverished environment no doubt allowed ISIS to ‘employ’ Baathist members easily.
It is unfair to assume that the central government should have prevented the rise of ISIS. How many governments have we seen successfully overcome deeply entrenched divisions for decades, tackle the repression of a ruthless dictator, and transition easily from two separate wars, one of which left an undecided outcome and was widely acknowledged as illegal? It is therefore unfair to argue that the Iraqi government should have quelled the rise of ISIS when it was so fragile.
However, the government was by no means devoid of blame. Nouri al-Maliki’s attitude towards the Sunni centre accelerated the need for ISIS to mount opposition to an undermined Sunni identity following the war. Maliki’s policies exacerbated the situation intensely. While butting heads with the Kurdish north, Maliki also heavily favoured Shi’a authority at the expense of the Sunnis. By disbanding the Sunni militias, Maliki effectively (although perhaps inadvertently) ordered the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis with the use of Shi’a militias. The number of Sunnis fell from 45% to 25% in the space of four years. Sectarian violence became a heavy feature of Maliki’s Iraq, driven by his hopes to ensure Shi’a dominance across the region.
Heavy corruption within the government and the fear of a new autocratic system of government under Maliki which would significantly disadvantage the Sunnis, aided the realisation of a need to act by Sunni insurgents. With growing resentment accumulated amongst ex-Baathist militia forces and the Sunni centre, it is inevitable that ISIS (or a similar fighting force) would have emerged from the rubble of a war-torn artificial country.
I have outlined the opportunistic spread of ISIS across Iraq. The situation has been similar in Syria whose ongoing civil war has left a wide vacuum of power which has been expertly exploited by ISIS. Similarly the sudden rise of ISIS in Libya is a reflection of the power vacuum of a country in transition.
Image courtesy of quapan