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Ten Things You Need to Know About ISIS

ISIS Forces 01

© Baqiya Media

John Burger - published on 08/13/14

...Or is it ISIL? Our primer on the terrorist group seeks to sort it out.

ISIS or ISIL? Islamic State or Caliphate?

The bunch that’s wreaking havoc across parts of Syria and Iraq has not only caused death and destruction, they’ve caused a lot of confusion as well.

In an attempt to clear up some of that, Aleteia reached out to members of its Board of Experts and others in order to compile this primer on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, to use one of its several names. We are grateful for the assistance of Father Elias D. Mallon, external Affairs Officer of the New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association; Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa of EWTN, and William Kilpatrick, author of Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for The Soul of The West.

1. What or who is ISIS? How did it come to be?

ISIS consists of Sunni extremists, recruited from all over the Arab-speaking world and perhaps beyond. Its origins are connected with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a notorious terrorist born in Jordan.

“He ultimately went to Afghanistan as a jihadi in the late 1980’s," Father Mallon says. "He founded the Organization for Tawhid (i.e. proclaiming the unity of God) and Jihad and ultimately in 2004 brought his organization under the leadership of al-Qaeda, where he declared total war on Shi’ites.”

The Islamic State is the group that during the Iraq War was often referred to as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” says an info sheet from the Archdiocese of Toronto. The group claims it is an independent state with claims to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It was established in the early years of the Iraq War… The group has targeted military and governments of Iraq and Syria, but has also claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. According to a study compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies, the Islamic State has plans to seize power and turn the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state."

Al-Zarqawi was killed by an American bomb in 2006.

“It appears that ISIS is an offshoot or development of al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq,” says Father Mallon. “However, al-Qaeda has repudiated ISIS for being too indiscriminately violent and, hence, risking the loss of popular support.”

“As an offshoot from al-Qaeda, ISIS follows the theology of the Wahabi sect of Sunni Islam, which began in eastern Arabia in the 1740’s,” says Father Pacwa. “Their passion is the oneness of God and the elimination of all shirk, or association of anyone or anything with God. The early Wahabis were disgusted by the honors shown to the Prophet Muhammad at his tomb in Medina, so they completely destroyed it. … Their catechesis in Arabia emphasized the absolute oneness of God and summoned all Muslims to join them in enforcing this doctrine, or die.”

ISIS is now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared himself “Caliph” on June 29. If you find ISIS’s constant name changes disconcerting, you’ll feel the same way about Al-Baghdadi. Originally called Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarra’i, al-Baghdadi took his nom de guerre after the name of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr.

“Recently he has started calling himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al Husseini al-Qurayshi, the last two names being attempts to link his lineage with that of the Prophet and his tribe the Quraysh,” Father Mallon says. “If he is really descended from the Prophet, one would think that it would have been obvious in his name all along. Most recently, he is using The Commander of the Faithful Caliph Ibrahim, using the traditional and oldest title of the Caliph—Commander of the Faithful.”

2. Why do they exist?

Father Mallon outlines two reasons why ISIS exists:

Ideological: to spread Islam and Islamic rule across the lands of the classical Abassid Caliphate and further even into the Iberian Peninsula. As such, ISIS shows little understanding of the very checkered history of the Caliphate. In this, ISIS tends to be a type of romantic movement but an incredibly brutal one.

Practical: Many Sunnis in Iraq (and Syria) feel disenfranchised by either the Alawite rule of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus or the Shi’ite rule of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. I think many Sunnis look upon ISIS as the only effective opposition to, especially, the regime in Baghdad. I am not sure but I suspect that the loyalty does not go much deeper.

3. What is their aim?  How likely are they to be able to accomplish it?

Their aim to re-establish the Caliphate and extend Islamic religious, political and military hegemony as far as they can, says Father Mallon. "To accomplish this they are prepared to violate traditional principles of Islamic warfare."

4. Is this a global movement?

Yes and no, says Father Mallon. "It is global in that is appeals to a broad audience of Muslims who share the romantic idea of a Caliphate in which Muslims rule over everyone. It is not a global movement in that it is probably not sustainable in a number of ways. Not the least, opposition would come from an increasing desire for democracy in many Muslim countries. Democracy is the antithesis of the historically autocratic Caliphates. In addition, Shi’ites are in principle opposed to a Sunni Caliphate ruling over them."

He adds: "Although ISIS uses the most brutal and savage methods, it would be a serious mistake to think of it as a primitive group. It has shown itself disturbingly sophisticated in its use of mass communications and social media. There are reports of a store in Istanbul and a website on which one can purchase t-shirts with the ISIS logo as well as the head band often seen on the foreheads of ISIS combatants as well as access ISIS propaganda.

"The New York Times estimates that ISIS is the wealthiest terrorist group in the world, having access to hundreds of millions of dollars," Father Mallon says. "Most, if not all, ISIS’s wealth comes from plundered cities, banks and individuals. It seems it has carefully avoided becoming dependent on outside sources of financing which could easily be cut off."

5. What is their attitude toward Christianity, particularly in the Middle East?

Father Mallon explains that ISIS’s attitude towards Christianity seems to be built on the belief that any positive references to Christians in the Qur’an (for example, 5:83, where Christians are called “those closest to you in love”) have been abrogated and take Christians as targets either for conversion, humiliation or annihilation. "This is not a position widely held among Muslims."

Father Pacwa explains that Wahabis changed traditional Quranic teaching regarding other religions.

“The Qur’an teaches that Jews and Christians are ‘people of the book,’ since their Bible includes books by or about the ancient prophets that Islam accepts,” he explains. “Jews and Christians who submit to Islam and pay the jizya tax for protection by Muslims will be safe. However, the Wahabi teach that Jews and Christians today have fallen from their original forms and are no longer eligible for the status as ‘people of the book.’ Instead, they are infidels, or kufar in Arabic, whose choice is to convert or be killed, just as applies to pagans or atheists. Amazingly, they ascribe the status of infidel to the Shi’ites and all other sects, such as the Alawi who rule Syria. This explains why they attack Christians, Shiites, Alawi, Yezidi and anyone different than the Wahabis who teach the purest form of God’s oneness.”

6. There have been many reports of atrocities carried out against Christians and other religious minorities, such as behead. What do we know for sure?

Father Mallon says there are "fairly reliable accounts of atrocities" perpetrated by ISIS against Christians, moderate Sunnis, Shi’ites and other religious groups. "Many have been executed—although there is no reliable report of a child being beheaded—women have been reduced to slaves, etc."

Father Pacwa says that Wahabi ideology does not explain the crucifixions that have ben reported. “The decapitations of children is not normal Islamic practice, nor is the introduction of one’s young sons to treating human heads as trophies,” he says. “Were they madmen, the strong and definite military discipline would not be as good as it is. Apparently they have chosen such darkness in their souls that even Al Qaida rejects ISIS.”

7. Could the US/International Community have stopped them? Can we stop them now?

ISIS can be curtailed, damaged or driven underground by the United States and the international community, Father Mallon believes, "but I do not believe it can be stopped from the outside. It has to be stopped from inside Syrian and Iraqi society. When the overall populace was revolted by al-Zarqawi’s violence, the movement lost considerable strength."

He continues: "The ideological/romantic supporters [of ISIS] seem to be little influenced by history, facts or even, it seems, Islamic morality. I believe, however, that the practical/political supporters are in the majority. The practical/political supporters are Sunnis with real and serious complaints against the governments in Damascus and Baghdad. I suspect that if the demands of these Sunnis were met in a fair, equitable and democratic way, ISIS would lose a great deal of support."

It’s a reality he hopes western governments will realize.

8. Iraq is in the process of forming a new government. How crucial is the success of this venture?

Forming a new government is not enough, Father Mallon says; Iraq has to form a new type of government—a government free of corruption and cronyism, and free of denominational scores to settle, "a government of, by and for all Iraqis. Without such a new type of government, I do not believe Iraq is viable as a unified country."

9. What role can the Churches play?

Father Mallon: "On the one hand, the Christian Churches in the Middle East are in a very weak state—perhaps the worst in centuries, if not ever. Nonetheless, the Churches can provide both material and spiritual assistance to those who are suffering. The Churches can be a powerful witness to the need for justice. The Churches have the ability to disseminate non-partisan information across the entire planet. The Churches could possibly even play a role as reconcilers. Arab Christians are often highly educated. They could provide the theoretical framework for the emergence of civil society and democratic structures in the region and function as agents of reconciliation. Whether such possibilities can be actualized is an open question and seems something far in the future. But the future is where hope lives."

10. Other resources that may be helpful in understanding the current crisis include: 

The West Lacks One Essential Tool to Defeat ISIS

Extreme Wahhabism on Display in Shrine Destruction in Mosul

If Genocide Won’t Unite Iraq, Nothing Will

John Burger is news editor of Aleteia’s English edition.

Christians in the Middle EastIraqIslamIslamist MilitantsTerrorism
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