Understanding the Islamic State

Understanding the Islamic State March 21, 2015

Violence related to religion is obviously very much in the news right now. I want to address one aspect of the topic that I think has escaped the attention of virtually all commentators, and that has to do with raw numbers.

Recently, Graeme Wood wrote an excellent piece in the Atlantic on the theme of What ISIS Really Wants. He stressed the specifically religious aspects of ISIS ideology, and how it fitted into one particular strand of extremist Islamic thinking. Any suggestion that the Islamic State is in any sense truly Islamic is deeply controversial, and Wood was attacked by, among others, Mehdi Hasan, who pointed out how utterly most Islamic authorities rejected the movement. Hasan declares that “To claim that ISIS is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet.” This debate has policy consequences, in deciding how the US should categorize the Islamic State, Qaeda, and their followers. Are these truly religious movements, or is it all generically “violent extremism”?

I have my own opinions on all this, and largely, I think Wood is right. But all these debates fail to stress some factors not related to religion that help explain why ISIS is so extraordinarily brutal.

ISIS is not just an Islamic movement, and not just a Sunni Muslim movement. To understand that, look at the religious statistics for the nation of Iraq (insofar as that “nation” still exists). Our best estimate is that the whole nation has around 36 million people. Of these, Shi’ites compose around 60-66 percent, say 20-24 million people. Christians, Yezidis and other minorities represent less than two percent, or at least that was the figure before the current catastrophe – around one million. That leaves Sunni Muslims as the remainder, some twelve to fourteen million Iraqis. (Let’s not quibble about a million here or there).

That seems straightforward, but ethnicity complicates the picture. Iraq has a large Kurdish population that might be six to eight million strong, and virtually all those are Sunni Muslims. If we look, then, at the population that is both Sunni and non–Kurdish – that is to say, Arab – then it represents perhaps six million people, or just one-sixth of all Iraqis. That is a tiny minority of the population. To put it in comparative context, it is not far off the African-American share of of the US population, which is a bit over twelve percent.

ISIS is wholly rooted in Iraq’s Sunni Muslim community, this small minority. Although there might be a handful of eccentric exceptions, the movement draws no support whatever from Shi’ites or Kurds, or other minorities. It does not reflect the whole of Iraqi Islam, or of Sunni Islam. In saying this, I am not trying to suggest that ISIS represents a few rotten apples in the larger Islamic basket. Rather, we have to understand the specific motives driving this minority to extreme actions, motives that have very little to do with religion.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs don’t just represent one minority population in a complex multi-ethnic state. For many years, at least over the past half century, the Sunni Arab minority ruled Iraq and occupied every major office. That remained strictly true under the Ba’ath regime that ostensibly claimed to operate as a secular nationalist party that ignored distinctions of faith and ethnicity. Isolated Christians or Shi’ites might occupy some offices, but there was never the slightest doubt that they operated in a Sunni Arab world.

That situation remained true till the Allied invasion of 2003 and the coming of democracy, which installed a majority – ie, Shi’ite Arab – government. Now imagine the responses of that old ruling minority, which almost overnight lost what its saw as its natural God-given right to rule. Sunni Arabs lost access to government office, to official patronage, to positions in the armed forces and intelligence services, to lucrative contracts and oil wealth. Suddenly, they found themselves at the sharp end of official repression and bureaucratic plunder, in a land coming under increasing influence from Iran, almost a de facto occupation. This would be bad enough for any community, although some minorities, over time, become grimly accustomed to exploitation, and learn coping techniques to handle it. But these were Sunni Arabs, who just yesterday (in historic terms) had been the ruling elite.

Against that background, it is not hard to see why Sunni Arabs should support ISIS, even if they have no particular sympathy for its theologies or for Sharia law. Even former Ba’athists, members of a party devoted to secularism, have flocked to ISIS and joined its military and political elites. ISIS leaders can carry out whatever atrocities or outrages they like, with no danger of losing that core community.

However outrageous this statement may sound, from the point of Sunni Arabs, ISIS is a resistance movement, dedicated to the defense and restoration of proper traditional authority structures.

Now factor in the wild card of all those foreign fighters, not to mention Sunni Arabs ethnically cleansed elsewhere in Iraq, with nowhere else to go. You are left with a movement fighting for survival, with nothing else to lose.

If you read this column as a defense or justification of ISIS, you are utterly wrong: I want to see the movement extirpated. But I think I do understand its roots.


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