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.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Just Sayin’

    Very interesting; thanks for posting.

  • Very important demographical data to keep in mind. We oversimplify the issue when we claim is driven solely by this thing we call “Islam.”

  • elvischannel

    This explains the rise of ISIS in Iraq, but Syria is the reverse situation. There, the majority Sunnis were suppressed by the Alawite led Baathists. The brutality of ISIS in Syria is a response to the brutality of the Assads.

  • Even to say “Islam” is a simplification, as the above post tentatively points out. There are at least as many schisms, offshoots, political and ethnic divisions as we find in the “Christian” church. Many of what we know as ideological Muslims would discount much of the rest of the Muslim world from legitimate Islam.
    We cannot ignore the fact, however, that the type of global, mainly Sunni, Ideological Islam touted by ISIS and other militant extremist Muslim movements is in essence a reform movement within Islam: much of it comes from it’s own version of Sola Scriptura, with increasingly narrow definitions of ‘authentic’ Islam based on the original writings of the Qur’an and Hadith.
    Those works cannot be read in the same way as our Scripture as there is no narrative flow and it does not form a complete picture. It needs to be, and has been for over a thousand years, interpreted and handled by trained scholars within the Islamic jurisprudential schools (Schools of Sharia). They have doctrines that discount (or abrogate in their own terminology) the difficult verses which the ideological Islam still counts as valid.
    This means that your average Muslim is more like your average Catholic, Anglican, whatever, than the extremists we see killing folk and spouting hate. They are respectful of tradition, authority and culture, they trust their Imams because they are the ones who speak Arabic and so can read the Qur’an in it’s original language. They work hard, stay near the mosque, and generally act like good citizens. This is the description of much of Christendom, a cultural Christianity that does not necessarily understand the call of the Gospel, theology, the Lordship of Christ etc. They own a Bible they don’t read, attend a church on high days and holidays, Christen their kids but never move on to the kind of radical obedience and depth of relationship that the Gospels offer.
    The irony is that as we direct more negativity and hate towards “Islam”, young Muslims will and have increasingly sought a sense of identity in their ancestral faith as a reslut of their increased sense of isolation, and as they are armed within a culture that prizes individuality and rejects authority and cannot help but pick up some of this, they are on a slippery slope towards radicalization. The west is helping them along, as it encourages free thinking and return to sources. The sources within Islam are, quite simply, dangerous when read in and of themselves, because all the behaviors exhibited by ISIS are legitimized from within their sacred texts, if not within the tradition that has grown out of them.
    So ISIS et al are legitimately Muslim, but not representative of “Islam” it the way FOX and, unfortunately, many of my Christian family are guilty of pigeon-holing them.