On Thursday 6th November members from the Politics, Philosophy and Religion department at Lancaster University came together for a roundtable discussion on the escalating issue of Islamic State (IS), one of the most threatening jihadist groups in the current age. Lead by Dr Sossie Kasbarian, the roundtable included the insights of academic speakers who are all working on issues relating to IS; Ms Rahaf Aldoughli (a Syrian PHD student), Dr Matthew Johnson, Dr Simon Mabon, Dr Shuruq Naguib and Dr Stephen Royle.
The key ideas conveyed at this discussion argued that IS developed out of an opening up of political space in Iraq since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Indeed the political vacuum that remained allowed IS to exploit the lack of strong governance in Iraq in order to augment its rise as well as the burgeoning sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country. In 2013, Islamic State activities also extended into Syria as IS fighters joined other extremists in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and consequently a merger of forces was declared between Syrian and Iraqi fighters creating the group’s previous name, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).
A further point raised in the roundtable was that external, conflicting powers have also paved the way for IS to flourish with proxy actors such as Saudi Arabia and Iran competing for regional power in the Middle East.
Another notable comment made in the discussion was that the decrease in security in Iraq and Syria has caused civilians to look for ways to secure their basic needs of security and safety, and as such they have become vulnerable to the recruitment drives of IS. IS offers protection for disaffected Iraqis with specific regard to Sunni Muslims who feel isolated by Iraq’s opposing Shia government. Likewise in Syria, those persecuted by the Assad regime have joined the ranks of Islamic State in the hope that it will instigate political change as they become increasingly desperate to find a militant group that are strong enough to take on the Syrian government.
We are aware that not everyone studies politics, keeps up to date with the news or even knows what IS is, so following on from this talk we want to provide our readers with an “Islamic State 101” factsheet, a basic overview of who they are, where they came from and what are the possibilities for the future.
So, is it IS, ISIS or ISIL?
There are a variety of names out there but the meanings of each acronym refer respectively to Islamic State, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. They all mean the same group, though the official name currently declared is Islamic State.
Where do they come from?
IS emerged as an umbrella organisation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In the insurgency against the US invasion of Iraq, AQI was a key contender. However, it is important to note that al-Qaeda and IS are now two very different groups, with the leaders of al-Qaeda actually very critical of IS and its brutality. Recent speculation suggests however that a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra) has allegedly formed an alliance with IS though this is yet to be confirmed.
What do they want?
The key aim of IS is to establish a caliphate or rather a state ruled by one political and religious leader, known as a caliph. This caliphate is run according to very strict interpretations of Islamic Law known as Sharia.
Where are they and what do they control?
IS currently controls a vast area of land stretching from eastern Syria to northern and western Iraq. The cities it presently governs include Mosul, Sinjar, Falluja, and Tal Afar in Iraq, as well as Raqqa in Syria. 8 million people were reported in September to have been living under partial or full IS control. Whilst IS have been advancing through Iraq and Syria they have taken over oil and gas fields, dams, main roads and border crossings. The oil and gas fields are proving somewhat lucrative resources for IS, bringing in significant sums of money and making them the richest militant group in the world with £1.2 billion pounds in cash and assets.
What have they done so far?
Many of us will have seen the media littered with reports of the latest monstrous beheadings of western journalists and cruel persecutions of minorities, and we ask ourselves the rationale behind all this. Islamic State operate according to very extreme Sunni Muslim beliefs and refer to verses of the Qur’an that advocate their brutal tactics, for instance “striking off the heads” of enemies.
Possibilities for the future?
Therefore, a solution is absolutely imperative to this shocking situation the world now faces, however this is tricky as no one seems to actually know what the answer to defeating IS is. Nevertheless, what did transpire from the aforementioned roundtable is that certain components need to be included within a successful solution to IS. For instance, dialogue needs to be fostered between Sunni and Shia Muslims who wouldn’t necessarily speak, and also the West needs to listen more to Iraqi and Syrian civilian needs in order to improve their situation and thus make them less vulnerable to IS recruitment. Further still, the US-led air strikes need to stop as this is sending the wrong message to those affected and indeed gives IS legitimacy against the West.
The situation with Islamic State is indeed a scary one but by no means was this article intended to add further fear. Rather it is to teach the readers on Islamic State and hopefully with this knowledge invite you to extend your focus on the broader issues of Iraq and Syria. Having a more informed view of what you see on the news, listen on the radio or read on social media will allow you to properly gauge the threats to our security and it is hoped that the more knowledgeable we become the better we will be in creating a successful solution to stop Islamic State and indeed prevent anything like this happening again in the future.
By Emily Tarbuck
[Image Credit: Zoriah]