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The Origins of the ISIS Conflict

John L. Esposito


The expansion of ISIS in recent months has been made possible by political conditions in Syria and Iraq, ethnic-religious and sectarian divisions, and violence and terror in the region, and the failures of the United States and international community.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's unprincipled and disproportionate military response to the "threat" of the democratization wave of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, along with the slaughter not only of Syrian opposition groups but also thousands of civilians, has both heightened and radicalized sectarian (Sunni-Shia or Alawi) divisions. At the same time, the US and European Union failed to become significantly engaged and work closely with regional allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to support moderate anti-Assad forces. This failure to act, along with the opposition's inability to unite or work effectively together, enhanced the ability of foreign jihadists such as al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra, created in January 2012. In April 2013, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which had been fighting in Iraq since shortly after the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and crossed over into Syria.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiah-dominated government increasingly marginalized Iraq's Sunni minority, inflaming an already polarized situation that would enable ISIL or ISIS (the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq) to appeal to the many alienated Sunni tribes and areas. The situation was compounded by the Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which funded militant Salafi jihadists, including ISIS, to fight a proxy war in Syria against Assad.

What about the "Islamic pedigree & vision" of ISIS?

Like Al-Qaeda and other militants, ISIL, or as it is now called The Islamic State (IS) offers a distorted militant Salafi ideology and religious rationale to justify, recruit, and motivate many of its fighters. Much of what they do violates Islamic law with its unabashed ruthlessness and acts of terrorism. These actions include the slaughter of civilians; the targeting of Shiah and Kurds, Sunni imams, tribal leaders and populations who disagree, as well as and Christians and Yazidis, whom they demand convert to their violent brand of Islam; and the particularly savage use of beheadings, which has been a primary tool to terrorize both populations in areas they have captured and to gain international coverage, attention and ransom. Historically, beheading has been an all too common form of punishment used to "set an example" in Europe (an estimated 40,000 people were beheaded during the French Revolution), Asia, and more recently by Mexican cartels.

While there are some similarities between ISIS and other terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in their ideological worldview and tactics, there is also a distinctive difference. ISIS seeks to establish a state, to occupy and control areas, to govern, not just to dream of or speak of but to create and impose their version of a transnational caliphate, with its harsh version of Islamic law and order in exchange for a mafia-like version of "protection," security, employment, and social services.

What is the primary driver of this so-called Islamic caliphate?

While religion—a particularly harsh and distorted version of Islam—does play a role to legitimate, recruit, and motivate, studies of most jihadist and movements, like ISIS, show that the primary drivers are to be found elsewhere.

Many of the organization's top leaders are former Baath members who were politically disenfranchised after the invasion of Iraq. A core of its senior leaders were former Iraqi officers (intelligence and Republican Guard) imprisoned along with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The estimated 30,000-plus members of ISIS also include a significant number of foreign nationals from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Australia, as well as from Europe and America.

As in the recent past, so too today, many Europeans and Americans who have joined ISIS have been influenced by multiple factors. In contrast to America, the vast majority of the Muslim populations of Europe have experienced intense xenophobia, lower employment and educational levels, and the effects of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bias and bigotry.

Studies by the European Commission's European Network of Experts on Violent Radicalization (of which I was a member) on radicalization in Europe as well as those by terrorism experts such as Marc Sageman and the University of Chicago's Robert Pape) have found that in most cases religion is not the primary source of most extremist behavior. In many cases terrorists are neither particularly religiously literate nor observant. Drivers of radicalization include a search for a new identity and for a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging. For many it is the experience or perception of living in a "hostile" society, the disenfranchisement and heightened political consciousness that comes along with it, the focus on anti-imperialism, and the pressing need for social justice and emancipation, including a personal search to be a good Muslim. All of these issues thus bring together a constellation of narratives.

Mehdi Hassan in a recent (21 Aug 2014) Huffington Post blog post cited a 2008 briefing by Britain's MI5 on radicalization, which noted, "far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could…be regarded as religious novices." Analysts concluded that, "a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization."

ISIS & Political Grievances

Execution videos released (October 2006–April 2013 via its Al-Furqan Media Foundation) when ISIS called itself the Islamic State of Iraq show that political grievances outweigh religious justifications for executions: foreign military invasion and occupation, the loss of legitimacy of the Arab state, and killing of tens of thousands of civilians as well the "crimes" committed by individuals and groups (Iraqi soldiers, police, security and militant Shia groups).

Moreover, the organization's use of Islamic texts as well as its savage brutality and disproportionate slaughter of military and civilians, along with many of their other policies, fly in the face of the prescriptions of Islamic law as has been pointed out by scholars of Islam and condemned by many Muslim religious leaders in Muslim countries and in the US and Europe.

At the end of the day, the peoples of the region (Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf states) will have to deal with their problems. However, a substantial international commitment and involvement by the US in consort with its European and Middle East allies (especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and the UAE) is also needed.

But, in the long run if we wish to break the cycle of global terrorism and its movements that have existed in recent decades, as Graham Fuller notes in his article "Avenging James Foley," the conditions and basic and enduring grievances in Muslim countries that jihadist terrorist movements have exploited in recent decades must also be addressed:

…foreign boots on the ground, dictators supported by the US out of convenience, a failure to end a half century of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the treatment of Palestinians as a paradigm for treatment of other Muslims, the US employment of the region as an eternal cockpit for proxy wars—all of this is still ongoing.

For more perspectives on the conflict, please see our latest interview, which includes expert analysis from Robert A. Pape, Shadi Hamid, Charles Kurzman, and Hanin Ghaddar.

Oxford University Press

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