Known variously as ISIS, ISIL, or the Islamic State (IS), this extremist Sunni Muslim organization has horrified the world with its brutal acts of terror.  Born of the political chaos of the wars in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has gained territory in that region in their pursuit to reassert the caliphate, or Islamic State.  Join Active Minds as we trace the rise of this group and seek to understand the challenge this represents to the region and the world.

Key Lecture Points

  • Prior to his death in 632, Muhammad had neither designated a successor nor provided guidance on how to choose a successor. The lack of explicit guidance set the stage for the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims.  Today, roughly 90% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunni.
  • In the 7th century Sunni Muslims established the concept of a Caliphate, a unified, rule over the entire Muslim community and governed by Sharia.  In 2014 a Sunni jihadist group calling itself the Islamic State (IS), took control of areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq and declared the establishment of a caliphate with the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph.
  • IS is a child of war. The US invasion and defeat of secular Sunni Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 created a destabilized political system which reignited further sectarian conflict and radicalized Sunnis in Iraq who would later come together as IS.  The 2011 uprising against Shia Syrian President Assad has morphed into a Civil War attracting Sunni jihadists who want to topple a Shia leader from power, thus reducing the religious and worldly reach of Iran, the Shia stronghold.  IS took root in Syria and aspires to a return to the Sunni caliphate that, from its base in Baghdad, ruled Persia and beyond.
  • IS is known for its well-funded web and social media propaganda and violence, which includes Internet videos of the beheadings of soldiers, civilians, journalists, and aid workers, as well as its sophisticated recruitment of jihadists. The militants have also destroyed many extraordinary cultural heritage sites including three in Iraq dating back thousands of years: Nineveh, Hatra and Nimrud.
  • The US has attempted to defeat IS in the areas it holds by using airstrikes (initially only in Syria, but also in Iraq) to support local fighters who share an enmity/fear of the spread of ISIS.  Those fighters include Kurds, as well as Iranian Shia militias.  In certain cases, this strategy has been successful; in other cases, it has created further problems.
  • Beyond the Syrian/Iraqi foothold, IS has also garnered support in other parts of the Sunni Muslim world.  Some IS fighters have returned to their homelands to create IS affiliates in places such as Libya.  Additionally, IS successes have inspired pre-existing groups to swear allegiance to IS, thus expanding its reach.

Exploration Questions

  • How can al-Abidi (the new Shi’a Prime Minster of Iraq) manage to form a new governing coalition in Iraq that does what al-Maliki did not, win the trust of Iraqi Sunnis without further empowering the radical element of IS?
  • How deeply should US military involvement go to combat IS?
  • Will the Kurds seize the opportunity of the current crisis to claim their independence from Iraq?
  • Will ISIS continue to extend their control and succeed in breaking Iraq apart or will Iraqi security forces regain control?  Will the crisis grind on as a long-term civil war with de-facto partition?
  • Will ISIS continue to make the transition from terrorist group to government?  Will the Sunnis who have backed the militants submit to living under the group’s harsh brand of Islamic law?
  • What does ISIS’s success mean for other nations in the region?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Cockburn, Patrick. The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. New York City: Verso, 2015. Cockburn analyzes the reasons for the unfolding of US and the West’s greatest foreign policy debacle and the impact that it has on the war-torn and volatile Middle East.
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  • Khadduri, Majid. War and Peace in the Law of Islam. Clark, NJ: Law Book Exchange, 2010. Khadduri presents a lucid analysis of classical Islamic doctrine concerning war and peace and its adaptation to modern conditions. Working primarily with original Muslim sources, he examines the nature of the Islamic state, Islamic law and the influence of Western law on Islam.
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  • Sekulow, Jay. Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can't Ignore. Brentwood, TN: Howard Books, 2014. Sekulow examines the rise of the terrorist groups ISIS and Hamas, explains their objectives and capabilities and how.
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