How Islamic is ISIS?

The November 13 attack on Paris which left around 130 civilians dead brought the world to a standstill. On that fateful day, three suicide bombers struck near the Stade de France in Saint Denis followed by suicide bombings and mass shootings at cafes, restaurants and a musical conference venue in Paris. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility saying it was retaliation for French airstrikes on ISIS-held areas in Syria.

While the entire world has been grappling with the problem of terrorism for a long time, ISIS with its beheadings and other ‘viral’ brutalities has pushed the definition of terrorism to a new and scary limit. ISIS, headed by Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi, wants to establish an Islamic Caliphate. The attacks of ISIS and the counterattacks by the US and other western countries have led to heavy casualties and mass displacement of civilians.

Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi
Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi

ISIS considers itself the “Islamic Caliphate” and controls vast swathes of land in western Iraq and Syria. They also enjoy allegiance from different radical groups across the world. The Paris attack was the latest in a long line of such terror assaults. ISIS have struck with a vengeance beyond their territories. Suicide attacks in Baghdad, Beirut and Ankara have killed hundreds of innocent people. In October 2015 they detonated a bomb aboard a Russian airliner leaving from Sharm el-Sheikh airport in Egypt, killing all 224 tourists on board.

ISIS like other terrorist organisations before it, cannot be seen in isolation to western policies. To get an idea about how ISIS came to its current position, we need to go back in time a bit. ISIS originated from America’s war on Iraq in 2003. When U.S administrators under Paul Bremer, decided to “de-Baathify” the Iraqi civil and military services, hundreds of thousands of Sunnis, formerly loyal to Saddam Hussein, were without jobs and left bitter. Al Qaeda chose to capitalize on this anger and established Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to start insurgencies against U.S troops in Iraq.

Post-Arab Spring, a similar uprising in Syria against the dictator Bashar al-Assad quickly transformed into a militant rebellion. During the civil war in Syria, the AQI quickly moved into Syria and renamed itself as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But Al Qaeda already had an established front in Syria called the Al Nusra Front. Eventually, there were inter-group wars among these two factions. As the Syrian civil war raged on, ISIS became the first rebel group to capture cities like Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor. In a lightening offensive, it also captured Mosul in Iraq.

A concern is often raised as to how ISIS can carry out such deadly assaults? How did so much weaponry land up in the hands of ISIS? This can be understood if we can grasp the peculiar composition of ISIS and the different interests of different countries in the region. To start with ISIS, partnered with the lieutenants of Saddam Hussein’s secular regime. These were skilled fighters out of work and alienated by the new Shiite regime. Secondly there is little doubt that as US allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) pumped money and arms into the Syrian civil war, much of it ended up in the hands of ISIS and other jihadi groups. Thirdly, the Free Syrian Army which was fighting against Assad’s regime found huge support from Western countries. Large factions of this group broke away and joined ISIS while many other groups decided not to fight ISIS citing the government as the real enemy. And lastly, after the US withdrawal from Iraq, the army was overequipped with weapons and underprepared. Much of this weaponry also ended up in ISIS’s hands.


Another important factor is Oil. While technically shut out from the international markets, ISIS could and did find markets for its oil. Countries like Turkey bought from it because its government was sympathetic to many of the Syrian jihadis. In the aftermath of the Paris attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at the G20 Summit said that around 40 countries were supporting ISIS directly or indirectly. As a result the resources at the disposal of the terrorist organisation have not dried up yet.

Many academics point to the fact that it was Western interference in the region, first Iraq and then Syria, that prepared the ground for the rise of something like ISIS. The commitment of the Western allies is brought into question when Turkey is keener on fighting Kurdish groups rather than ISIS reflecting its own troubled relationship with its Kurdish minorities. Turkey also recently brought down a Russian warplane which again soured the relations between these countries and further puts a legit question on Turkey’s stand.

Post Saddam, the US could not put in place an effective and inclusive Iraqi government. They encouraged the setting up of a Shiite regime headed by Nouri al Maliki which caused sectarian conflicts within the country. Even now, Western policy in the conflagration harps on the Middle East bombing one set of rebels while backing another set in Syria. The vacuum created by the removal of Saddam Hussein allowed many other divisive factions to raise their head. Similarly in Syria, while the US heavily armed the rebels, they were guarded in their attack on ISIS, which comprises of Sunni Muslims, because it does not want to be seen as hammering Sunni strongholds in a sectarian war and risk upsetting their Sunni allies in the Gulf. But this backfired when ISIS started beheading ‘westerners’. This habit of the West in ‘playing’ with jihadi forces goes back to the 1980s and the formation of Al Qaeda. It put in place a problematic binary of ‘good terrorist’ vs ‘bad terrorist’.

Every time there is an ISIS assault, questions arise about how Islamic ISIS really is? Muslim scholars have come out strongly condemning ISIS’s activities and the misuse of the faith. Around 100 Muslim scholars wrote an open letter to Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi, the self-declared Caliph, providing reasons why they deemed ISIS ‘un-Islamic’. India which is home to a large population of Muslims showed similar disdain for this group. More than 1000 Muslim scholars have endorsed a fatwa condemning the militant group as antithetical to the teachings of Islam.

Scholars point out that Islam upholds ideas of justice and peace. It does not allow killing of innocents and non-combatants. ISIS tries to justify its barbarism in the name of Islam. The backlash to the brutalities of ISIS is often against common Muslims. While one cannot disregard instances of radicalization, painting everyone from the community in similar color risks further alienation.


The Paris attack was dangerous because it brought terrorism home to the West. It was no longer something that happened in the other parts of the globe. While the attacks must be condemned, we cannot dismiss the fact that the largest numbers of victims of ISIS assaults are Muslims. This attack might give further strength to an opposition for the intake of refugees who are running away from these same terrorists. It is important that ISIS must be seen as a product of faulty policies and undemocratic interventions rather than an essentially religious uprising.

There is a vicious circle in place. ISIS fuels Islamophobia and leads to alienation of Muslims in many countries. As a result, ISIS also capitalizes on the alienation of these disillusioned Muslims and easily recruits them. What are equally dangerous are “lone wolf” attacks by sympathizers who find themselves relating to the extremist ideology of ISIS. There is a need to condemn this group outrightly and at the same time, work on building bridges among communities. The responsibility is also with the larger Muslim community to discard such groups and address issues of alienation and disillusionment among Muslim youths. At the same time, western countries should not wait for a Paris to happen to express their concern because for the people of Iraq, Syria and the other countries of the region, everyday is a “Paris”.


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Parvin Sultana Written by:

Parvin Sultana hails from Dhubri and is currently working as an Assistant Professor in P B College in Gauripur, Assam. Her research interests include gender, Muslim politics and migration

One Comment

  1. Arshad A Farooqui
    December 12, 2015

    You rightly narrated the story of extremist group ISIS. I do appreciate your concern for exodus of this organisation. The primary step toward the aim is to educate our youths not to become prey of this terrorist organisation. Their aim and objectives should be make clear that they want only to defame Islam by killing innocent people across the globe. Our people are innocent and want attention from devoloped countries.Majority is economically poor and looking to prosper in short time. Kindly circulate this and make a group of right minded people (I also one of them) and try to educate our youth.It is the duty of all to make aware the evil intention of ISIS and spoil the younger generation in such activities. I appereciate your concern and hope to contribute more i9n this noble cause.Thanks

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