ISIS, Radicalization, and the Politics of Violence and Alienation
Conference 4 September 2014

The international community is alarmed by the new threats posed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). ISIS has overtaken vast areas in Iraq and Syria and shocked the conscience of the world with its slaughter of thousands of civilians and the crime of beheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and ISIS is promising to spread its reign of terror to the entire Middle East region and beyond. The phenomenon of ISIS seems new and its success unprecedented, but its causes are not. A key element in the growth of radicalism in Iraq and Syria is the failure of national governments and regional and global powers to address core political issues and grievances. These new radicals are not simply terrorists on the old model, even though they deploy some of the same tactics and rhetoric. Rather, they are a well-funded, advanced military force of tens of thousands of fighters, and growing every day, with well-developed command and control and large ambitions. Their members hail from dozens of countries where democratic transitions have stalled or failed, where corruption is rampant, and where authoritarian leaders privilege political and economic “stability” over freedom, democracy and accountability. Now increasing numbers of alienated youth, some of the same people that spearheaded the Arab spring three and a half years ago, are drawn to this new cause. To understand the ISIS phenomena and the policies in the region that contributed to its rise the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) invited a distinguished panel of experts to discuss this topic. To view the full video of the conference, please click on this link.

John L. Esposito
(Professor of Religion, International Affairs and Islamic Studies, Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University)

John Esposito urged a comprehensive solution to dealing with the problem of ISIS, which would include both long and short-term elements that need simultaneous attention. The main contributing factors to the growth of extreme groups like ISIS are, first, the unprecedented level of violence unleashed by the Assad regime on civilians and opposition groups, plunging Syria into a civil war and dividing it on ethnic and religious lines. Second is the international community’s failure to act early on and work with regional players to force a political solution, compounded by divisions among the opposition groups. Third, there is funding and support from the Gulf region and beyond to Salafi jihadi groups like ISIS and to the Assad regime, resulting in the proxy war in Syria. And fourth, there is the political marginalization of Sunni Muslims in Iraq by Maliki’s government.

ISIS, like Al-Qaida, has a warped militant religious ideology that violates Islam’s basic tenets. However, unlike other extreme groups who speak about a caliphate, ISIS seeks to create a state and govern on land that it occupies and holds. They impose draconian laws, but also provide social services and collect taxes or protection money. Even though religion does play a role in recruiting and motivating members, ISIS’s driving force is a list of grievances that include what they see as corrupt or “foreign military invasion and occupation, and killing of tens of thousands of civilians” in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, studies show that “moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, and for a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging” are the main reasons why thousands of young Muslims join ISIS and other extremist groups. ISIS and groups like ISIS will remain a threat for years to come.

Dealing with ISIS is a primarily responsibility of the people of the region, but help from the US, EU and regional players will definitely be needed. To successfully deal with ISIS and defeat both it and the phenomena that produced it, the list of grievances that it relies on for recruitment and support must be dealt with. The international community, especially US and EU, must articulate a principled stance with regards to the situation in Egypt after the coup, the Israeli attack on Gaza and the human rights violations against the Palestinians, and the plight of the Syrian people.

Shadi Hamid
(Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East)

Shadi Hamid challenged the oft-heard view that the ISIS threat has “nothing to do with Islam” because “Islam is a religion of peace.” In order to deal effectively with ISIS, the Obama administration needs a major undertaking that deals with the underlying causes not just of ISIS, but the ISIS ideology and worldview. This major shift in policy would include examining and understanding ISIS’s complexity, more robust arming and training of the free Syrian rebels to make a difference in their war against Assad, and advocating for the inclusion of moderate Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. ISIS is a phenomenon that was clearly predicted, especially when U.S. did not want to take a leading and more active role supporting the Syrian rebels against the bloody Assad regime.

Hamid argued that ISIS is not inexplicably evil. He agrees that for most Muslims, Islam is indeed a religion of peace and that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not agree with ISIS and its brutal ways. ISIS does pervert Islam, and there is little knowledge among Islamic radicals about what good governance is and should be. What sets ISIS apart from other extremist groups in the region is that it takes “governance” seriously. In territory under its control, ISIS has done better job in running local administration, dispensing “justice” through sharia courts, providing basic services like water and electricity, and distributing zakat funds for social services. This gained ISIS support among some local people even though most do not agree with ISIS’s interpretation of Islam. ISIS has proven to be less arbitrary that many authoritarian regimes. Their red lines are clearer, and populations that follow their strict rules are not under constant threat of arbitrary acts and the dictator’s shifting moods. The Egyptian coup and the bloody crackdown on peaceful demonstrators strengthened the ISIS narrative that the Islamic state can only be achieved through violence and that powers will no longer accommodate Islamists who play by democratic rules.

To defeat ISIS there needs to be a major political undertaking that accompanies military actions. The administration needs to address the clear difference between its priorities and those of its allies in the region who are designating all Islamists as an existential threat. ISIS has tapped into a deep rooted attraction to the caliphate among many Muslims and showed that it could realize its goals, which makes it a very dangerous.

Michele Dunne
(Senior Associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, formerly Founding Director of the Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council)

Referencing a New York Times op-ed, Michele Dunne decried the lack of strategy in dealing with ISIS. She agreed with Shadi Hamid that there has to be a political strategy that goes hand in hand with any military action. This strategy must reaffirm democracy and the respect of human rights as primary objectives without causing and insecurities for our regional allies. She indicated, however, that working with our allies is not straightforward because they are divided in new ways, and some of them are trying to lead the U.S. down a disastrous road.

There are two camps in the region. One includes Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and others who believe that all Islamic political groups are terrorist and must be kept out of any civil or political discourse. A case in point the military coup in Egypt that ousted an elected government from power followed by a bloody crackdown with tens of thousands in jail and costing thousands of lives. The other includes Turkey and Qatar who believe that Islamist groups who are willing to play by the rules should be allowed and encouraged to participate. In fact, the first camp is not making a principled stance when labeling all Islamists as terrorists but rather a political one. Several of them already consort with many varieties Islamists, but oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, because they are the only group perceived to be a meaningful threat to their rule. Repression against the Muslim brotherhood and other moderate groups leads some young Muslims to join ISIS and other extremist groups.

The U.S. is doing the right thing by not adopting the view of the first camp, but it is not doing enough to encourage political participation and inclusiveness. At a time when the region is going through tectonic shifts, the administration is pulling back and not assuming a leading role or responsibility which has left some allies insecure. This insecurity helps explain the airstrikes launched by Egypt and UAE in Libya. The ISIS phenomenon emerged quickly and the US must resist the urge to deal for short-term solutions at the expense of long-term interests like democracy and human rights.

Michael O’Hanlon
(Senior Fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and Director of Research for the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution)

Michael O’Hanlon agreed with the co-panelists on the framing the broad issue regarding ISIS as an extreme group that poses a serious threat and that needs a duel strategy one political and one military. The question that remains is what military actions are needed to deal with this threat.

So far the US has done a good job fending off the threat on the Kurds and in pressuring Nuri Al Maliki to step down to allow a new Shia government to be formed, a government that must be more inclusive and accommodating to other groups, especially Sunnis. As for Syria, the U.S. Congress needs to act quickly and approve the $ 5oo million aid to the Syrian rebels in training and equipment that the Obama administration is proposing. In Iraq three things must happen, stepping up the air strikes against ISIS, conduct special operations, against key targets and leadership of ISIS, and helping the Iraqi army rebuild through training and mentoring. The U.S operation in Iraq could possibly look like but also learn from the operation in Afghanistan. The U.S is at war with ISIS and must move aggressively and quickly to defeat it.

Watch the full video of the conference

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