CRF Blog

How to Understand ISIS

by Bill Hayes

In How to Understand ISIS for the New York Review of Books, Malise Ruthven reviews The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East by Marc Lynch and ISIS: A History by Fawaz A. Gerges.

During the 1990s the original balance of power in the region had been relatively stable, with sectarian dynamics in the crucial countries of Iraq and Syria contained by de facto minority rule under the guise of the Arab nationalism proclaimed by the Baath socialist parties. In certain respects the political structures mirrored one another: in Iraq — a majority-Shia country — the Sunni minority dominated the Baathist system, while in Syria — a majority-Sunni country — it was the schismatic Shia sect known as Alawis or Nusayris who controlled the army and other sources of power.

Beyond these countries lay older geopolitical rivalries between Iran — whose revolution inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 had galvanized Shiite communities throughout the world and with which Iraq had fought a bitter eight-year war (1980–1988) — and Saudi Arabia, with its fundamentalist Wahhabite faith and history of Shia persecution since the eighteenth century. In 2003 the US-led invasion of Iraq, instead of breaking Bush’s “axis of evil” — a bizarre notion linking the mutually antagonistic nations of Iraq and Iran plus North Korea — and empowering would-be democrats against Islamist “radicals,” “tilted the regional balance of power decisively in favor of Iran.” The following year the staunchly pro-Western King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a “Shia Crescent” stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This statement crystallized the anti-Iranian sectarianism in popular discourse and helped unleash the sectarian conflicts now afflicting the region. As Lynch points out: “Sectarianism, one of the most disturbing forms of regional identity politics in recent years, has been driven more by power politics and regime survival concerns than by ancient hatreds. The US occupation of Iraq empowered Iran and unleashed a brutal sectarian civil war, which played out across the nascent transnational and social media. Regimes used the sectarian underpinnings of the regional conflict and the Iraqi war to divide their citizenry, prevent mass-based popular revolts, and legitimate an otherwise shaky political order.”

Sectarianism involving the religious authorities became “a key weapon” in the counterrevolutionary arsenal by which the old regimes or political forces sought to control the revolutionary upsurge. Whatever divided the public and blocked the path of the crowds who congregated in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Bourguiba Street in Tunis, or the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, was deployed in the interest of restoring the status quo ante. “This hateful logic,” says Lynch, “applied broadly: pitting Christians against Muslims in Egypt, Jordanians against Palestinians in Jordan, and, above all, Sunnis against Shi’ites wherever possible.” [more]