Who is to Blame for the Rise of ISIS?

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

There are a lot of lessons that we can take from the alarming expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Surely it is a parable, but what is the lesson to be learned? Never end a war without leaving a substantial American footprint behind? Never funnel weapons to a rag-tag coalition of revolutionaries whose motivations may well be dubious? Never trust an Arab government to be able to handle things on its own? Never elect a pussy to be president of the United States?

I can think of nothing more fundamentally human than the desire to cast blame when something goes wrong, to reach for the simple explanation to a complex problem, or to ignore the long view in favor of the emotions of the moment. Beyond that, we prefer to direct our focus inward rather than outward; in other words, we are far more adept at analyzing something according to our understanding of the world than we are at comprehending how another person’s understanding might cause them to act. Because we live our lives at an increasingly rapid pace, we fail to appreciate how deeply rooted humanity remains, both from a historical and cultural standpoint.If you actually take the time to read a newspaper or periodical, you might expect something a bit more in-depth, but the fact is that even these one-time bastions of “hard news” have long since started sacrificing column space in order to give you more pictures and, best of all, more blank space. Perhaps you have gone all the way to the dark side and started getting your news from foreign sources, hoping that you might receive from them the kind of hard hitting analysis that America has abandoned. You might be using the Internet to watch the BBC, Al-Jazeera English, or the like. It is possible that you will find some of what you are looking for there, but if you have resorted to RT (Russia Today), don’t kid yourself: it is just as biased, and in my opinion more so, than most anything you will get in the United States.

I am not saying that I can actually best all of those traditional (and non-traditional) media sources. I am not up to the level of D.C.’s beloved think tanks, which do a lot less original thinking than you might expect given the title. What I will attempt to do is sort through the current mess in the Middle East step-by-step and examine the various disparate factors which have resulted in the situation we are currently experiencing. Hopefully, there will be something here that helps to shed some light on this rather depressing subject.

So who is to blame for the rise of ISIS? I’ll give it a try…

The Iraqi Army

This is the first and most obvious party that should be blamed for ISIS’s recent territory gains. As an organization created for the sole purpose of defending Iraq’s borders and its people, the Iraqi army has failed pretty miserably. Regardless of the reason for the group’s weakness, it failed to stop a militant group from gaining control over much of northern and western Iraq. An army should not be expected to fix all of the problems in a country, but it should be expected to defend the borders. That is pretty much rule #1.

However, it is not enough to say that the Iraqi army failed. We must also ask, why did they fail? Some of it may be due to individual mistakes, cowardice, poor strategy, etc., but it took a lot of outside forces to create the environment in which such a breakdown could occur. Therefore, we must press on and cast our blame at other targets.

Sunni Iraqis protesting against Prime Minister Al-Maliki in January 2013. Wikipedia photo by Voice of America

Sunni Iraqis protesting against Prime Minister Al-Maliki in January 2013. Wikipedia photo by Voice of America

The Iraqi People

It may seem like I am blaming the victim here, and it is true that the Iraqi population is suffering heavily under ISIS’s form of governance. However, the Iraqis are nonetheless at fault. Fed up with the dysfunctional government in Baghdad led by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki, a lot of people saw ISIS as a kind of liberator. The areas where ISIS first gained territory had a much larger Sunni population than Iraq as a whole. In fact, many of the people in these areas have given their support to ISIS. It is also worth noting that after the rather pathetic showing by the Iraqi military, many people in the northern half of Iraq probably reasoned that at least ISIS was capable of enforcing law and order.

Of course, ISIS has turned out to be a nightmare for many of the people living within its area of control. I suspect this has been a rude awakening for those who might have been initially attracted to the group’s claims of religious piety and promises of a more just society. Such claims were also made by the Taliban when it came to power in Afghanistan and by the clerics who took over Iran in 1979. In each of these cases, disillusionment followed. Even those who favored ISIS for purely political reasons are probably disappointed that they now have missiles raining down on their towns.

Whenever you see a group that is having tremendous success carrying out a guerilla campaign, you can bet that it is getting a lot of support from the civilian population. Since the first outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, we have been witnessing one of the world’s most horrific cycles of revenge. This is just the latest chapter in that narrative, with many members of Iraq’s Sunni minority seeking justice for the abuses – real or imagined – that they have received at the hands of the Shia-controlled government.

While most of their supporters are not as extreme as the actual members of ISIS, they don’t actually need the population to support them on every point. They just need to be a more attractive option than the people they are fighting, and at least at the beginning they were able to pull that off successfully.

The U.S. “surge” back in 2007 was successful largely due to the so-called “Anbar Awakening”, in which more moderate Sunnis stood up to the extremist groups and helped keep them down long enough to allow for some small steps toward political reconciliation. The people who are now part of ISIS are basically those same extremists, resurrected as they are by the campaign in Syria. They have now grown so powerful that even a second Anbar Awakening might not be enough to hold back the tide.

U.S. President George W. Bush (left) and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki (right) at a press conference in Baghdad in December 2008. White House photo by Eric Draper

U.S. President George W. Bush (left) and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki (right) at a press conference in Baghdad in December 2008. White House photo by Eric Draper

Nouri Al-Maliki

Al-Maliki’s time as Prime Minister of Iraq, which lasted from 2006-2014, was fraught with controversy. That in and of itself is not a crime, because any Iraqi prime minister would surely have faced a contentious term in office, given the national and regional situation that has existed for the past decade. (Well, really for the past century…) However, Al-Maliki is not merely the victim of a very difficult set of circumstances.

PM Al-Maliki was a member of Iraq’s largest and most powerful Shiite political party. The majority of Iraqis belong to the Shia sect of Islam, which despite being a decided minority in the global Muslim community is fairly dominant in areas that were ruled by the old Safavid Persian dynasty, including much of modern-day Iraq.

Sadaam Hussein and his acolytes came from the minority Sunni population (even though Hussein himself was a pretty pathetic follower of Islam) and succeeded in keeping the Shia under their collective boot while he was in power. With the initiation of a more democratic form of government in Iraq, the Shia were bound to gain greater control of the political situation, as they represented the largest section of the population. Sunni boycotts of the electoral process have only made things worse.

The concern all along was that Al-Maliki’s Shia government would both become intimately connected with Iran (the Shia heartland) and discriminate against its political and religious rivals. To a certain extent, both of these fears were realized. There are a variety of opinions about how much influence Iran had over Al-Maliki: some felt he was little more than an Iranian puppet, while others believed that he was just naturally trying to get along with his more powerful next-door neighbor.

By the end of his tenure, pretty much everyone agreed that Al-Maliki was giving too much preference to the Shia. There were accusations back in 2007 that Al-Maliki and his allies were forcing out generals deemed to be capable by the United States because they had attempted to crack down on Shiite militias. On Meet the Press this past Sunday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) claimed that such actions were the reason that Iraqi generals had deserted in the face of the ISIS advance, leaving their troops without necessary leadership.

I cannot say how much merit the replacement generals narrative has (It somehow reminds me of the replacement referee controversy in the NFL a couple years back.), but suffice it to say that pretty much everyone agrees that Al-Maliki was not doing a good job as prime minister and that his mismanagement led to a situation where ISIS was able to step in and succeed.

Al-Maliki also made another crucial error when he opposed the integration of the “Sons of Iraq” – Sunni security forces who were the driving force behind the Anbar Awakening that helped to seriously weaken the more extreme Sunni groups – into the main Iraqi military. This was a major slight that resulted in many of them taking their ball and going home (metaphorically speaking), while others ended up joining ISIS.

President Obama with PM Haider al-Abadi of Iraq at bilateral meeting at UN, Sept 24, Pete Souza

Current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at a bilateral summit this week at the United Nations. White House photo by Pete Souza

Barack Obama

Whoever is the current president of the United States tends to receive both the praise and the blame for anything which takes place during his eight years in office. (I’ll grant you a “his/her” if and when Hillary wins.) Sometimes this assignment of responsibility is justified, while other times it is not. When ISIS started making massive territorial gains in Iraq, many of President Obama’s critics accused him of setting Iraq up for disaster by withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely and failing to properly handle the situation in neighboring Syria. Is that criticism justified or not?

In Syria, there are essentially two things that Obama could have pushed for which he did not. First, he could have made a much more aggressive attempt to arm rebel groups not just defensively, but offensively as well, in the hope that they would be able to take down the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. This would have been a more risky prospect than the cautious approach adopted by the Obama administration.

Once you insert weapons into a conflict, there is no knowing who they might ultimately end up with or how they might be used. Additionally, there is no guarantee that additional arms would have been enough to bring down Assad. For all we know, it might have simply led to an escalation on all sides, with Assad increasingly relying on his chemical weapons stash and allies such as Iran feeling a need to get even more involved in the fighting.

The other way in which the situation on the ground could have been effected is by directly involving the U.S. military, either in terms of extensive air strikes or with ground troops. The trouble is that winning a war solely from the air is difficult unless you have an opponent that is not willing to accept the decimation of its infrastructure and the death of many of its civilians. Since Assad was already doing these two things on his own, there is little reason to think he would have surrendered in the face of anything but an extensive air attack. He would have bunkered down and possibly lived to fight another day. The surest way to take him out would have been to insert ground troops who would both train the rebel forces and fight alongside them. However, no one in America wanted to try that aside from a very slim minority: the risk to our armed forces would have been significant, to say nothing of the financial expense.

Even if President Obama had endorsed one of these two options, he probably would have had to do so within the first year or so of the Syrian conflict in order for it to work. After that point, the rebel forces were no longer made up solely or even primarily of well-trained military defectors, but instead they were also composed of a variety of jihadist groups, the most extreme of which have evolved into ISIS. Once that dynamic was introduced, any American support for the opposition became a lot more tricky, especially as the secular and moderate forces banded with the extremists against their common enemy. No, when it comes to Syria, there is nothing that the Obama administration could have done that would have guaranteed a good result.

That brings us to Iraq and the question of premature troop withdrawal. Troop levels were already decreasing when Barack Obama entered the White House, but he was instrumental in accelerating the timetable and taking the U.S. presence down to a level that may never have been reached had George W. Bush or someone like him been the commander-in-chief. It is certainly conceivable that, had U.S. troops been able to fight alongside their Iraqi counterparts, they would have had better luck in repelling ISIS.

How many U.S. troops would have had to stick around in order to make that kind of significant difference? In all likelihood, not just a few trainers, but rather a large contingent of U.S. ground troops would have been necessary. Given the difficulty negotiations with the Iraqi government regarding things like the status of forces agreement, the American public’s desire to see their sons and daughters come home, and how little the Iraqi population seemed to like having the U.S. soldiers among them, this would have been a difficult (though not impossible) thing to pull off politically.

There is no question that Obama wanted to wash his hands of Iraq, a war he never supported; and yes, he could easily have anticipated that the absence of U.S. troops would lead to a more unstable situation. However, it is also true that the Iraqi government was not making a big push for the Americans to stay. They were not on their hands and knees begging for the U.S. to protect them, whether or not they should have been. Even so, it is likely that Obama could have pressed Al-Maliki and his government to allow for a larger reserve of American troops to remain behind in case of a situation like the one we have today. Therefore, President Obama is somewhat to blame, but there is plenty of blame to go around.

U.S. President George W. Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly in September 2002, an important moment in the lead-up to the Iraq War. White House photo by Paul Morse

U.S. President George W. Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly in September 2002, an important moment in the lead-up to the Iraq War. White House photo by Paul Morse

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et. al.

This trio has already been so demonized that maybe it seems like I am just kicking a dead horse here, but they nonetheless bear some of the blame for the rise of ISIS. They were the ones primarily responsible for crafting a war plan for Iraq that did not properly address issues of history and culture, not to mention certain realities of warfare. They seemed not to have anticipated that removing the strongman at the top would create a massive power vacuum in which the sectarian tensions that have existed in Iraq for centuries would evolve into a vengeful bloodbath. The U.S. military was caught in the middle of an Iraqi civil war for which it did not have the proper preparation.

Beyond that, the Bush administration should have anticipated that the decision to invade Iraq, justified or not, would create a lot of enemies for the U.S. within the region and lead to an increase in extremism rather than a decrease. President Bush was absolutely right that Sadaam Hussein was a brutal dictator who did not deserve to be in power. However, his rule of terror was actually holding back other forces that were able to blossom following his removal, most notably Iran. (More on that angle later…)

Without Hussein’s iron fist, law and order were thrown out the window. Such a pattern has been largely repeated in other countries where a long-time ruler has come under fire or been removed completely. Here the examples of Syria, Egypt, and Libya are particularly relevant. Rather than remaking the Middle East into a more democratic, U.S.-friendly region, the war in Iraq and subsequent Arab Spring have sadly brought a lot of disorder and created a perfect environment for extremism to develop.

Another important blunder of the Bush administration was its insistence that members of Sadaam Hussein’s Baath Party be removed from office and banned from working in the public sector following his overthrow. True enough, there were a lot of very bad people in the Baath Party, including several who were probably guilty of crimes against humanity. No one was sad to see those people go or would question their removal. However, much like the Communist Party in the Soviet Union or modern China, being a member of the ruling party is often necessary for anyone who wants to be involved in government or have career success of any kind. Such parties are made up not only of hardened ideologues, but also of people who are simply going along to get along and could under other circumstances become respectable civil servants.

When the “De-Baathification” policy came into effect, Iraq was prevented from making use of a lot of people who had actual experience in government. It also removed a large percentage of the more secular-minded Sunnis from the equation. This created the perfect environment for a U.S.-endorsed, Shia-dominated government to come to power, which I already argued has led to serious problems for Iraq. The leaders of the Bush administration may not be directly responsible for the rise of ISIS, but they are certainly indirectly responsible.

One final fun fact: what happened to all those Baathist leader? It turns out that some of them have made it into the inner circle of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the supposed caliph of the Islamic State. War makes for strange bedfellows.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House in July 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House in July 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse

Tony Blair

Why is poor Tony Blair on this list? It has been seven years since his time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom ended. Since that point, he has spent much of his time attempting to promote peace in the Middle East and among various global religious traditions. This may make him guilty of holding an overly idealized worldview, but certainly I can’t blame him for ISIS, can I?

Well, I admit that his level of blame is significantly lower than some of the other forces mentioned here, but he nonetheless deserves a place on this list because back in 2002 he had the ear of the U.S. president to a degree not enjoyed by any other world leader. The Bush administration did not always do what Blair wanted, and the British PM took a massive hit to both his short-term political standing and long-term historical legacy by granting a full endorsement to the U.S.-led war effort.

However, that decision to fully support the Bush administration also gave Blair a certain amount of leverage. As British participation in the war effort was absolutely essential in order to legitimize the invasion in the court of international opinion (as much as it could ever be legitimized), Blair should have been able to have significant influence regarding the overall war strategy. Indeed, for the sake of his own political reputation if nothing else, it would have behooved him to make sure that the thing on which he was staking his political career ended up going well. (Notice the use of “behooved”, a very cool and tragically underused word.)

Unfortunately, Blair allowed himself to be bullied a bit too much. I understand his protestations about not wanting to be viewed as disloyal by his U.S. counterparts, but no amount of impressive words can obscure the fact that he seems to have miscalculated on this one. Next time, a bit less smiling and a little more backbone, Prime Minister.

David Petraeus

When he led the mostly successful “surge” campaign, which began in 2007, Petraus gained the kind of fame and respect which has previously been enjoyed by generals like Colin Powell, Douglas MacCarthur, George Patton, etc. Under President Obama, he was sent to oversee the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan (following the departure of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who made the MacCarthur mistake of airing some criticism of his boss publicly) and was later appointed to head the C.I.A. With things going south again in Iraq, Petraeus would be the ideal person to look to for advice.

The trouble is that Petraeus had an extramarital affair back in 2011-2012, the revelation of which severely tarnished his record and led to his resignation as C.I.A. director. Since then, he has been keeping busy with the kinds of things that Washington types do after their main careers end: visiting professorships, speaking engagements, executive positions with law firms and think tanks, etc. He is no longer on speed dial in the Oval Office, and he is unlikely to lend a helping hand in the fight against ISIS. He is a potentially valuable resource brought down by his own personal failures, for which I assign him at least a smidgen of blame.

Now for any man looking to be successful in politics, take heed of the following saying composed by myself: “All a man needs if he hopes to advance/Is simply to shut up and zip up his pants”.

Map showing Iran's location within the Middle East by Wikipedia user TUBS

Map showing Iran’s location within the Middle East by Wikipedia user TUBS


Now we come to Iran, the perfect villain for a story such as ours: its regime has striven since its inception to cast itself as the antithesis of the United States, a.k.a. “The Great Satan”. (Khomeini knew how to craft an insult that would really bother his opponents. He was a clever guy.) Up until the 1991 Gulf War and even in the decade after that, Iran was at the top of the list of U.S. security concerns, or at least very near the top. The conventional Iranian military has never been the real problem, but rather the tendency of the Iranian regime to lend support to a variety of terrorist groups, some more official than others.

Almost as soon as the Islamic Republic of Iran was established, Sadaam Hussein saw his chance and invaded from the west. This was a cataclysmic event in the Iranian consciousness. It helped the new regime in Tehran to gain support from the public, as Iranians rallied around their government during a time of war. From their perspective, it was nothing less than a fight for the survival of the nation. While exact figures cannot be determined, there were surely hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides. The U.S. provided some assistance to Iraq, an action that many Iranians considered to be unforgivable and which turned out badly when Sadaam Hussein ended up becoming an enemy of America.

After eight long years, the war ended with Iran maintaining its territorial integrity. Nevertheless, for as long as Sadaam Hussein and his acolytes were in power in Baghdad, Iraq acted as a buffer against the Iranian regime’s expansionist tendencies. Hussein naturally hated having an assertively Shiite state next door when he was trying to keep his own Shia majority in check. When the U.S. led the campaign against Iraq in 2003, the thinking seemed to be that it would send a warning to Iran not to pursue the development of WMDs. Instead, Iran came out as the big winner, its long-time enemy removed from the equation.

It was not hard for Iran to connect the dots from itself, to the friendly Assad regime in Damascus, to its proxy group Hezbollah in Lebanon, with the newly opened expanse of Iraq now providing an additional playground for Iranian ambitions. Iran was constantly accused of meddling in Iraq by U.S. officials during the sectarian violence there that characterized the first decade of this century – and which looks set to characterize the second as well. It (allegedly) supported Shia militant groups such as the Mahdi Army, a policy that mainly served to further radicalize the situation and help to prevent the arrival of a truly representative Iraqi government capable of promoting stability.

With the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Iran was forced to intervene in some manner to protect its ally Bashar al-Assad, and along with Hezbollah it has helped forces loyal to Assad to make territorial gains. Without Iranian support, it is likely – although not certain – that Assad would have been kicked out of office a while back, as he has no other major supporter but Russia, and Moscow has not sought to involve its own military directly in the conflict. (Syria is not that important for the Russians.) Basically, Iran’s influence has helped fuel the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq, which has helped to create radical Sunni groups such as ISIS.

Now that Iran and the U.S. have a mutual enemy in the so-called Islamic State, you would think they might be able to work together. However, because of the extremely poor relationship between the countries, even with a supposedly more moderate president being elected in Iran (Hassan Rouhani), the Obama administration does not appear to be seeking out Iran’s help, at least not publicly. While President Rouhani attempted to place the blame for ISIS on the West in his speech to the United Nations earlier this week, he really ought to turn that finger around and point it at his own country, which bears at least as much (if not more) responsibility for the creation of ISIS as anything the United States has done.

Propaganda poster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad back in 2007. Photo by Wikipedia user watchsmart

Propaganda poster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad back in 2007. Photo by Wikipedia user watchsmart

Bashar al-Assad

If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had done the decent thing and stepped down when protesters originally took to the streets, allowing for the initiation of serious political reforms, it is unlikely that Syria would have ended up in the terrible position where it resides today. Unfortunately, not only did Assad refuse to relinquish his office, but his forces carried out a campaign against the rebels that was unusually brutal, including the alleged use of chemical weapons on multiple occasions. Yes, this has helped Assad remain in power, but it has also served to embolden his opponents and make them increasingly vengeful, not to mention providing the motivation for fighters from other countries to come to Syria and take a shot at the infidel president.

Assad is not solely responsible for the violence in Syria, but there is no one who is more responsible than him. That civil war is the cesspool in which ISIS was able to develop. Had Assad not become so deeply unpopular internationally, he may have been able to ask for help in countering the growing extremist threat. Had he not been so willing to unleash wanton destruction against the more respectable segments of the Syrian opposition, he might not have forced them to ally with ISIS in confronting their mutual opponent. Besides being a top contender for “international jerk of the year” for the past few years running, Assad also is largely to blame for the evolution and success of ISIS.


I have been wondering for some time why Turkey has not tried to impose its will more forcefully in the Syrian conflict. We are talking about a country that is seeking to be a leader in the Middle East, and a government in Ankara that no doubt views itself as the successor to the great Ottoman Empire of old, which ruled over much of the Middle East. Perhaps more importantly, Turkey is also on fairly good terms with the West, even if Europe continues to hold it arm’s length and human rights organizations complain about denials of civil rights.

Turkey if a member of NATO, which has allowed it to work in close partnership with some of the strongest militaries in the world. It has been able to buy all of the best weapons and equipment, and although it does not have its own nuclear weapons, it has the support (at least officially) of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Turkey has the goods to be able to create real change on the ground in Syria, and it has every motivation to do so. The fighting has occasionally spilled over the border, as have enormous numbers of refugees. This war is taking place in Syria’s backyard, and given the unpopularity of Assad combined with the reluctance of Western powers to become directly involved, the regime led by Turkish President Erdoğan probably could have carried out significant military operations within Syria without anyone in the West getting very upset.

Why has it not done so? I do not think the concern is simply about the possibility of casualties or the niceties of international diplomacy. It is likely that Turkey is worried about how such involvement would impact its own Kurdish minority population, which has had a bad relationship with Ankara for some time. Kurdish groups also exist within Syria and Iraq. Given the right kind of power vacuum, these groups could attempt to band together and form an independent Kurdistan. If such a state was created in even one of these regions, such as Iraqi Kurdistan, you can be sure that Kurds within Turkey would become even more difficult for the government to handle.

I think these concerns have caused Turkey to become overly cautious and removed. The threat of ISIS now lies just beyond Turkey’s southeastern border and thus poses an even more significant threat to Turkey than it does to the United States. More importantly, ISIS is the enemy of the Kurds as well as the Turks. Still, I have not been hearing much from Ankara these days. It seems like they are in no hurry to get involved. I admit that I do not entirely understand the Turkish government’s hesitation, but for their failure to positively intervene in Syria or to seriously combat ISIS, I assign some of the blame to Turkey.

The UN Security Council chamber, where Russia and China have been known to make use of their vetoes to frustrate the designs of Western powers. Photo by Wikipedia user Patrick Gruban

The UN Security Council chamber, where Russia and China have been known to make use of their vetoes to frustrate the designs of Western powers. Photo by Wikipedia user Patrick Gruban


The two most serious geopolitical rivals of the United States, Russia and China, are pretty easy to criticize from an American perspective, much like Iran. However, their chief sin is one of omission rather than commission in this case. As per usual, neither Moscow nor Beijing show any particular concern for people whose human rights are under threat, unless those people belong to a group which they support for political reasons. It is commonly argued that these two countries want to have all the benefits of being a superpower without any of the responsibilities vis-à-vis supporting world peace.

I know that both of them are calculating that the U.S. will take care of this problem and leave them without having to foot the bill. I also know that in countries such as Syria, where the U.S. government disassociates itself for primarily moral reasons (i.e. It’s not good to slaughter your own people.), both Russia and China see an opportunity to gain exclusive access to that country’s business and resources. If there is an African regime that is guilty of creating child armies, you may well find that they have a lucrative oil deal with China. If there is an Asian military junta suppressing its population, it probably does more business with Russia than any other European nation.

Life is much simpler when you stop worrying about ethical issues. You can wheel and deal with whoever you like and not worry about the long-term consequences. After all, you don’t treat your own population much better. Still, I feel that this is miscalculation by the Russians and Chinese. In our globalized world, few extremist threats are ever simply local. ISIS is fairly close to Russia geographically, but both countries ought to be worried about the possibility that their own Muslim citizens might become involved in and/or radicalized by ISIS and then take out that anger on their home countries.

They may be famous for playing the long game, but the Chinese seem to be playing a bad hand in regard to ISIS. With neither Beijing nor Moscow lending support in this fight, people in the Middle East must ask themselves if they really ought to be doing business with these people who seem so unconcerned about their welfare. These two governments possess the resources to do something about ISIS, but they have chosen not to – therefore, they are partially responsible for its rise.

But look at this: even as I write, Russia has announced that it is going to get involved, at least to some small degree. I guess they saw the validity of my argument…even though it wasn’t published yet.

Wikipedia omar_chatriwala

Muslims gather at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Photo by Wikipedia user omar_chatriwala


Allow me to introduce you to two groups of people. Group A is convinced that Islam is a violent religion. As proof, they point to the almost daily actions of extremist groups who proudly proclaim themselves to be doing the work of Allah. In response to the counter-argument that those people are not really doing the will of Allah, they highlight verses in the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that seem to promote a very violent, “go kill the infidels” kind of lifestyle. Group A is convinced that we are really in a war against Islam, and that we might as well face up to the fact that it is a dangerous poison of an ideology.

Group B is horrified by Group A. The idea of demonizing one of the world’s largest religions is appalling to them. Tolerance and understanding are their goals, and while they understand that individual members of a religion might commit violent actions, they are convinced that Islam is really all about peace. In fact, they can point to verses from the Qur’an and Hadith that support their point. There is nothing about Islam that could reasonably lead someone to extremism, and whatever extremists do exist must represent an isolated problem.

Perhaps you have met people from either Group A or Group B. Perhaps you are a member of one of these groups. The problem is that both points of view appear to defy logic. There are plenty of countries full of Muslims that do not have the kinds of problems with extremism witnessed in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Nigeria. I personally have met a lot of very nice Muslims who are upstanding citizens. Obviously, Group A’s contention that adherence to Islam naturally leads a person to violence is not true, or we would have a much bigger extremism problem on our hands.

However, there are also problems with Group B’s admirable positivity. The problem of Islamic extremism is not limited to one country or even one region. While it is not the dominant understanding of Islam, it is able to find at least a few receptive individuals in pretty much every country where Muslims are present. The appeal of this more vengeful and even violent form of Islam is broader than most people in Group B would like to think. Its survival year after year under hostile conditions proves that there is something about this brand of Islam that appeals to people.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The extremism problem is big enough that the global Muslim community needs to stand up and address it, but not big enough that we can lump them all in the same category with the militants. What we really need is for the more moderate (i.e. normal) Muslims around the world, who undoubtedly make up the majority, to denounce the extremists and make the case for a more humane, uplifting form of Islam. Whether or not they are doing this effectively is a matter of personal opinion. It is not within the capability of moderate Muslims to prevent anyone from ever choosing the path of violence: that is just a sad fact of human nature. However, my sense is that there is more that they could be doing to take the wind out of the sails of groups like ISIS.

Here I would point out the responsibility of the world’s most prominent Islamic religious leaders to come out and denounce these ISIS thugs. It is possible to interpret any religious text creatively to suit one’s needs, but I really do believe that some of the things being done by ISIS are not at all in conformity with the teachings of Muhammad or the words of the Islamic scriptures. Even the original Arab armies that overtook much of the Middle East under the banner of Islam did not behave in this manner.  By any standard, the foot soldiers of ISIS are not pious – they worship at the idol of violence. Many Muslims have already done so, but it is time for even more of them to declare this group to be absolutely illegitimate and a threat to those who wish to live in peace.

An illustration of the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. Britain's interest in the canal has always been one of the main reasons it seeks to influence Egypt. Uploaded by Wikipedia user Jlorenz1

An illustration of the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. Britain’s interest in the canal has always been one of the main reasons it seeks to influence Egypt. Uploaded by Wikipedia user Jlorenz1

Colonial Powers

It is a kind of historical cliché to say that the European powers created the Middle East mess we have today by arbitrarily drawing lines on a map that did not take into consideration important cultural facts, not to mention brutally oppressing the inhabitants of the countries that they were creating. I do not think we can blame everything on the Europeans, who after all were late comers in terms of history and never had the same degree of control over most of the Arab lands that they possessed over other regions of the world. However, it is true that they made things worse rather than better.

The legacy of colonialism has led to anti-Western sentiment in many countries around the globe who found themselves exploited by stronger European countries hungry for resources to help fund their expansion. The kidnapping of West Africans and their enslavement under the most terrible conditions is the most obvious example, but it is hardly the only one. These countries were not simply “bringing civilization to the barbarians”, although colonialism often did lead to improved infrastructure, education, and bureaucracy in the various colonies. The colonial powers were not out to lend a helping hand – they were out to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

That kind of exploitation did serve to hold the Arab countries back in some ways, and the messy exodus of colonial powers certainly created a negative political situation that has reverberated down to the present day. Having said that, some countries which were once colonies have been able to overcome history and rise to impressive heights. Unfortunately for much of the Middle East, they have not benefitted from the kind of leadership that could have helped them to turn around this negative trend. Worse yet, demoralized citizens will still blame the West for their ills when they really ought to be blaming their incompetent and corrupt politicians, their moribund education systems, outdated social practices (Yes, it’s politically incorrect to say, but in some cases it is just true.), or their often anemic economies.

All of this discontent has led to a climate in which a group like ISIS can succeed, and European colonial powers are partly to blame for the problems we are witnessing. The current conflict also reminds us once again that the national borders often drawn by European diplomats, which are now considered inviolable under international law, do not match up well with where different religious and ethnic groups actually reside. This has been a recipe for disaster. While diverse countries can be even more successful than their non-diverse counterparts, diversity in this case has led to further violence. Way to go, colonial powers!

Ottoman Empire

It is necessary to take one further step back from those colonial powers we just considered. Why were the nations of Europe able to exploit the Middle East in the first place? I have been spending a lot of time lately studying the 12th century, and a big theme of this period in European history is that learning was finally taking off again. In the centuries preceding the 12th, it was the realm of Islam rather than the realm of Christianity that was the center of learning. Not only were Muslim scholars making breakthroughs in science and mathematics beyond anything achieved by the European Christians, but they were actually preserving the great classics of Western literature at a time when many in the West had forgotten them.

Then something interesting happened. Europe became less fractious as powerful kingdoms developed, agricultural techniques improved, and education was once again brought to the forefront. In the space of a few hundred years, the Europeans soared past their Middle Eastern counterparts in a wide range of subjects. As fate would have it, the Europeans started sending boats out to the ends of the earth at precisely the time when they finally had a categorical advantage over every other nation on earth, with the possible exception of China.

The one thing that was able to prevent the Arab world from much colonization was the Ottoman Empire, which reached its most impressive level around the 16th and 17th centuries (AD/CE). It was the last empire to make a serious claim to being an Islamic caliphate, that is, an empire compromising much of the Islamic world. However, by the 19th century and the industrial revolution in Europe, the Ottoman Empire was a shadow of its former self. The European nations were able to make serious inroads. World War I was the nail in the coffin of the Ottoman Empire: following the war’s conclusion, the empire ceased to exist and continued on only in the form of the modern nation of Turkey. The other former imperial possessions became either independent countries or European protectorates.

The descent of the Ottomans opened the door for the stronger Europeans to gain power in the region. Truly, it was the failure of Arab groups to keep up with their European counterparts in education and innovation that cooked their goose, so to speak. Perhaps this is why they look back fondly on the glory days of Islam, when their armies were advancing throughout the world and they were dominant in various fields of learning. If the region were more developed, it would likely be more politically stable as well. If it were more politically stable, you would not be seeing groups like ISIS. So really, when you think about it, the Ottomans are a pretty good scapegoat.

The American People

If you have made it to this point, I am most grateful for your persistence. Now allow me to insult you. The American public, of which you are likely a member (if not, you probably belong to another similarly guilty country), does not devote the proper amount of attention to world affairs, nor for that matter to political affairs in general. Even today, if you put the average American in front of a world map without any labels on it, I am willing to bet that they would have trouble correctly identifying Syria. Before the war in Iraq, hardly anyone in America knew there was a different between “Sunni” and “Shia”. (I admit my own guilt here, though as I was still a teenager, I think I can cut myself some slack on this one.)

Even if you do pay attention to things happening around the world, it is unlikely that you do anything substantive to try to make things better. Yes, you are apt enough to criticize your elected officials, but when was the last time you actually wrote a letter to one of them expressing your views? Dare I ask when the last time was that you voted in something other than the once-every-four-years presidential election?

Now, I know that anyone reading this blog is probably more informed than the average American (as obviously demonstrated by your impeccable taste), so perhaps I am preaching to the choir. I also realize that people have lives, and those lives are filled with all kinds of things that take up their time and attention. It is not possible for everyone to become an expert on political matters or to understand the nuances of international relations. Let’s face it: not even our politicians and international relations “experts” always fit into that category!

Even so, it is possible for all of us to make a difference in some small way, even if it comes in the form of a simple donation to relief efforts taking place in conflict zones, or a letter to one’s congressman, or a prayer said for families bunkered down in their homes. We can all become more informed voters who ask the tough questions like, “Does that candidate actually know what is going on in Uzbekistan? Wouldn’t it be good if they at least knew where Uzbekistan was located?” I’m just saying…

Flag of the Islamic State

Flag of the Islamic State


It was a long time in coming, but here I reach my conclusion. It is possible to cast blame for ISIS’s rise on any number of different individuals or groups. Hindsight is 20/20 (or at least 20/40), and it is easy enough to say that we should have anticipated this or should have done that. However, the fact of the matter is that the murderous actions of ISIS are ultimately performed by the members of ISIS. They rose to power because individuals made choices to adopt this ideology, to support this movement, and to favor the path of violence over the path of reconciliation.

We have to face it: while we can never say that any person is beyond the possibility of redemption, or at least the chance of slight improvement, there are some people who just choose evil instead of good. I am not discounting the importance of addressing how ISIS was allowed an opportunity to grow into such a behemoth. We should certainly analyze what needs to be done to confront and destroy this self-styled caliphate, which is no true representative of Islam, and at its heart is nothing but a hateful, self-seeking, cowardly organization. That may be harsh, but it is also true.

The spirit of ISIS – that thing within a human being which allows them to believe themselves to be infinitely superior, and to so despise their fellow humans that they do not believe them to be even worthy of life – has been around for a long time. We have seen it in the genocides throughout history, the enslavement of millions of human beings in sub-human conditions, and in modern nations like North Korea. It is very important that we not believe ourselves to be immune to the seductions of this mode of thinking. We are not fundamentally different from the ancients.

The devaluing of human life starts in very small ways: selfish actions that we all commit, but which are not serious enough to draw condemnation. Little by little it grows, as we go from disliking someone, to hating them, and finally to wanting them removed. We think of the people in ISIS as some kind of deformed beings, but though they do suffer from a kind of intellectual and moral deformity, they are not in a separate category from ourselves. We must choose the different path from ISIS – the path of valuing our fellow human beings and striving to live in peace. It is possible to both appreciate how difficult peace is and to still pursue it.

In short, dear readers, a lot of people messed up, but the blood is really on the hands of ISIS…or perhaps the hands of every person on earth.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in…

“The Ukraine Crisis Explained in a Series of Maps”, 6 March 2014

“Obama Should Shake Rouhani’s Hand”, 23 September 2013

“The Trouble with Swallowing Syria”, 27 August 2013