CURATED BY Zack Beauchamp
2014-10-01 14:29:56 -0400
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You have probably heard that ISIS has a degree of popular support among some Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Muslims. That's true: without it, the group would collapse. People sometimes assume that this says something about Islam itself: that the religion is intrinsically violent, or that Sunnis would support the group because they accept ISIS's radical interpretation of the Koran.
That's all wrong, and misses one of the most crucial points about ISIS: the foundation of its power comes from politics, not religion.
Let's be clear: virtually all Muslims reject ISIS' view of their faith. Poll after poll shows that violent Islamist extremism and especially al-Qaeda are deeply unpopular in Muslim-majority countries. The bulk of ISIS' victims are Muslims — many of them Sunnis (ISIS is itself Sunni). A popular revolt among Iraqi Sunnis, beginning around 2006, played a huge role in defeating ISIS's predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq. That revolt was inspired, at least in part, by anger at ISIS's attempt to impose its vision of Islam on Muslims who disagree.
ISIS's vision of Muslim life is pretty alien to actual Islamic tradition. Fundamentalist Islam — like most religious fundamentalisms — is a modern phenomenon. Fundamentalist groups, frustrated with modern politics, harken back to an idealized Islamic past that never actually existed. The al-Qaeda strain of violent radicalism owes more to 20th century writers like Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb than the actual post-Muhammed caliphate.
So if Sunnis disagree with ISIS' theology and don't like living under its rule, why do some of them seem to support ISIS? It's all about politics. Both Syria and Iraq have Shia governments. Sunni Muslims aren't well-represented in either system, and are often actively repressed. Legitimate dissent is often met with violence: Bashar al-Assad gunned down protesters in the streets during the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reacted violently a 2013 Sunni protest movement as well.
So Sunnis understandably feel oppressed and out of options. Some, then, seem to be willing to wait and see if life under their fellow Sunnis in ISIS is any worse than it was before. ISIS, for its part, appears to be attempting to exploit this concern: that's why it's set up community, child-care, and medical services in some of the Sunni communities it controls.
That doesn't mean ISIS is morally better than Assad or Maliki: they group is still hyper-violent and genocidal. It's just that outreach to Sunnis is part of their politico-military strategy.
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