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This one-sentence explanation of ISIS is brilliant

A scene from an ISIS propaganda film.
A scene from an ISIS propaganda film.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The story of ISIS's rise is long, complicated, and almost impossible to explain simply. But this tweet, from the brilliant Lebanese writer Karl Sharro, does the near impossible — it provides a really smart explanation of ISIS's rise that's only a sentence long. It is, to be fair, a very long sentence:

Sharro's tweet is, first and foremost, a brutal satire of simple explanations of ISIS's rise — like Thomas Piketty's somewhat silly claim that ISIS is the result of economic inequality. ISIS is a multifaceted problem that arose from a number of deeply ingrained issues in the Arab world. It defies the simple one-line explanations that pundits like to gravitate toward.

Yet it's also a really cogent, concise explanation of the big-picture story behind ISIS's rise. Broken down into more palatable bits, Sharro is telling a story that spans from the early 20th century all the way to the present:

  • After the end of British, French, and Ottoman imperial rule in the early to mid-20th century, Arab leaders failed to establish anything like stable democratic societies. Instead, they imposed unpopular and brutal military dictatorships that prevented any real sense of national unity developing and squandered the region's economic potential.
  • The Middle East's progressive and democratic parties failed, due to a combination of incompetence and interference, to put together a viable alternative to these regimes.
  • This created a large population of people in the Middle East who were disenfranchised and looking for a new form of politics. During and after the Cold War, Islamism rose to fill that void: It appealed to an identity and a set of values that many in the Middle East shared and understood. This was part of a global revival of different forms of identity politics.
  • Some governments — like Saudi Arabia's quasi-monarchy, quasi-theocracy — had an interest in helping spreading a fairly hard-line version of Islam, as it shored up domestic legitimacy. Radical Islamism also got a boost from foreign powers, as things like US support for Iran's brutal shah and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan created understandable resentment that radicals were well-positioned to support.
  • More recently, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring threw the Middle East's normal geopolitical order into chaos, creating a vacuum in which sectarianism (encouraged by a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia) became a powerful force. ISIS flourished in this kind of religiously polarized chaos, bringing us to the point we're at today.

That's long and complicated! Yet Sharro's tweet does an excellent job distilling it down to its core — while simultaneously reminding us that pundits claiming to have a simple explanation for ISIS's rise usually don't.

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