Don’t Think of the “Islamic State” in Religious Terms

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Musa al-Gharbi

Al-Gharbi is an instructor in the School of Government and Public Service at the University of Arizona, affiliated with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). Readers can connect to his work and social media via his website:

It is disingenuous to claim that ISIS is not “Islamic,” in part because there is no “true” and “false” Islam objectively accessible to human beings. Would-be Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s interpretation may be far outside the mainstream contemporary or traditional approaches to Islam, but that doesn’t make it “un-Islamic.” In fact, making these pejorative declarations about others’ faith (takfir) is a highly-controversial practice of ISIS, which it uses to justify the persecution of religious minorities. Mainstream Muslims would be emulating their error to declare numbers of ISIS non-Muslims by virtue of their fringe views.

Nonetheless, it is misleading to focus on the religion of ISIS; it implies that the group is organized around some well-worked-out theological system that most of ISIS’ members subscribe to, having joined the organization for primarily religious purposes. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate these premises.

Most ISIS members are indigenous Iraqis and Syrians. This is significant; Al-Baghdadi’s belief system is heavily inspired by Salafism, a movement only endorsed by a small minority of Sunnis and concentrated mostly in the Persian Gulf and North Africa. The beliefs and practices that define salafism are not widely accepted in Iraq or Syria, regardless of sectarian affiliation. Al-Baghdadi is not widely viewed as a legitimate theologian, even in salafi circles. Most prominent salafi intellectuals have decried his caliphate as ill-conceived at best and heretical at worst. Even most jihadist theologians have dismissed Al-Baghdadi and his caliphate, calling on those who are ideologically drawn towards ISIS to defect to more respectable groups.

The sense in which Al-Baghdadi and ISIS have legitimacy among some Sunni of Iraq and Syria is as an opposition force to their respective governments (although the extent to which ISIS poses a threat to these governments is probably radically overstated). Their aspirations are local rather than global. Al-Baghdadi’s rhetoric notwithstanding, most ISIS recruits are not interested in some global or cosmic war. 

While ISIS’ membership is exclusively Sunni, it is important to note that, within the Iraqi context, “Sunni” and “Shia” represent sociopolitical identities more than religious ones. The Sunni grievances against the government are not that it imposes Shia interpretations of sharia law, or otherwise interferes with Sunni religious practices. Instead, the Sunni are outraged by their political and economic disenfranchisement in Iraq’s confessional political system (put in place by the United States) and the overbearing security apparatus that enforces it. One should be similarly wary of viewing the Syrian Sunni as homogeneous and as sympathetic towards ISIS. By the available evidence, most of them support the government, or, in any case, reject the armed opposition, including (perhaps especially) ISIS.

Rather than joining out of religious conviction, many recruits are driven to the organization for financial reasons. The economy of Syria has been decimated by the war, — especially in the rebel-held areas, which receive little-to-no government assistance and are often under siege or assault. Many in the rural areas of Iraq are also in economic crisis and believe the central government is misusing the oil wealth of their own territories. ISIS exploits this desperation, offering superior wages for those who join, whether on a freelance or regular basis. In short, a good many ISIS fighters are essentially mercenaries rather than zealots.

But many ISIS staff are not fighters at all. As the organization expands and diversifies its enterprises and governance, a large and growing number of its members are tasked with administrative and industrial functions. Thus, not only do most indigenous ISIS members not join for the sake of jihad, many never even engage in the fighting, though they are reserves. This is why estimates claim ISIS can probably muster 20,000-31,000 fighters. This is not their active combat roster; it includes those serving other functions who could (theoretically) be called up to the front lines.

Foreign Fighters

Exogenous ISIS recruits tend to be more fanatical than the indigenous ones and more focused on waging war, but even most of these are not driven primarily by religion. For those hailing from other parts of the Greater Middle East, they generally take up arms to fight against dictators, occupiers and their proxies. They have politicalgoals in mind. Others are in it for the money: ISIS pays foreign fighters $1,000 per month, a fortune for many from Africa or parts of the Mideast.

Western ISIS recruits are driven by a host of psycho-sociological factors, but religion does not seem to be the major one. Many join to be part of a group, to participate in some larger and successful cause, to make a difference and do something important. Others, because they seek “cognitive closure” and are thereby drawn to the straightforward ISIS “good v. evil” narrative. Many of them want to “fight the system” rather than purge infidels or pursue the political goals local Sunni are striving for. Still others are just thrill seekers, nihilists or psychopaths looking to dive into a bit of carnage. Many of these are not Muslims, nor do they or their families hail from Middle East. Others are recent converts who adopted Islam as an expression of their pre-existing support for ISIS, rather than supporting ISIS as a result of their religious beliefs.

It is clear that there is a problem with calling on Muslim leaders to denounce ISIS (which, for the record, they have done in droves). It presupposes that people inclined to join ISIS are devout, well-educated in Islam, seek out the opinions of these leaders and follow their advice. This is very far from reality. Two Arab-American youths, for example, were arrested trying to join ISIS in Syria. They had just purchased two books in preparation for their jihad: Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies (there are similar stories in the UK). In a very telling recent poll, 16 percent of French citizens (27 percent of youth 18-24) seem to support ISIS. Now, as Muslims constitute just over 5 percent of France’s population, and French Muslims have been very vocal in opposing ISIS this means almost all of the respondents who indicated support for ISIS were not Muslims at all, (one sees similar trends in Europe’s growing anti-Semitism).

Sectarian Narratives, Sectarian Strategies

Understanding these realities, we can also see the glaring error in Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy. It assumes that, for the sake of building a coalition among “Sunnis,” the people of Iraq and Syria will welcome the bombings and turn against ISIS. This kind of explicitly sectarian strategy will certainly do more harm than good. It will do nothing to endear America to the local populations, in part because the coalition is drawn from longstanding geopolitical adversaries of Iraqis and Syrians and is, moreover, composed almost entirely of repressive monarchies. Those who are sympathetic to ISIS would be more inclined to take up arms against these governments than partner with them against al-Daesh. In a further irony, it is these “moderate Sunni allies” who, themselves, are largely responsible for proliferating the very ideology from which ISIS is derived.

The idea of partnering with these powers to cultivate overtly Sunni militias as proxies in Syria is similarly ill-formed. It is based, once again, on the erroneous idea that people are joining ISIS and fighting Assad for primarily sectarian religious reasons (and also that empowering these sorts of proxies is effective — almost never the case). By failing to understand the sources of the uprisings against the governments of Iraq and Syria or the appeal of ISIS, the Obama administration’s problematic narratives and indefinite military campaign are likely to bolster its legitimacy both in the Mideast and abroad.

The media is complicit, insofar as it discusses ISIS primarily as a religious movement rather than a political one. It then ignorantly and condescendingly speculates ad infinitum about the merits of the group’s supposed theological views in relation to those of the broader Muslim community. This provides oxygen to a dangerous distraction from more serious and well-formed questions about how to undermine and ultimately overcome ISIS.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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