Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.
Its seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins. How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for Islamic State’s emergence?
Do the answers lie in the 20th century, which saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of new nations in its wake and their struggle for independence as well as articulation of national identities? Is it hidden in the debris of the Gulf and the Iraq Wars? Or do we have to look deeper in history – to the fundamental tenets of Islam, the Crusades, or the so-called Assassins of the 11th to 13th centuries?
Which of these – if any – can be said to have created the conditions necessary for the rise of Islamic State? In the article kicking off our series on the genesis of the group, professor of modern Middle Eastern history James Gelvin cautions against easy answers. Just because one event followed another, he says, doesn’t mean it was also caused by it.
It is far better to look at the interplay of historical and social forces, as well as recognising that outfits such as Islamic State often cherry-pick ideas to justify their beliefs and behaviours.
Heeding his advice, our series on understanding Islamic State attempts, in a dispassionate way, to catalogue many of the forces and events that can arguably have played a part in creating the conditions necessary for these jihadists to emerge. We have tried to spread the net wide, but make no claim to being comprehensive or having the final word on Islamic State’s origins.
After Gelvin’s broad introduction to the group and warnings about the misuse of history, we turn to Islam and its theology.
Historian of Islamic thought Harith Bin Ramli explains how Islamic State fits – or doesn’t – in Muslim theological tradition, before religious studies scholar Aaron Hughes asks why, given the jihadist group is based on religion, is it so violent?
In a further contribution, Hughes discusses the plurality at the core of Islam, accounting for why the religion is so different in different countries.
Next, we turn to medieval history, as both the Crusades and the so-called cult of Assassins have been linked to Islamic State.
Farhad Daftary discusses the Nizari Ismailis – romanticised as Assassins by the Crusaders and in The Travels of Marco Polo – who killed, among others, two early caliphs. Could they really be thought of as an earlier incarnation of the most vicious terrorists in recent history?
Professor of religious studies Carole Cusack considers the Crusades themselves, and what contribution they could have had in Islamic State’s origins.
Leaping to the 20th century, we start looking at the more proximate causes of the group’s rise.
First, a look at the fateful Sykes-Picot agreement, which craved up the Middle East into English and French spheres of influence, and was denounced by Islamic State in the first video it released. James Renton argues the group’s self-declared political aim in establishing its caliphate speaks directly to the deal, and is an attempt at post-colonial emancipation.
Addressing an issue raised in the comments to the articles in the series, Harith Bin Ramli considers the long 20th century endured by the Middle East. He explains how the crisis of political authority in the Muslim world between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the 1991 Gulf War contributed to Islamic State’s rise.
The series concludes with a look at more proximate events – the role of the recent wars in the region and their aftermath. Greg Barton points out that to understand Islamic State, we need to look not just at the Middle East itself but also at the complicated role the West has historically played in it.
Download our special report: Understanding Islamic State
Cardinal George Pell returned this week to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in relation to the Ballarat and Melbourne case studies.
Giving evidence over the course of four days, via video link from Rome, Pell modified slightly his previous public positions. But, fundamentally, he insisted that he knew little, and fulfilled his duties in relation to what he did know.
On several occasions, counsel assisting the royal commission suggested that Pell’s claims to be ignorant of child sex offending in various contexts was implausible. If everyone around Pell knew, how could he not have known?
One of the most important lessons we have learnt from Pell’s appearance is the church was – and still is – in a state of denial. It is in denial about the harms of sexual abuse, and about the adequacy of its responses to allegations of abuse.
Being in denial is a curious thing. In denying something, you implicitly admit that there is something to deny.
The late sociologist Stanley Cohen examined this phenomenon in his last book. Cohen argued that we have myriad techniques of keeping disturbing knowledge at bay: there are many ways of not knowing.
The simplest is literal denial. We saw plenty of this from Pell. He repeatedly said that he never knew of allegations of abuse; that he never heard rumours of Gerald Ridsdale’s offending when they shared a presbytery in Ballarat.
Even less plausibly, Pell claimed that advisors and colleagues deliberately kept information from him. As journalist David Marr wrote, Pell was apparently:
… hoodwinked decades ago by an archbishop, a bishop, his colleagues and even the Catholic Education Office.
A more nuanced way of avoiding knowledge is interpretive denial. This involves keeping knowledge at a distance by accepting a fact but giving it a different interpretation.
So, when questioned about his time as a consultor in Ballarat, Pell insisted that paedophilia was never mentioned in discussions of why priests were being moved unexpectedly between parishes. Many of his fellow consultors knew that child sex offences had been committed, and “homosexuality” may have been mentioned as the reason for the priest’s removal.
But Pell, incuriously, chose not to see the possibility that the homosexual conduct may have been intergenerational. He asked no questions, and admitted:
It was a sad story and of not much interest to me.
The most disturbing form of denial on display in Pell’s four days of testimony, however, is implicatory denial: a refusal to see the legal and moral implications that follow from information.
Pell went to great lengths to explain that, in almost all cases, he did everything that was appropriate to his role at the time. He was repeatedly challenged by counsel assisting and the commissioner, Peter McClellan, that a priest might have a moral responsibility that exceeds the literal duties assigned to their role. But Pell rejected this proposition:
He has a moral responsibility to do … what is appropriate to his position.
Pell claimed that in his positions as priest, consultor and auxilliary bishop, he did all that was appropriate to his position. He simply reported any allegations that he thought were plausible to his superiors. That they neglected their duties was not his responsibility.
Pell may be right that that the lion’s share of blame for the gross miscarriages of justice being examined by the royal commission should be laid at the feet of his dead and dying former superiors. But what is also emerging is graphic evidence of the dysfunctionality of Catholic governance on this issue.
As my research has shown, Roman Catholic canon law – ironically – has the oldest and most clearly articulated legal provisions for the prosecution of sexual offences against children. Yet the enactment of these provisions is entirely in the diocesan bishop’s hands.
A diocesan bishop has a fundamental conflict of interest in the discipline of clergy in their diocese. He is simultaneously responsible for the pastoral care of the priest and for their punishment. This contravenes a basic principle of natural law – that no-one should be a judge in their own case.
If church authorities had believed the children’s allegations, investigated them and kept records of those investigations, it is possible that offending priests could have been removed and disciplined. Instead, allegations were regarded as implausible, offending priests’ denials were believed, and records were destroyed.
And where allegations were too stark to be denied, the gravity of the offending was denied, and priests were sent for “counselling” and relocated.
It is evident that Archbishop Frank Little and Bishop Ronald Mulkearns neglected their responsibilities and even contravened canon law in their dealings with sexually offending clergy. But Pell’s claims to have fulfilled his moral responsibility in the face of this dysfunction ring hollow.
Pell chose to keep knowledge of his fellow priests’ offending at bay and allowed his superiors’ neglect and malpractice to continue. After the exposure of this legal dysfunction and moral cowardice, we can expect the royal commission’s recommendations will include changes to Roman Catholic governance and canon law.
Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.
Its seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? In the final article of our series examining this question, Greg Barton shows the role recent Western intervention in the Middle East played in the group’s inexorable rise.
Despite precious little certainty in the “what ifs” of history, it’s clear the rise of Islamic State (IS) wouldn’t have been possible without the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without these Western interventions, al-Qaeda would never have gained the foothold it did, and IS would not have emerged to take charge of northern Iraq.
Whether or not the Arab Spring, and the consequent civil war in Syria, would still have occurred is much less clear.
But even if war hadn’t broken out in Syria, it’s unlikely an al-Qaeda spin-off such as IS would have become such a decisive actor without launching an insurgency in Iraq. For an opportunistic infection to take hold so comprehensively, as IS clearly has, requires a severely weakened body politic and a profoundly compromised immune system.
Such were the conditions in Goodluck Jonathan’s Nigeria from 2010 to 2015 and in conflict-riven Somalia after the fall of the Barre regime in 1991. And it was so in Afghanistan for the four decades after conflict broke out in 1978 and in Pakistan after General Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in 1977.
Sadly, but even more clearly, such are the circumstances in Iraq and Syria today. And that’s the reason around 80% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks in recent years have occurred in five of the six countries discussed here, where such conditions still prevail.
The myth of modern international terrorist movements, and particularly of al-Qaeda and its outgrowths such as IS (which really is a third-generation al-Qaeda movement), is that they’re inherently potent and have a natural power of attraction.
The reality is that while modern terrorist groups can and do operate all around the globe to the point where no country can consider itself completely safe, they can only build a base when local issues attract on-the-ground support.
Consider al-Qaeda, which is in the business of global struggle. It wants to unite a transnational ummah to take on far-off enemies. But it has only ever really enjoyed substantial success when it has happened across conducive local circumstances.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s provided an opportunity uniquely suited to the rise of al-Qaeda and associated movements. It provided plausible justification for a defensive jihad – a just war – that garnered broad international support and allowed the group to coalesce in 1989 out of the Arab fighters who had rallied to support the Afghans in their fight against the Soviets.
Further opportunities emerged in the Northern Caucasus, where local ethno-national grievances were eventually transformed into the basis for a more global struggle.
The declaration of independence by Chechnya in 1991 led to all-out war with the Soviet military between 1994 and 1996, when tens of thousands were killed. After a short, uneasy peace, a decade-long second civil war started in 1999 following the invasion of neighbouring Dagestan by the International Islamic Brigade.
The second civil war began with an intense campaign to seize control of the Chechen capital, Grozny. But it became dominated by years of fighting jihadi and other insurgents in the Caucus mountains and dealing with related terrorist attacks in Russia.
In Nigeria and Somalia, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab now share many of the key attributes of al-Qaeda, with whom they have forged nascent links. But they too emerged primarily because of the failure of governance and the persistence of deep-seated local grievances.
Even in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda struggled to transform itself into a convincing champion of local interests in the 1990s. After becoming increasingly isolated following the September 11 attacks on the US, it failed to gain support from the Afghan Taliban for its global struggle.
But something new happened in Iraq beginning in 2003. The Jordanian street thug Musab al-Zarqawi correctly intuited that the impending Western invasion and occupation of Iraq would provide the perfect conditions for the emergence of insurgencies.
Al-Zarqawi positioned himself in Iraq ahead of the invasion and deftly rode a wave of anger and despair to initiate and grow an insurgency that in time came to dominate the broken nation.
Initially, al-Zarqawi was only one of many insurgent leaders intent on destabilising Iraq. But, in October 2004, after years of uneasy relations with the al-Qaeda leader during two tours in Afghanistan, he finally yielded to Osama bin Laden’s request that he swear on oath of loyalty (bayat) to him. And so al-Zarqawi’s notorious network of insurgents became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Iraq’s de-Ba’athification process of May 2003 to June 2004, during which senior technocrats and military officers linked to the Ba’ath party (the vehicle of the Saddam Hussein regime) were removed from office, set the stage for many to join counter-occupation insurgent groups – including AQI.
Without the sacking of a large portion of Iraq’s military and security leaders, its technocrats and productive middle-class professionals, it’s not clear whether this group would have come to dominate so comprehensively. These alienated Sunni professionals gave AQI, as well as IS, much of its core military and strategic competency.
But even with the windfall opportunity presented to al-Zarqawi by the wilful frustration of Sunni interests by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government from 2006 to 2014, which deprived them of any immediate hope for the future and confidence in protecting their families and communities, AQI was almost totally destroyed after the Sunni awakening began in 2006.
The Sunni awakening forces, or “Sons of Iraq”, began with tribal leaders in Anbar province forming an alliance with the US military. For almost three years, tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen were paid directly to fight AQI, but the Maliki government refused to incorporate them into the regular Iraqi Security Force. And, after October 2008 – when management of these forces was handed over by the US military – he refused to support them.
The death of al-Zarqawi in June 2006 contributed to the profound weakening of the strongest of all post-invasion insurgent groups. AQI’s force strength was reduced to several hundred fighters and it lost the capacity to dominate the insurgency.
Then, in 2010 and 2011, circumstances combined to blow oxygen onto the smouldering coals.
In 2010, the greatly underestimated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a local Iraqi cleric with serious religious scholarly credentials, took charge of AQI and began working to a sophisticated long-term plan.
Elements of the strategy went by the name “breaking the walls”. In the 12 months to July 2013, this entailed the movement literally breaking down the prison walls in compounds around Baghdad that held hundreds of hardcore al-Qaeda fighters.
Islamic State, as the group now called itself, also benefited from the inflow of former Iraqi intelligence officers and senior military leaders. This had begun with de-Ba’athification in 2003 and continued after the collapse of the Sunni awakening and the increasingly overt sectarianism of the Maliki government.
Together, they developed tactics based on vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and the strategic use of suicide bombers. These were deployed not in the passionate but often undirected fashion of al-Qaeda but much more like smart bombs in the hands of a modern army.
And the US military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, well telegraphed ahead of time, provided an excellent opportunity for the struggling insurgency to rebuild. As did the outbreak of civil war in Syria.
Al-Baghdadi initially dispatched his trusted Syrian lieutenant, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, to form a separate organisation in Syria: the al-Nusra front.
Jabhat al-Nusra quickly established itself in northern Syria. But when al-Julani refused to fold his organisation in under his command, al-Baghdadi rebranded AQI (or Islamic State in Iraq) Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).
Then, a series of events turned IS from an insurgency employing terrorist methods to becoming a nascent rogue state. These included the occupation of Raqqa on the Syrian Euphrates in December 2013; the taking of Ramadi a month later; consolidation of IS control throughout Iraq’s western Anbar province; and, finally, a sudden surge down the river Tigris in June 2014 that took Mosul and most of the towns and cities along the river north of Baghdad within less than a week.
IS’s declaration of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, was a watershed moment that is only now being properly understood.
In its ground operations, including the governing of aggrieved Sunni communities, IS moved well beyond being simply a terrorist movement. It came to function as a nascent rogue state ruling over around 5 million people in the northern cities of the Euphrates and the Tigris, and defending its territory through conventional military means.
At the same time, it skilfully exploited the internet and social media in ways the old al-Qaeda could not do – and that its second-generation offshoot, al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), had only partially achieved.
This allowed IS to draw in tens of thousands of foreign fighters. Most came from the Middle East and Northern Africa, but as many as 5000 came from Europe, with thousands more from the Caucusus and from Asia.
Unlike the case in Afghanistan in the 1980s, these foreign fighters have played a key role in providing sufficient strength to take and hold territory while also building a global network of support.
But without the perfect-storm conditions of post-invasion insurgency, this most potent expression of al-Qaedaism yet would never have risen to dominate both the region and the world in the way that it does.
Even in its wildest dreams, al-Qaeda could never have imagined that Western miscalculations post-9/11 could have led to such foolhardy engagements – not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq.
Were it not for these miscalculations, 9/11 might well have precipitated the decline of al-Qaeda. Instead, with our help, it spawned a global jihadi movement with a territorial base far more powerful than al-Qaeda ever had.
How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.
In the penultimate article of the series, Harith Bin Ramli traces the Muslim world’s growing disaffection with its rulers through the 20th century and how it created the climate for both the genesis of Islamic State and its continuing success in recruiting followers.
Islamic State (IS) declared its re-establishment of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, almost exactly 100 years after the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated. Ferdinand’s death set off a series of events that would lead to the first world war and the fall of three great multinational world empires: Austro-Hungary (1867-1918), Russian (1721-1917) and the Ottoman Sultanate (1299-1922).
That IS’s leadership chose to declare its caliphate so close to the anniversary of Ferdinand’s assassination may not entirely be a coincidence. In a sense, the two events are connected.
Ferdinand’s assassination and the events that it brought about (culminating in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles) symbolised the final triumph of a new idea of sovereignty. This modern conception was based on the popular will of a nation, rather than on noble lineage.
In declaring the resurrection of a medieval political institution almost exactly 100 years later, IS was announcing its explicit rejection of the modern international system based on that very idea of sovereignty.
Other than the Ottoman dynasty’s very late and disputed claim to the title, no attempt has been made to re-establish a caliphate since the fall of the Abbasid dynasty at the hands of the Mongols in 1258. In other words, Sunni Islam has carried on for hundreds of years since the 13th century without the need for a central political figurehead.
If we go further back in history, it seems that Sunni political theory had already anticipated this problem.
The Abbasid caliphs began to lose power from the mid-ninth century, effectively becoming puppets of various warlords by the tenth. And the caliphate underwent a serious process of decentralisation at the same time.
Key contemporary texts on statecraft, such as Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi’s (952-1058) Ordinances of Government (al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya), described the caliph as the necessary symbolic figurehead providing constitutional legitimacy for the real rulers – emirs or sultans – whose power was based on military might.
As in the case of the Shi’i Buyid dynasty (934-1048), these rulers didn’t even have to be Sunni. And they were often expected to provide legislation based on practical and functional, rather than religious, considerations.
The Muslim world, then, had arguably already experienced secularisation of sorts before the modern age. Or, at the very least, it had for quite some time existed within a political system that balanced power between religious and worldly interests.
And when the caliphate came to an end in the 13th century, both the institutions of kingship and the religious courts (run by the scholar-jurists) were able to carry on functioning without difficulty.
It was the 19th-century Muslim revivalist and anti-colonial movement known as Pan-Islamism that was responsible for reviving the Ottoman claim to the caliphate. And the idea was revived again briefly in early 20th-century British India as the anti-colonial Khilafat movement.
But anti-colonial efforts after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, even those primarily based on religious beliefs, have rarely called for a return of the caliphate.
If anything, successors of Pan-Islamism, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have generally worked within the framework of nation states. Putting aside doubts about their actual ability to commit to democracy and secularism, such movements have generally envisioned an Islamic state along more modern lines, with room for political participation and elections.
So why evoke the caliphate in the first place? The simple answer is that it has never been completely dismissed as an option.
In Sunni law and political theology, once consensus over an issue has been reached, it is hard for later generations to go against it. This was why Egyptian scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq was removed from his post at Al-Azhar University and attacked for introducing a deviant interpretation after he wrote an argument for a secular interpretation of the caliphate in 1925.
As many recent studies show, the idea of the caliphate and its revival has had a certain utopian appeal for a wide spectrum of modern Muslim thinkers. And not just those with authoritarian or militant inclinations.
But, in practice, the dominant tendency here too has really been to seek the liberation or revival of Muslim societies within the nation-state framework.
If anything, national aspirations and the desire to modernise society existed before the formation of the new political order after the first world war. The majority of the populations of Muslim lands welcomed the fall of the three empires, or at least didn’t feel very strongly about the survival of traditional ruling dynasties.
And, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, most dynasties that stayed in power did so by reinventing their states along modern, mainly secular, models.
But this did not always succeed. The waves of revolutions and military coups that swept the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world throughout the 1950s and 1960s amply illustrate that popular sentiment identified traditional dynasties with the continuing influence of colonial powers.
In Egypt, under the Muhammad Ali dynasty (1805-1952), for example, the control of the then-French Canal epitomised the interdependent relationship between the dynasty and Western power. This was why Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) made great efforts to regain it in the name of Egyptian sovereignty when he became the country’s second president in 1956.
Either way, the success of the new Muslim nation states could be said to be predicated on two major expectations. The first was improvement of citizens’ lives – not only in terms of material progress, but also the benefits of freedom and the ability to represent the popular will through participatory politics.
The second was the ability of Muslim nations to unite against outside interference and commit to the liberation of Palestine. On both counts, the latter half of the 20th century witnessed abysmal failures and an increasing sense of frustration with Muslim leaders.
In many places, populism eventually gave way to authoritarianism. And the loss of further lands to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War revealed the inherent weakness and lack of unity among the new Muslim nations.
Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War was widely seen as an act of betrayal, for breaking ranks in what should have been a united front. His decision to do so despite lacking popular support in Egypt only revealed the extent to which the country had evolved into a dictatorship.
Sadat’s consequent assassination at the hands of a small radical splinter group of religious militants acted as a warning to other Muslim leaders. Now they couldn’t simply ignore or lock away religious critics, even if the majority of the population still subscribed to the secular nation-state model.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Muslim leaders around the world increasingly made compromises with religious reactionary forces, allowing them to expand influence in the public sphere. In many cases, these leaders increasingly adopted religious rhetoric themselves.
Showing support for fellow Muslims in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1987) or the First Palestinian Intifada provided an opportunity to manage the threat of religious radicalism. National leaders probably also saw this as an effective way to deflect attention from the authoritarian nature of many Muslim states.
And, as demonstrated by Saddam Hussain’s turn to religious propaganda after the 1990-91 Gulf War, it could be used as a last resort when other ways of demonstrating legitimacy had failed.
The Gulf War also brought non-Muslim troops to Arabian soil, inspiring Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad against the Western nations that participated in it. And it eventually led to the US invasion of Iraq. That set off a chain of events that created in the country the chaotic conditions that enabled the rise of Islamic State.
If IS’s leadership is really an alliance between ex-Ba’athist generals and an offshoot of al-Qaeda, as has often been depicted, then we don’t have to go far beyond the events of this war to explain how the group formed. But the rise of Islamic State and its declaration of the caliphate can also be read as part of a wider story that has unfolded since the formation of modern nation states in the Muslim world.
As some commentators have pointed out, it’s not so much the Sykes-Picot agreement and the drawing of artificial national borders by colonial powers that brought about IS.
The modern nation-state model – as much as it’s based on a kind of fiction – is still strong in most parts of the Muslim world. And, I believe, it’s still the preferred option for most Muslims today.
But the long century that has passed since the first world war has been increasingly marked by frustration. It’s littered with the broken promises of Muslim rulers to bring about a transition to more representative forms of government. And it has been marked by a sense that Western powers continue to control and manipulate events in the region, in a way that doesn’t always represent the best interests of Muslim societies.
An extreme high point of frustration was reached in the events of the so-called Arab Spring. The wave of popular demonstrations against the autocratic regimes of the Arab world were seen as the first winds of change that would bring about democracy to the region.
But, with the possible exception of Tunisia, all of these countries underwent either destabilisation (Libya, Syria), the return of military rule (Egypt) or the further clamping down on civil rights (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf monarchies).
I would hesitate to describe IS’s declaration of a caliphate as a serious challenge to the modern nation-state model. But the small, albeit substantial, stream of followers it manages to recruit daily shows it would be wrong to take for granted that the terms of the international order can simply be dictated from above forever.
When brute force increasingly has the final say over how people live their lives, it becomes harder for them to differentiate between the lesser of two evils.