Understanding ISIS

ISIS: the name conjures up a huge variety of emotions: fear, curiosity, anger, indifference, boredom. It seems as though we’ve heard nothing but news of terrorist attacks for the last year (well, that and the presidential election, but we’ll leave that for another day), and our fears mount with each revelation.

I’ve read that the best way to eradicate fear is to understand what you’re afraid of. While I’m not entirely convinced that is the case across the board, I do believe that having an understanding of ISIS can be immensely helpful in knowing how to process what we are hearing and seeing in the news.

Understanding ISIS, however, is not an easy task. It is a complicated group that has been established through a complicated religion, both of which have a wide array of differing viewpoints. My goal is to give a very broad overview of the beginning of Islam and then the beginning of ISIS, ending with some solid resources that will help everyone interested in further study.

History of Islam

Islam was born in AD 610 through visions experienced by a 40-year-old businessman named Muhammad. Initially a religion of peace, it followed the course of the visions, which had become extreme and violent by the year 622. The most central belief for Muslims is that there is no God but God (Allah) and that Muhammad is his prophet. The Quran is believed to be perfect, uncorrupted, an exact transcript of Muhammad’s visions.

For a Muslim, the point of life is to please Allah and the only way to do that is by obeying the Quran. However, not all Muslims follow the Quran in the same way: some believe that it’s open to interpretation whereas others, those who are known as ‘radicals,’ believe that the only proper way to follow the Quran is as Muhammad would have intended. This latter sect of Muslims makes up ISIS.

Early beginnings

The story of ISIS begins earlier than expected (for me, anyway). Afghanistan was in political uproar in the 1970’s. The king for 40 years had been overthrown, starting a cycle of coups, murders, and executions that didn’t end until the Soviets placed president Babrak Karmal, and 30,000 troops, in charge. The majority of the Afghan people, who were “rural, conservative, and Islamic” weren’t impressed (Dyer, 32). The communistic reforms the new government was implementing ran directly counter to their beliefs and soon they were in full rebellion.

The watching U.S. became concerned about Soviet influence and “began looking for ways to help arm the rebels” (ISIS, 32). Alarmed, the Afghan government turned to Moscow for assistance. This war between the Soviet/Afghan government and the Afghan jihadists aided by both the U.S. and Muslims from other countries (one of these volunteers was Osama bin Laden) raged for about 10 years (Dyer, 32,33).

By 1988 Afghanistan had rid itself of the Soviets, however, it was not a nation of peace. With the bond of common cause removed, the jihadists no longer had any reason to work together and therefore disbanded, remaining loyal only to their own tribes. Amid the ceaseless turmoil of warlords seeking the upper hand, Mohammad Omar formed a group that supported his desire to turn Afghanistan into “his personal version of the ideal Islamic state–a state where women were to remain uneducated and covered in burqas, [and] sharia law was supreme” (ISIS 35).

The rise of radicals

This group became known as the Taliban. Involved in this group was a familiar name, Osama bin Laden, the future head of Al-Qaeda; the next major player in our attempt to understand how ISIS began.

The goals of Al-Qaeda are easy to understand, though somewhat chilling to read: “ to drive Americans and American influence out of all Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia; destroy Israel; and topple pro-Western dictatorships around the Middle East…. to unite all Muslims and establish, by force if necessary, an Islamic nation adhering to the rule of the first Caliphs” (Al-Qaeda). Developed to operate as individual groups acting semi-independently of one another after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda went into hiding.

One such group developed in Iraq after the U.S. destroyed Saddam Hussein’s reign in 2003. During the restoration of the government, the U.S. unintentionally took the power away from the Sunni Muslims and gave it to the Shiite Muslims, causing the Sunnis to feel vulnerable. These actions plowed the ground for Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Led by a Sunni named Al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda in Iraq didn’t target just non-Muslims; Americans and Shiites were also attacked. This group’s method of attack went beyond the norm in brutality as well. They “specialized in suicide bombings, targeting both military and civilians, and killing thousands by using vehicles packed with explosives;” they also “introduced… beheading as a means of execution” (Dyer, 39). Al-Qaeda in Iraq thrived for 3 years, then Al-Zarqawi was killed and, with the death of bin Laden, it seemed as though the U.S. had finally triumphed (Dyer, 38-40)

ISIS as we now know it

However, Al-Qaeda in Iraq wasn’t dead and in 2010 it became known as the Islamic State of Iraq, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Since then, the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISIS, as it came to be known, separated from Al-Qaeda and pursued their goal “to establish a state devoid of all infidels-Jews, Christians, Shiites, Yazidis, Druze, and Alawites-anyone unwilling to submit to their austere brand of radical Islam” (Dyer, 43).

And now here we are, as part of the watching world, wondering what will happen next. For more information on Islam, Unveiling Islam by Ergun Caner and Emir Caner is a good place to go. Written by two Muslim brothers who converted to Christianity, it gives an insider’s look into the life of a Muslim.

For more information on ISIS, I recommend the book I pulled a lot of my information from: The ISIS Crisis by Charles Dyer and Mark Tobey. It gives the history of ISIS as well as a bigger picture of the chaos in the Middle East, but best of all, it ends with a message of hope, reminding us that our God has promised to never leave or forsake us.

Stephanie Stephanie Kinsinger and her husband, Eddie, currently reside in Elnora, Indiana. Originally from Virginia, they both miss spending time with family and seeing mountains wherever they go. She works part time as the janitor for Elnora Bible Institute. Art, music, reading, coffee and good conversations with friends are all things she enjoys.

Additional Information

Afghanistan War: http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/history/afghanistan-war.html
Al Qaeda: http://www.infoplease.com/spot/al-qaeda-terrorism.html
Muhammad and the Faith of Islam: http://www.ushistory.org/civ/4i.asp
The Birth of Islam: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/isla/hd_isla.htm
What Isis Really Wants: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

Sources Used

Dolphin, Lambert. A Short Summary of Islamic Beliefs and Eschatology.
Dyer, Charles H., and Mark Tobey. The ISIS Crisis. Chicago: Moody, 2015. Print.
“Islam.” ReligionFacts.com. 13 Nov. 2015. Web. Accessed 11 Sep. 2016.
Rogerson, Barnaby. The Heirs of Muhammad: Islam’s First Century and the Origins of the Sunni-Shia Split. Woodstock: Overlook, 2007. Print.
Sekulow, Jay. The Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore. New York: Howard, 2014. Print.

Header image photo credit: Day Donaldson, https://www.flickr.com/photos/thespeakernews/15715981259

One thought on “Understanding ISIS

  1. Excellent Thoughts on the formation of ISIS, As you stated ISIS did not just pop out of nowhere. What motivates ISIS is their ideology and understanding of the Quran. To ever understand ISIS and all associated groups we must understand their Ideology. The battle for the peoples of the Middle East is a battle of the mind, It is the message of the Gospel that is needed to counter the ideas propagated by Islamists all over the Middle East. If we’d proclaim, we’d win the hearts and minds of many (Romans 10)

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