ISIS: A History

  • Published

ISIS: A History by Fawaz A. Gerges. Princeton University Press, 2016, 368 pp.

Fawaz Gerges' ISIS: A History is one of many recent books analyzing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As such, it covers similar terrain as others, but it focuses more comprehensively on the role bad governance has played in the rise of ISIS. Gerges has written widely on political Islam, jihadism, and al-Qaeda, and here he ties all three together to explain why ISIS spread so quickly, so brutally, and so expansively. He builds his analysis on four key assertions. First, ISIS grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which itself developed in the months following the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Second, the fragmented post-Saddam political order undermined Iraqi national identity and intensified conflict between Sunnis and Shias, which ISIS exploited to broaden its appeal. Third, state failure in Syria afforded ISIS another opportunity to grow. Fourth, ISIS could not have succeeded without the hijacking of the Arab Spring in other parts of the Middle East, first by Islamists and then by counterrevolutionary government forces. In essence, ISIS' success can be boiled down to two overlapping factors: its ability to prey on Sunni fears of “the Shia threat” and its efforts to capitalize on the chaos presented by state failure in Iraq and Syria.

As the author describes it, the US occupation of Iraq created a failed state and forced people to seek security in their tribal and sectarian identities. Conflict between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds quickly became the norm. A troop surge in 2007 helped quell the violence and nearly destroyed AQI, which had been purposefully stoking sectarian conflict. However, tensions simmered as US troops withdrew in 2011 and within months fighting erupted again. It was in this mess that AQI resurrected itself and morphed into ISIS, winning over a base of support among some Sunnis who saw it as the only alternative to the increasingly violent Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. At about the same time, ISIS leaders sent fighters to Syria to help Sunnis topple the Shia-aligned Assad regime in Damascus. ISIS did surprisingly well in combat and quickly began conquering territory. Wherever it went, it purged suspected enemies and quickly repaired power and water lines, lowered the price of bread, and called on bureaucrats to return to work. It provided other public goods as well, including policing, a swift judicial system based on sharia (Islamic law), garbage collection, functioning hospitals, and even public schools. Few Syrians were enamored with ISIS's ideology, but many were susceptible to its anti-Shia hate mongering and were desperate for basic government services. By filling the void left by state failure, and by stoking the flames of sectarian conflict, ISIS garnered support (or at least acquiescence) in many of the areas it captured.

Gerges argues that ISIS also succeeded in part because a radical, militant form of political Islam (what he calls Salafi-jihadism, which animates groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS) enjoys support among an important minority of Sunnis throughout the Middle East. This support derives from the failure of illegitimate, repressive Arab governments, propped up by their Western backers, to develop inclusive and representative political systems, strong national identities, economic opportunities for the masses, and the end of Israel's humiliating occupation of Arab lands. Still, the pan-Islamist sentiment that informs Salafi-jihadism is unlikely to serve as an enduring identity for Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis. This is especially so of ISIS's bleak, genocidal version of pan-Islamism which seeks the wholesale slaughter of Shia Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Gerges believes people will grow weary of ISIS' rule, especially since it does not offer any positive vision for society. Its limited public goods may be welcomed by some Sunnis in the oppressive and chaotic environments of contemporary Iraq and Syria, but most will tire of its efforts to reconstruct seventh-century Arabia in the twenty-first century. Like people all over the world, Iraqis and Syrians crave stability, prosperity, and justice, and ISIS fails to deliver on all accounts.

So how can outside parties hasten the inevitable fall of ISIS? Gerges calls for coordinated military and political efforts to crush ISIS' fighting forces, dry up its revenue streams, and reclaim conquered lands. Yet he warns that political Islam will remain an attractive alternative to many people in the Middle East as long as the circumstances that gave rise to ISIS live on: civil war, failed states, bad governance, and deep communal divides throughout the region. Rooting out ISIS will require not only defeating it militarily but also radically improving governance in Arab lands and resolving the Israel–Palestine conflict, which serves as a prime recruiting tool for terrorists. This latter point receives scant attention in this book, although Gerges expounds on it at length in other publications. As to radically improving governance in the Arab world, Gerges believes the Arab Spring held promise for introducing popular sovereignty, democracy, rule of law and inclusive governance, but it was quickly hijacked: first by the political Islamist groups that filled the power vacuums left by toppled autocratic rulers and then by counterrevolutionary forces backed by Gulf (read Saudi) money and the “deep state” which fought hard to protect the autocratic order of old.

In Gerges' view, good governance in the Arab world requires the formal separation of mosque and state. Religious activists and politicians have to stop using religion for political purposes. He recognizes strong social forces oppose this idea, but he still insists that it is “a historical process, a dynamic struggle that assigns a prominent role to agency” (p.292). What he means by the latter assertion is fairly obvious: Muslims have to take matters into their own hands to implement such a partition because it cannot be done by outsiders. However, his former assertion that the separation of religious and political authority is an historical process is not explained clearly. I suspect he refers here to the widely held belief among scholars of Islam that most Muslim-dominated societies of the past adopted a de facto separation of religious and governing authority, if not a formal one. Experts differ on whether or not a formal separation can be grounded theologically in the Koran, Islam's holy text. But Gerges, a Christian Arab from Lebanon (a country all too familiar with sectarian conflict), clearly thinks a separation is both possible and necessary, not only for the development of good governance in Arab societies but also to undermine the attractiveness of political Islam, especially the violent Salafist-jihadi kind promoted by ISIS and al-Qaeda.

As convincing as his policy prescriptions for defeating ISIS and undermining political Islam appear to be (rolling back ISIS on the ground, promoting good governance in Arab countries, and ending the Israel–Palestine conflict), only the first seems plausible in the near future. As I write this review, a US-led military coalition is pummeling ISIS forces and drying up its varied revenue streams, much as Gerges encouraged. As for drastically improving Arab governance or ending the Israel–Palestine conflict, the prospects for both remain bleak. Arab leaders continue to struggle (or refuse) to create inclusive, participatory, secular governing systems, and are mostly mired in economic mismanagement. Israel, on the other hand, enjoys a thriving economy, regional military dominance, and almost unconditional support from Uncle Sam. Unsurprisingly, Israel sees little reason to end its 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories. So while the so-called Islamic State that ISIS declared in 2014 will soon fall, ISIS itself will not be history. Instead, it will morph into another al-Qaeda-like terror organization inspiring and coordinating attacks around the world as it feeds on continued regional instability and long-festering animosities. Fawas Gerges' ISIS: A History helps to explain all this in a jargon-free and accessible manner. His book will benefit anyone interested in contemporary US and Middle East security affairs.

Dr. Robert C. DiPrizio, Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."