Let’s start with what it is not. It is not your standard case of political Islam challenging western democracy. It is not a usual bunch of jihadists trying to regain the lost supremacy of their faith. It is not strictly a case of an extremist militia aiming to propagate its form of a religion and neither is it a mere group of ideologues gone radical overnight.
The ISIS problem is much more complex and any approach that centers on defining it within these parameters is simplistic and dangerously reductionist.
The ever-growing fetish of western intelligentsia to establish religious explanations for every other militant insurgency compromises the effectiveness of a solution approach and puts global peace and security at stake. Notable journalists, academics, political commentators and most importantly, former and current representatives of the Obama administration have tended to opt the convenient narrative of blaming extremist Islam for the motivation behind ISIS and have hence tended to discount the political realities of the matter.
The white man’s burden has been renewed for another season, it seems, as the white men have now taken the task of redefining Islam this time. Phrases like soft-Islam and moderate Muslims are now being circulated in the western media fervently to present an image of what an ideal Muslim should be like. An ideal moderate muslim, generally speaking, should be a passive condoner, if not an outright supporter, of western political ethos and more importantly of US’s sophisticated imperialist project. Any kind of resistance, ideological, political or militant, to America’s stooges in the muslim world are thus readily defined as manifestations of extremist Islam no matter how distantly they may be linked to religion. This has been particularly true in the case of ISIS.
Ever since ISIS came to the scene, a significant number of commentators have focused on religious explanations for its overall success and have tended to ignore the political context. However, the inception and rise of ISIS was politically, more than religiously, motivated. Iraq’s sectarian divide was one of the primary political factors that were exacerbated by the American invasion and its aftermath finally leading to ISIS.
For any lasting peace to have been established between the shia and sunni populations of Iraq, the fall of Saddam Hussein should have be an end to the US-UK divide and rule. However, when American-chosen Nouri al-Maliki came to power, it marked the start of the worsening of Iraq’s sectarian problem.
The excessively repressive policies of American-supported Al-Maliki regime marginalized the sunni population of Iraq. The eight-year long rule of Maliki was marred with a systematic disenfranchising of the sunnis from the political process. The sunni population was largely denied any representation in public offices. The administrative posts, especially the law enforcement agencies, were heavily concentrated with shi’ites; denying any sources of autonomy to sunnis.
Moreover, the economic resources were mainly deployed in the areas with shia majority especially in Al-Maliki’s power-base in the south. As a result, many sunni-majority areas that needed immediate infrastructural redevelopment after the war were ignored. The scope for economic and social development was hence massively curtailed and hence these areas suffered from problems like high unemployment. Hence the economic and developmental discrimination against the sunni-concentrated areas led to further disgruntlement of the sunni population against the government.
In addition to Al-Maliki’s policies, some tasks undertaken directly by the United States during the occupation were also extremely discriminatory in nature. For example, certain projects, undertaken under the premise of ensuring peace and order led to vivid geographical divisions between sunnis and shias and did not send a positive signal. The building of Baghdad wall, for example, that was meant to separate sunni enclaves from shia led to the gating of sunni people on the east side of the river Tigris. To worsen this, regular attacks by shia militias, which had grown stronger than their sunni counterparts due to al-Maliki’s support, further pushed the sunni people out of main cities. The proportion of the sunni population of Baghdad for example, fell from 45% in 2003 to 25% by the end of 2007. So, there was a process of virtual ghettoization that separated the sunni population from the powerful shi’ites.
Every invader reshapes the historical narratives of the invaded country, they say. The same was true for the United States. The fall of Saddam Hussein could not be completed without his removal from the collective memories of the Iraqi future generations. Hence, the curriculum revision that was done by the United States made sure of that. RAND Corporation which was given the task of revising the school curriculum ensured, according to its report, that history books were “rewritten to eliminate Ba’athist content”. This also extended to the erasing of any direct mention of Saddam Hussein or American invasion from the history books. While these changes appeased the shi’ite population that was suppressed under Hussein’s rule, it sent a negative message to the Sunni population.
The Iraqi sunni population had a number of reasons to develop grievances against the government ever since the start of Iraqi invasion in 2003. These grievances were exacerbated by the American and American-backed regime’s policies over the years. This explains why Iraqi security forces have not been able to counter ISIS in sunni areas and ISIS has managed to spread rapidly. In Mosul, for instance, 800 ISIS militants made thousands of security personnel run away.
ISIS enjoys a grass-root level of support in sunni areas. On top of the political grievances, ISIS has been using religion as the tool to condone its activities. The majority of the sunni population may not support the radical version of Islam that ISIS stands for but they certainly see ISIS as a means to get freedom from the oppressive regime.
Now that Al-Maliki is gone, the new regime will have to carry out more inclusive policy changes to direct the political and economic reservations of the sunni population. The militaristic onslaught can only partially address the issue. In order for perpetual peace to be established, the hearts and minds of people will have to be won over and this can only be done once the problem is addressed politically. Before that, western opinion makers will have to come to terms with the fact that Iraq is not facing a sunni insurgency just because a group of fundamentalists interpreted a couple of Qur’anic verses too extremely.

 The writer is a student and teaching assistant at LUMS.