ISIS: The Need to Understand

A good deal has been said about ISIS being a grotesque travesty of Islam and a defiant rejection of all that is commonly held to be moral and humane. Islamic scholars from a variety of denominations have come forward with a single voice to condemn it as a grave wrong, and this is of course vital and timely. However, condemnation alone misses a vital point; it flatly rests on the surface of a much deeper phenomenon.

It is more helpful to engage in an effort to understand because when groups like ISIS emerge, we are warned that something about our collective humanity as a species has gone terribly wrong somewhere. When human beings take up ruthless violence against one another, it shakes our faith in humanity. And yet the perpetrators and oppressors are not any less human than the rest of us; so what disfigured our humanity that we become capable of systematically inflicting pain and celebrating it in the name of ideology?

Phenomena like ISIS are not rare in human history. But to begin to solve a recurring problem we do not need to just offer censure but to understand. A serious and honest understanding is essential because when we engage in it we identify the deep-seated grievances and pent-up feelings of being wronged without redress that fuel the vicious cycle of reactionary violence.

But understanding becomes difficult when we ‘otherize’ and then condemn the ‘other’ that we create in our morally superior self-perception. The interconnectedness of a globalized world shows the error in viewing phenomena in isolation from contexts and other events- contemporary or historical. So much of what we see happening today can somehow or the other be traced to events that took place in the recent or not-so-recent past.

It certainly adds a deeper dimension to our understanding to remind ourselves that ISIS was born in the detention camps of the US in Iraq, and got recruits from refugee facilities during and shortly after the US invasion. This gives the context to the radicalization of the human beings who now associate themselves with the group.

Lest we forget, Iraq was invaded in 2003 on an utterly false pretext of the perceived threat of what was virtually a dysfunctional and impotent weapons programme. The official strategy of the invasion was Shock and Awe, which explicitly called for ‘paralyzing the country… destroying food production, water supplies and infrastructure’; the strategy involved the use of chemical weapons — white phosphorus, to name one — in civilian areas which has so far led to hundreds of thousands of stillbirths and birth defects other than instant fatalities. 740,000 women are war widows, 4.5 million were rendered homeless. Hundreds of thousands were made refugees during the brutal invasion of Fallujah alone that left 70% of the town’s buildings completely destroyed. Prison abuse and torture by US soldiers in Iraq has been brought to light, but so much remains still shrouded in history’s oblivion. But while mass deception may hide this narrative from public perception, it lives and rankles in the memories and consciousness of the victims and the witnesses.

When disempowered human beings are subjected to ignominious occupation and oppression, they will seek redress in militant, often frenzied ways; they will cling on to ideologies that legitimize and glorify the revenge which they believe is the vent. The direct experience of torture and killing desensitizes sensibilities from the use of violence on others, and routinizes it.

The mistake we make is when we locate the root of the problem with violent groups in the ideology they associate with. In doing so, we fail to see the roots that run deeper. Violent ideologies triumph in violent contexts.

When we condemn such groups and vow to strike back with force against them, we again miss a point that to stem violence we need to understand what fuels it; and in most cases, what fuels it is not ideology but the ignominy of defeat and oppressive occupation. Ideology helps later to corroborate, legitimize and sanctify. Hence military operations against such organizations have not yielded stable and enduring peace.

At the terrible risk of being judged as the devil’s advocate, I dare to understand that it may at times and in part be the work of our own hands that nurtures extremist violence . As long as such wrongs continue to be done by the powerful to human beings, violent groups seeking lost pride will continue to proliferate in multifarious forms: sometimes as Khmer Rouge, sometimes as ISIS or as the undiscovered many who may just be in various stages of their genesis that contemporary global politics foster.

Maryam Sakeenah is a student of International Relations based in Pakistan. She is also a high school teacher and freelance writer with a degree in English Literature. She is interested in human rights advocacy and voluntary social work and can be reached at: Read other articles by Maryam.