ISIS: A History

ISIS: A History

by Fawaz A. Gerges


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691175799
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/14/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 392
Sales rank: 657,323
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Fawaz A. Gerges is professor of international relations and Emirates Professor in Contemporary Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His many books include The New Middle East, Obama and the Middle East, and The Far Enemy. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Foreign Affairs, and other publications.

Read an Excerpt


A History

By Fawaz A. Gerges


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8559-6



Although the spectacular surge of ISIS must be contextualized within the social and material circumstances and conditions that exist in Iraq and Syria and beyond, its worldview and ideology must also be taken seriously. Ideology is a superglue that binds Salafi-jihadist activists and combatants to each other and allows the movement to renew and revitalize itself after suffering setbacks. A traveling and expanding ideology, Salafi-jihadism has gained new converts and has taken hold of the imagination of small Sunni communities worldwide; it has developed its own rituals and references and produced its own iconic figures and theorists who provide intellectual guidance and theological sustenance. Historically a fringe social movement, now Salafi-jihadism vies for public influence and offers an alternative for both mainstream and radical Islamists. The movement's propagandists and preachers openly proselytize and boast that the tide of history has shifted in their favor. Whether it is on the cusp of victory or not, the ideology is here to stay and the challenge is to shine light on it and make sense of it. Researchers underestimate the power of the Salafi-jihadist ideology at their own peril. ISIS is first and foremost an extension of the global Salafi-jihadist movement. Baghdadi and his cohorts represent another wave, a new generation, of Salafi-jihadists or revolutionary religious activists. (Chapters 2 and 8 examine in depth ISIS's ideological references and mind-set as well as the similarities and differences between it and other Salafi-jihadist groups.) At present, ISIS — its ideology, as well as its state and security status — has successfully tapped into a fierce clash of identities between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. Although ISIS is a Salafi-jihadist organization, it is fundamentally oriented toward a genocidal anti-Shia campaign conducted in the name of the romantic idea of resurrecting the caliphate.

In comparing the emergence of Al Qaeda's central organization to that of ISIS, it is possible to distinguish ideological threads that have provided ISIS with an advantage. Al Qaeda's central organization emerged from an alliance between ultraconservative Saudi Salafism (or Wahhabism) and radical Egyptian Islamism known as Salafi-jihadism. ISIS was born of a marriage between an Iraq-based AQI (Salafi-jihadism) and an identity frame of politics. The group's ideological lineage of Salafi-jihadism forms part of the ideological impetus; the other part of its ideological nature is a hyper-Sunni identity driven by an intrinsic and even genocidal anti-Shia ideology. The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 caused a rupture in an already fractured Iraqi society. America's destruction of Iraqi institutions, particularly its dismantling of the army and the Baathist ruling party, unleashed a fierce power struggle, mainly along sectarian lines, creating fissures in society. These growing ruptures provided the room necessary for nonstate actors and armed insurgent militias, including Al Qaeda, to infiltrate the fragile body politic in post-2003 Iraq. The strategy of ISIS's planners is designed to exploit the Arab state identity crisis by claiming that they aim to implement a socioeconomic framework that can rival that of Western modernity. Despite ISIS's insistence that it operates within a different value system from that promulgated by Western liberalism, the group's rhetoric is anchored not in novelty but in identity politics whose main articulating pole is religious. Religion can act as a potent framework for social identity, especially in war environments where insecurity runs high, and cultivates group loyalty by projecting itself as the truth and the right path to follow. By providing a clear structure through strict sets of rules and beliefs and a worldview that encompasses life on earth and in the afterlife, ISIS presents individuals with the promise of an eternal group membership, which can prove particularly attractive for people prone to existential anxiety. Moreover, scholars point out that several factors feed into (Abrahamic) fundamentalist ideology, including dualism (absolute evaluations of good versus evil), authority (of a sacred book or leader), selectivity (choosing certain beliefs or practices over others), and millennialism (confidence in eschatology as God's will). Of all factors, however, one facet is thought to be vital: "reactivity," which takes the form of a hostility toward secular modernity that is directed not only toward people outside of the fundamentalists' religious in-group but also toward members of their own religious group who are not viewed as "true believers."

In this light, ISIS's development of a pure ideology can be seen as part of a strategy to feed its members' fundamentalism by emphasizing their exclusivity while projecting a universalist vision. For example, the widespread use of suicide bombers by Salafi-jihadist groups such as ISIS constitutes a recent modus operandi in Islam rather than a return to the roots. A convincing argument can be made that Muslims are currently entangled in a war of subjectivities that stems from a series of ruptures that started with the Enlightenment and that takes the form of an Islamic-Islamic civil war over the Muslim identity itself. Meanwhile, Arabs are also involved in an interpretative dispute about their being-in-the-world in which both the Arab world and the world at large are being questioned and contested. The current rise of Salafi-jihadism and terrorism represented by groups such as ISIS is the result of not only creeping sectarianism or a crisis of the modern state, but also a growing nihilism that signals the collapse of peace and progressive values in its conception of humanity.

Nevertheless, far from being sui generis, genealogically and ideologically ISIS belongs to the Salafi-jihadist family, or global jihadism, although it marks another stage in the evolution or, rather, mutation of the ideological gene pool. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not only inherited the bloody legacy of his predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, but also models himself on Osama bin Laden, who is for Salafi-jihadists a "martyr" and remains the undisputed, charismatic leader of the global jihadist movement. Over the past half century, the global jihadist movement has developed a repertoire of ideas, a frame of reference, theorists, thousands of followers, and "martyrs" who provide inspiration for new volunteers and ensure the movement's survival. ISIS has been able to draw from this repertoire, rearticulating old concepts and presenting them as new or revolutionary. Its rhetoric makes use of religious ideology to articulate identity politics. Indeed, religion has for some time been the glue that maintains the coherence, if not the unity, of various factions and divisions, and the rationale for vicious and flamboyant violence. Time and again, Salafi-jihadists from various movements have cited verses from Qur'anic scripture to portray their offensive jihad as blessed.

The world according to ISIS is frozen in time and space, incorporating the rules and laws of seventh-century Arabia into the twenty-first century. Baghdadi and his associates depict themselves as battling the "antichrist" and paving the way for the ultimate triumph of the "Mahdi" and Islam (in Arabic, the Mahdi means "the Guided One," the central crowning element of all Islamic end-time narratives, or an expected spiritual and temporal ruler destined to establish a reign of righteousness throughout the world). This millenarian thinking is at the heart of ISIS's caliphate ideology and the global jihadist movement in general. The problem is not to know whether ISIS is Islamic — of course it is, though Muslims worldwide disavow it and distance themselves from its actions — but rather to understand how this organization borrows heavily but selectively from the Islamic canon and imposes the past on the present wholesale. Baghdadi and his propagandists overlook centuries of Islamic interpretations and counterinterpretations and rely on a narrow, strict, and obsolete textualist reading of the Islamic doctrine, a move that is very controversial and deeply contested by the religious community and al-Islam al-Sha'bi (lived Islam). Despite its sound and fury, ISIS remains a fringe phenomenon that is too extreme for mainstream Muslim opinion but sounds like a sweet melody to the ears of its social base. This base continues to replenish the ranks of ISIS and similar organizations with willing combatants and suicide bombers. Time and again politicians and observers have penned the obituary of the global jihadist movement only to be shocked by its resilience and capacity for self-renewal. Ideology is a significant factor in this process of regeneration, and it confers legitimacy on ISIS's actions. By tracing ISIS's social and ideological origins and comparing it with the first two jihadist waves of the 1970s–1990s, we can gauge the extent of continuity and change and account for the group's notorious savagery.

Under ISIS, there is no breathing space for social mobilization and political organization, including by like-minded Salafi-jihadist activism. ISIS possesses a totalitarian, millenarian worldview that eschews political pluralism, competition, and diversity of thought. Baghdadi and his associates criminalize and excommunicate free thought, and the idea of the "other" is alien to their messianic ideology. Any Muslim or co-jihadist who doesn't accept ISIS's interpretation of the Islamic doctrine is an apostate who deserves death. In the same vein, any Muslim or co-jihadist who refuses to submit to the will of the new caliphate faces either expulsion from the land or death. One here needs to recall the words uttered by ISIS's chief propagandist and official spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, following the establishment of the Islamic State. In a communiqué, Adnani, whose real name is Taha Sobhi Falaha, demanded that all jihadist factions everywhere pledge allegiance to the new caliph, Baghdadi, as the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations was now null and void. He said, "The land now submits to his order and authority from Aleppo to Diyala." Adnani made it clear that there is only one Islamic state and one caliphate, with no room for dissent: "Indeed, it is the state. Indeed, it is the khilafah [caliphate]. It is time for you to end this abhorrent partisanship, dispersion, and division, for this condition is not from the religion of Allah at all. And if you forsake the State or wage war against it, you will not harm it. You will harm yourselves." He also warned that all Muslims must obey the commander of the faithful, including former and current aspirants to the title, and ordered his fighters to "split the head" and "strike the neck" of anyone who breaks the ranks and does not submit to the will of the new caliphate.

In ISIS's worldview, then, the caliphate is not just a political entity but also a collective religious obligation (wajib kifa'i), a means to salvation: Muslims have sinned since they abandoned the obligation of the caliphate, and, ever since, the umma has not tasted "honor" or "triumph." ISIS's repeated message to Muslims is that they must pledge allegiance to a valid caliph, Baghdadi, and honor that oath and live a fully Islamic life.

Behind the romantic idea of the caliphate, however, lies identity politics, as the core of ISIS's ideological framework is the affirmation of its "Sunni Islamic" identity and its redefinition of true Islam. Adnani's orders might have given the illusion that the establishment of the Islamic State entails a real rupture from the present state system, but, just like under Saddam Hussein, under ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq is headed by an absolute leader who tolerates no dissent. In fact ISIS's conception of sovereignty does not break away from the autocratic mode of governance that has plagued Arab countries for decades: for example, both Hussein in Iraq and the Assads in Syria have used identity politics as a pillar for their policies — albeit an ethnic rather than a religious version.

ISIS has used its messianic ideology to brutally suppress both Islamists and nationalists (Baathists) in areas under its domination. Its raison d'être is to convert everyone to its cause, including rival jihadists who share a similar vision. For example, in a severe rebuttal, Adnani harshly criticized Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda Central and the most senior living jihadist, for daring to side with the chief of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, against Baghdadi in the power struggle for Syria. ISIS's chief spokesman bluntly reminded Zawahiri that should he make it to the territories of the Islamic State, he would have to swear baiya (fealty) to Baghdadi and serve as one of his foot soldiers. As Baghdadi pledged allegiance to Zawahiri in 2010, this open attack represents the ultimate insult. ISIS's hard-line stance has caused much havoc within the global jihadist movement, even leading to a split between ISIS and al-Nusra, which was originally constituted on Baghdadi's orders. A key cause of the rift between the two organizations was that Joulani rejected an order by Baghdadi in April 2013 to annex his front to ISIS. Baghdadi considered Joulani's snub treacherous and ever since has waged all-out war against al-Nusra and its Islamist and nationalist Syrian allies. The intra-jihadist confrontation in Syria has killed thousands of skilled fighters from both camps and has seen atrocities committed by each side, including wholesale rape, beheadings, and crucifixions. The war within the jihadist tribe is as savage as the war with outsiders. Islamic State followers and those of Al Qaeda Central excommunicate one another and marshal religious discourse to show that they are the real jihadist vanguard, while their rivals are pretenders. In Syria ISIS could not coexist with al-Nusra or any other Islamist group because that would have challenged its monopoly on the scared and on the global jihadist project as well. As a totalitarian-religious movement, ISIS will ultimately self-destruct, not because it commits evil deeds, but because it lacks a political imagination and its ideology is deeply at odds with the values and ways of life of local communities (more on this point in the conclusion). In addition to mastering the art of making enemies of all regional and global powers, ISIS eliminates politics altogether and aspires to organize society along puritanical lines of seventh-century Arabia, a worldview that imposes the distant past on the present.

It is no wonder, then, that ISIS engages in cultural cleansing, purifying the Islamic lands of all alien and infidel influences, including traditional Sunni practices that clash with its fundamentalist and timeless interpretation of the Islamic doctrine. The idea of purifying the Islamic lands is deeply ingrained in the imagination of radical religious activists, but ISIS is the first social movement to attempt to operationalize this ideology. As Islamic State militants swept across Syria and Iraq, they destroyed, damaged, or looted numerous cultural sites and sculptures, condemning them as idolatry. Celebrating their cultural cleansing in spectacular propaganda displays, Islamic State fighters show by deeds, not words, their intent to purify the lands and resurrect the caliphate. While ISIS's propaganda is abhorrent to the outside world, it is greedily devoured by its social base. Its slickly produced recruitment films about cultural cleansing not only reinforce its strategic message of triumph and expansion but also divert attention from battlefield setbacks.


Excerpted from ISIS by Fawaz A. Gerges. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Down the Rabbit Hole and into the History of ISIS 1

1 The World According to ISIS 23

2 Where ISIS Came From: Zarqawi to Baghdadi 50

3 How Broken Iraqi Politics Fueled the Revival of ISIS 98

4 Baghdadi’s Evolution: From Invisible to Infamous 129

5 Baathists and ISIS Jihadists: Who Converted Whom? 144

6 How the Syrian War Empowered ISIS 170

7 Misappropriating the Arab Spring Uprisings 202

8 ISIS versus Al Qaeda: Redefi ning Jihad and the Transition from the Global to the Local 222

Conclusion: The Future of ISIS 260

Notes 295

Index 353

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