The mist of misinformation: Deconstructing the rise of ISIS

The rise of the so-denominated ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is in no way a surprise. It is rooted in a history of war and despair that goes far beyond the confines of modern day Iraq and Syria.

Adventuring into the realm of information, and also misinformation, is indeed a challenge today.

Ironically, in what is commonly denominated the age of information, finding reliable data is a difficult task. Researching about ISIS must be done with an extremely critical eye.

ISIS is widely characterized as a terrorist organization. Its violent and militant nature is a feature highlighted by the media, and is demonstrated, for instance, in the number of execution and terror videos circulating the web and also in its extremely violent assault on minorities such as the Kurds.

Even though ISIS states that it has founded an Islamic state in order to fulfill the Shariah law and purge the infidels and the enemies of the newly created caliphate from this world, it is important to make a few notes of clarification in distinguishing Islam as a religion and ISIS as a militant group.

Bakhtawar Riaz, the president of the Trent Muslim Student Association (TMSA), spoke to Arthur on this subject. She explained that, “Shari’ah law is the law derived from the Qur’an and prophetic teachings (Sunnah). There are many misconceptions about Sharia’h, even among Muslims.”

Moreover, she added that “the aims of Shar’iah laws are simple: to protect human life, mind, wealth, lineage, and the religion (Islam) itself. If anything is found to harm the aforementioned points, it cannot be considered authentic or a part of Shari’ah.”

When consulted about ISIS, Bakhtawar Riaz argued that “not only can we see that ISIS and their ideology is miles away from the authentic practices of the Prophet (PBUH) and the teachings of the Qur’an, but also how ISIS lacks a basic understanding of Islam. Islam is not a violent religion nor does it encourage violence.”

“It makes no sense for any group to claim they are following the teachings of the Qur’an or the Prophetic Sunnah when they publicly behead ambassadors, journalists, or innocent civilians,” she concluded.

It is imperative to avoid sweeping generalizations of what Islam constitutes and what its values as a religion are. Islam, as happens with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc., can be interpreted in a plethora of different ways.

More specifically, it is also important to not reduce groups such as ISIS as part of ‘political Islam’ as if adding the word political would allow for those undesirable generalizations to be accepted

At this point in time, it is fundamental to reaffirm, in the words of Yahya Sadowski, that we need to avoid making “homogenous claims about how religion affects the lives of more than a billion individuals who live everywhere from the jungles of Surinam to the steppes of Mongolia, and whose political activity is channeled through regimes as different as the Emirate of Sharja and the French Republic.”

Moving away from a discussion of religious interpretations, it is useful to specifically look at how ISIS became prominent.However, looking for one ‘true’ interpretation of religion is neither possible nor desirable.

Avoiding generalizations about the nature of Islam and its interaction with terrorists groups is of paramount importance in order to fight against Islamophobia, which has increased since 9/11.

Rishad Kabar, a fourth year Trent student from Kenya, agreed that “it is evident that ISIS’s ruthless actions are based on selfish geopolitical and economic reasons – unfortunately, they gain international attention which can inadvertently further stereotypes about Muslims and Islamophobia.

“Personally, growing up with the god-fearing and compassionate teachings of the Koran, the actions of these groups are unjustifiable in any shape or form. I would urge tolerance and objective knowledge pursuit on the issues surrounding ISIS and Islam before making rushed judgments,” he added.

An extremely important question to ask is why ISIS became such a strong political force in some areas of Iraq and Syria. A political-historical context of the conflict in both Iraq and Syria is extremely helpful to understand the rise of ISIS.

One answer, many would argue, rests on the political vacuum created by Western intervention in the region since 2003. Iraq was relatively successful in fighting the formation of terrorist’s cells with support of American forces. However, the conflict in Syria obscured the situation.

The more recent Syrian conflict provided the breeding ground for movements such as ISIS to grow. Since international actors such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and US were not sympathetic towards Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, they supported the opposition.

As a result of the chaotic state of affairs in Syria, some groups like ISIS found an area to organize themselves.

Quickly taking advantage of a misplaced, hungry, exhausted, war torn population, ISIS drew a large number of supporters. The group was also able to confiscate sophisticated American weaponry such as tanks, and they even seized control of a number of oil refineries from which they get revenues by selling oil in the illegal market.

The convoluted and intertwined nature of the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS is extremely difficult to analyze. However, international actors have had a substantial impact on the way events unfolded.

Should the US have intervened in Syria as it did in Iraq? Would that have helped prevent the rise of groups such as ISIS? There is no way of knowing the extent and nature of what intervention should look like, and if it should take place at all.

Many would argue, however, that the US is already too involved to try and leave the region and pretend that its absence will not cause drastic disruption.

In the mist of misinformation, one thing is clear: international intervention is a double-edged sword.