Understanding the Cauldron that Brewed ISIS (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on Sun 03/22/2015 by


Dr. Jasser for Georgetown’s Berkley Center:

Earlier this week, we shared with you part 1 of a 2-part piece Dr. Jasser wrote for Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.To read part 1 of the series, entitled “Understanding the Cauldron that Brewed ISIS: Contemporary Problems and Solutions”, click here.


Part 2 continues Dr. Jasser’s exploration of the environment responsible for the ascent of ISIS, and proposes solutions to stopping the killing machines of fascism and Islamism. You may read part 2 here. We have also included it below.


We also invite you to watch Dr. Jasser speak about Muslims as religious minorities in the United States at the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project. You may watch the video here.


Finally, remember to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Yours in liberty,
Responding to Threats to Religious Freedom: ISIS and Sectarian Tensions

By M. Zuhdi Jasser  ~

In March 2011, the Arab Awakening came to Syria, bringing a long overdue opportunity for reform. But the vacuum it created skyrocketed the influence of both Shi’a and Sunni regional Islamist movements. Minorities like Christians were increasingly caught in the middle of the bloody crossfire between Shi’a and Sunni Islamists and secular Ba’athists, working hand in glove with the Shi’a Islamists. 

This cauldron of political repression and sectarian conflict was set afire with the revolution of 2011 in Syria. Yet, the revolution began in rural Syria in towns like Dar’aa as a predominantly secular, political pluralistic revolt united against Assadist, Ba’athist tyranny. Initially few religious freedom issues surfaced.   

But in 2012 the conflict collapsed into its sectarian roots as unarmed civilians were massacred in the streets, in their homes and at work by barrel bombs, chemical weapons, helicopter gunships and raiding gangs (shabiha) who savaged neighborhoods,  torturing, raping, murdering, and imprisoning, and leaving over 100,000 dead and 1 million displaced.     

The regime had adopted a strategy of divide and conquer,” exploiting sectarianism, and as the conflict developed in 2012, this strategy began to work. The government released thousands of militant Sunni Islamists from jails. Large numbers of radical foreign Sunni jihadists started to flow into Syria, and their Shi’a equivalent, Hizballah Shi’a jihadists, arrived to fight alongside the Syrian military.   

As a result, the Free Syria Army (FSA) found themselves no longer up against the regime alone, but fighting an emerging battle on many fronts against Assad’s military and factions of militant Islamists-a situation that smashed the fighting resolve of minority groups like Christians, Druze, and anti-Ba’athist Alawites.   

This process allowed the formation, growth, and militarization of ISIS in northeast Syria. The “moderate” (non-Islamist) wings of the FSA steered clear of the ISIS fanatics and focused on defeating the Syrian military. ISIS, conversely, left the Syrian military virtually alone as they viewed their initial existential enemy to be moderate Sunni Muslims who would reject their Islamist supremacism and authority. Similarly, the Assad military left ISIS virtually alone (the Wall Street Journal described it as an entente) as their continued existence gave the Syrian military a way to rally global sentiment against the revolution while they decimated the greatest existential threat to Assadist Ba’athism and its alliance with Iranian Khomenism: moderate democratic-minded Sunni Muslims. So, while ISIS grew, the genocide against Sunni Muslims continued. The conflict in Syria has now left over 250,000 dead and 5 million displaced, 90 percent of whom are Sunni Muslim.   

Systematic savagery by the Syrian regime against predominantly Sunni Muslims and selective Saudi and Qatari funding of radical Islamist wings of the FSA fueled an unprecedented Sunni radicalization. While the FSA and Syrian government were both shrinking in size and power, ISIS was the only growing entity in Syria. ISIS continued to grow faster and was able to spread to Iraq, dissolving “secular” borders and claiming a caliphate under Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Few predicted how significant the ability of radical Islamist movements like ISIS would be to fill the vacuum created in Syria.  

Nazis_Islamist_Book-CoverISIS has created, in areas it controls, the world’s most horrific situation for religious minorities like Yazidis, Christians, Assyrians, Kaldeans, and Druze. These minorities, as well as dissenting Sunnis, are systematically tortured, raped, and murdered. Their sacred holy places and sacred texts, symbols, and history are destroyed and their worship practices prohibited.   

Solving the religious freedom catastrophe in Syria and Iraq must be viewed through the lens exactly how ISIS emerged. ISIS is an unhinged outgrowth of militant Islamism manifest directly from Wahhabism and various forms of Salafism throughout the Arab world but especially Saudi Arabia. The growth of ISIS is a result of a perfect storm of, first, a genocidal Syrian government, second the radicalization of Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq, and third an Iraqi government incapable of mounting strong resistance to ISIS.   

This analysis teaches that the only solution is a military one, which ends both ISIS and the Assad regime. They are two sides, Sunni and Shi’a, of the same radicalizing coin, feeding off of sectarian animus and divisions. The only option that may restore a nation that before the revolution had the most diverse population in the Middle East is a post-Ba’ath, post-ISIS Syria. ISIS cannot be defeated in Iraq without decisively destroying their command and control in Northeast Syria in and around Raqqa. And the decimation of ISIS alone will only delay the formation of another radical Islamist group if the Assad military remains intact and in place.   

Make no mistake: The fact that long before the Arab Awakening there were virtually no Jews remaining in Arab nations speaks volumes to the disastrous trajectory of religious freedom in the Middle East. The population of Christians in Iraq, too, has declined precipitously as so-called secular regimes became closely aligned with radical Islam. Saddam Hussein “relocated” Christian communities and oversaw an almost 50 percent decrease in the Iraqi Christian population from 1.4 million in 1987 to 800,000 in 2003. Since then, with Ba’athism and Islamism cornering minorities, the number of Christians in Iraq has decreased to 300,000. The population is plummeting again in Iraq and Syria as ISIS marks their homes for genocide with “N” for Nazarene.

 The only way for religious freedom, the first freedom, to find life in Iraq and Syria is for the revolution against the twin tyrannies of Assadist Ba’athism and ISIS’ Islamism to be realized. Things will get worse before getting better, but to deny the need for revolution against tyranny is to accept the return of a false quiet. In the last 50 years many perceived a period of quiet for religious sectarian animus. Really, a period of mass imprisonment, and sectarian monopoly was festering in a cauldron of religious divisions. The Assad regime used those divisions to justify its brutality in a cycle that must end if genuine religious freedom is to have any hope in Syria or Iraq. And countering the social media recruitment of ISIS jihadis around the planet is not enough. We need a program of positive messaging from Muslims for religious liberty in addition to that against religious extremism and supremacism. Urgency is essential: If the religious diversity of Syria is lost, so too will be its greatest hope of emerging from this horrific battle between the savagery of radical Sunni and Shi’a Islamists and the Assad Ba’athist killing machine.

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