Ripostes: When it comes to ISIL/Daesh, ideology is important, but context is critical – Maria W. Norris

By Myriam Francois|December 8, 2015|Ripostes|0 comments

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.

Mostaque’s post highlighting the importance of Isil’s ideology is timely and important. As a nihilistic death cult intent on taking the Middle East back to an Islamic ‘year zero’, there is no room for negotiation. Consequently, addressing their ideology is paramount. Nonetheless, Isil should not be reduced to ideology alone. Isil presents a complex problem, where ideology is intertwined with issues of both agency and structure. As such, in order to fully address it, we also need to locate Isil as a symptom of  much bigger geopolitical problems in the Middle East.


As Mostaque points out, Isil is a direct result of the Iraq War. As the US led invasion dissolved the Iraqi army and banned the Ba’athist party, it created a huge power vacuum. The division of power between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds was done in a way that disenfranchised a large majority of Sunnis, who had real grievances against the new system. At the same time, tens of thousands of young men flooded the region to fight the occupiers, which soon led to the first Al Qaeda movement in Iraq. This provided the perfect conditions for Isil, originally an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq.


As such, Isil is part of the wider Sunni-Shia tensions in the region, which have been exacerbated by the conditions of post-2003 Iraq. It thus also mirrors the mounting tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia as both countries compete for influence. Wahhabism, the extreme form of Sunni Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia, forms the roots of Isil’s ideology. Further, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are implicated in the civil war in Syria, with Iran supporting Assad and strong indications that Isil has Saudi funding.


An additional ingredient in the geopolitical dysfunction that enables Isil, is the deep institutional crisis in the Middle East, where the wealth of resources is in sharp contrast with poverty and the lack of democratic accountability. The Middle East is constantly in the top rank of global measures of poverty, education, corruption and unemployment. This leads to intense social grievances that make entire populations susceptible to extremist narratives that provide perceived solutions. Non-state groups therefore fill the gap of legitimacy and provide individuals with a way out.


Finally, the conditions that support Isil to not just exist, but endure, are not exclusive to the Middle East. The problems of Western intervention continue to this day as the US, France and now the UK continue to bomb the region. Bombs are indiscriminate weapons which will likely lead to a huge amount of civilian suffering, which in turn feeds Isil’s narrative of a permanent Crusade. Further, oppressive counter-terrorism policies in the West and rising Islamophobia lead to increased alienation and resentment amongst Muslim communities living in the West. Isil depends on this alienation and resentment when it comes to international recruitment.


  • This is not to dismiss the importance of ideology, but it is equally important to emphasise that challenging the ideology alone is not enough to defeat Isil. Isil requires a multi-dimensional solution that addresses both its ideas, but also the structures which allowed for it to exist. Mostaque correctly says that when it comes to Isil, once an individual is radicalized, addressing grievances is unlikely to lead to de-radicalization. This makes it even more crucial to address the underlying conditions that both enabled and strengthened Isil in the first place.
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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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