What is the relationship between religion and society? How do you have a healthy society? These two questions and the ways in which people answer them, Dr. Kathryn Johnson explained, is what determines how people decide to live their lives and achieve, what is in their minds, the actualization of truth. As part of the Great Decisions Speaker Series hosted by the Office of International Programs at UNC Charlotte, Dr. Johnson, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte, posed these two questions to serve as the basis for understanding the rise and motives of the terrorists organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS’ Ideological Basis For a Healthy Society

Most people try to imagine their own version of a virtuous society. Many people would agree that it is a society based off some social contract of human values – what is right and what is wrong. The picture of a virtuous society might look the same across different cultures, but how to achieve that society is a question with many different answers. “For Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” Johnson explained, “there are usually two different versions of how to create a virtuous society…the evolutionary model and the revolutionary model.” Johnson explained that the evolutionary model achieves its virtuous society from the “bottom up”, persuading – heart-by-heart and mind-by-mind – people to live life with good values. On the other side of the spectrum is the revolutionary model, which propagates that hard hearts cannot be won to God’s truth and in such a case there must be a revolution, explained Johnson. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIL, IS, and Daesh) falls into the category of the latter model.

ISIS has dominated the newsreels with its aggression in the Middle East that has enabled it to either control or operate in most of northern Iraq and throughout Syria. As an offspring of al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS lives by a philosophy that seeks to establish ultra-fundamental Islamic ideology through the use of extreme violence and intimidation. It is this ultra-fundamental ideology that ISIS believes is the only way to a healthy society. The revolutionary model that ISIS has integrated into its methods has been a characteristic of extremist organizations before it. But ISIS, as the world has seen, has proven to be unlike its predecessors.

ISIS Emerges

Dr. Johnson suggested that the world look to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the political and economic aftermath of that invasion to both understand what separates ISIS from other extremist organizations and to explain its rapid emergence. Looking at this history allows us to recognize the key differences between ISIS’ fundamental goals and that of its predecessors.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq served as a catalyst to the emergence of ISIS in the sense that it created an environment where extremist organizations could thrive and recruit heavily. Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March of 2003 and by the end of the summer, Johnson explained, Iraq was beginning to experience a growing Sunni insurgence. The leader of this insurgency was the Jordanian Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. In 2004 he and his extremist Sunni group, Tawhid and Jihad, declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, establishing al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

It soon became evident that Zarqawi had different tactics than those endorsed by his senior al-Qaeda leadership. Zarqawi began to use violence that produced little gains to al-Qaeda’s overall mission in Iraq and instead created a growing sense of unpopularity among his constituents. Public beheadings and indiscriminate killings of local Iraqis and Shias led the senior leadership of al-Qaeda to distance the organization from Zarqawi, ultimately resulting in a rift. “It wasn’t until June of 2006, after Zarqawi’s death by a U.S. air strike, that the group rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in an attempt to ‘nationalize’ its image and completely separate itself from al-Qaeda,” explained Johnson.

The U.S. invasion did a number of things to create the environment for ISI to develop. When U.S. forces toppled Saadam Hussein’s regime, Iraq’s economic and political systems became destabilized. Former Baathist members and military figures became unemployed overnight. Angry, armed, and without a job, many of these individuals decided to direct their frustration towards the people they saw as the source of their misfortune- the United States. Subsequently these individuals would be captured and detained in U.S. prisons throughout Iraq.

During the invasion, U.S. forces managed a number of prisons within Iraq. Following the shutdown of Abu Ghraib, the main US-run prison would become Camp Bucca, located in southern Iraq. It is here that a civilian detainee named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would rise to prominence within the camp as a religious leader and mediator and become well acquainted with al-Qaeda members, former Baathist members of Saadam’s regime, and other militants being held inside the confines of Camp Bucca.

Upon his release in the late 2000’s, Baghdadi joined the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and quickly rose through the ranks to become the group’s leader. “It is at this point”, Dr. Johnson said, “ that ISI began its international rise.” Baghdadi continued to use the indiscriminate tactics exercised by Zarqawi – conducting beheadings, abductions, and intense suicide bombings. The tactics proved to be so brutal that the group was publicly reprimanded on different occasions by al-Qaeda. By 2010 it was clear that Baghdadi and ISI were now the new dominant terrorist force within the region.

What Separates ISIS

The revolutionary model of Islam used by extremist groups and militants such as al-Qaeda is based on four main pillars. Dr. Johnson described that these four pillars focused on: “(1) creating an Islamic state – but first removing super powers that keep corrupt local regimes in power (2) maintaining minimum civilian deaths (this harms the organization’s international reputation) (3) cooperating with all who share the revolutionary vision, even The main goal is to create an Islamic State, or caliphate, without any involvement from the western world. ISIS’ goals and beliefs are not radically different from al-Qaeda, but their differences are significant for explaining their methods.

ISIS believes that the caliphate has already been established and therefore there is no longer a need to wait. Many analysts and experts believe this is what explains ISIS’s apocalyptic behavior. Dr. Johnson explained that ISIS behaves according to different beliefs in its strategy for achieving an Islamic State. “ISIS believes (1) civilian deaths are a part of the strategy of conquest (2) all who disagree (by word or deed) with ISIS are apostates – someone who turns away from their beliefs – and their lives, families, and property are forfeit, including Sunnis (3) conflict is encouraged as a terror tactic and as a way to purge apostates.” From Zarqawi to Baghdadi, the strategy of ISIS has been based off of brutal undiscriminating violence that seeks to intimidate the populace and motivate those who wish to join its ranks.

ISIS has demonstrated to the rest of the world that its version of a healthy society is achieved through intolerance and violence. It has proven to be dynamic in its utilization of technology and social media. It has created a sophisticated network of marketing materials and has recruited hundreds of individuals through social media platforms. It is an organization made up of fundamental religious practitioners, power-hungry militants, disgruntled former Baathist members, and out-cast individuals looking for purpose.

To address the issue that is ISIS we have to ask ourselves how groups like this gain traction in the world. To answer this the world must look inward into its own communities and systems. How have we created a system in which a group like ISIS thrives in the world? To think that ISIS is merely a product of extreme fundamentalist ideology is both naïve and shortsighted. History has shown us that major events are culmination of many factors, not just one. ISIS does pose a major threat to the region and the world. If anything, its existence should be a red flag for the rest of society, showing us that somewhere along the way we overlooked what was right in front of us.

Written by Jonas Heidenreich, recent graduate of Political Science with a concentration in International and Comparative Politics from Appalachian State (Dec. 2015)