Experts weigh in on ISIS threat and ideology

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Political Science Prof. Mark Tessler speaks at the panel “Understanding ISIS: Evolution, ideology, and implications,” at the Ford School of Public Policy Wednesday. Buy this photo

By Genevieve Hummer, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 29, 2014

Despite a summer of increasing fear concerning the spread of the terror group ISIS in the Middle East, some University professors argue the global threat might be relatively minimal in the long term.

Wednesday’s event at the Ford School of Public Policy, “International Institute Round Table: Understanding ISIS: Evolution, ideology, and implications,” which discussed the origins, ideology, popular support for and international impact of ISIS. The event was co-sponsored by the International Policy Center and the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies.

ISIS, short for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is a Sunni Muslim extremist group that has drawn increasing international attention in the last few months. In June of this year, the group seized control of territory in northeastern Syria and western Iraq, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. In the same month, ISIS declared the creation of a caliphate in the conquered regions of Iraq and Syria and named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph.

The media’s growing fascination with the extremist group is one factor that prompted Social Work student Angela Joo to attend the event.

“ISIS has been covered in the media a lot so I was interested in learning more about it as a citizen, and I just wanted to know what the issues were and how the federal government planned on taking care of the problem,” Joo said.

To address the many facets of ISIS, the event featured four panelists, each focusing on a different aspect of the issue: History Prof. Juan Cole, Political Science Prof. Mark Tessler, Political Science Prof. James Morrow, and Mohammad Khalil, associate professor of religious studies at Michigan State University. Pauline Jones Luong, director of the International Institute, moderated the event.

In Cole’s talk, he said the Iraqi transition from a socialist to a neo-liberal government following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 prompted Sunni discontent. The new government placed the Shiite elite in power and marginalized Sunnis, he added.

“These were the capable people in Iraq, they were the equivalent of West Point graduates and Harvard Law and high politicians and the people who managed things,” Cole said. “And they were all told you’re now unemployed, if you behave yourself you might be able to get a job as a shoe-shiner to the Shiites, and so they went into rebellion.”

Tessler presented findings from surveys he and a team conducted in Iraq in 2004, 2006, 2011 and 2013, the results of which were consistent with many of Cole’s assertions. Tessler and his team also noted growing Sunni discontent during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

One important shift that the surveys reflected was a shift from Iraqi national identity among citizens in the early years of the U.S. occupation, to more sectarian identities among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in 2011 and 2013. The surveys also indicated that, with time, Sunni interest in an intersection between Islam and political life increased substantially.

The panelists argued ISIS was able to gain power by capitalizing on Iraqi frustrations with the West. Morrow addressed the challenge this increased power presents to the Western order, noting that Western countries must consider the practical implications of a large-scale response to ISIS.

“To the extent that there is any support domestically (for a large-scale response), the Obama administration does not appear to have the slightest interest in trying to rally that opinion and make such a case for that and I think that’s an accurate reflection,” Morrow said. “That matters because, in a democracy, if you don’t have popular support for those positions in foreign policy, you will not be able to persist them over long periods of time.”

Democracies draw their power from popular support, and therefore must consider the domestic implications of interfering in the Middle East, Morrow said. In the United States, domestic support for a ground troop intervention in the Middle East is low, Morrow added.

A misconception that each panelist sought to dispel was that ISIS is representative of the entire Sunni Muslim population. Recruits of ISIS are rarely traditional Sunni Muslims.

“People from the West are attracted to ISIS who — maybe they just converted or they don’t have much background in Islam and who are attracted to ISIS because of its message,” Khalil said.

Morrow added that because ISIS recruits transnationally, they do not have to be popular with a majority of Muslims to maintain their power.

However, despite the stir that ISIS has caused, Cole dismissed its strength.

“I don’t expect them to have any staying power,” Cole said. “I think that the main people involved in this movement are likely to be dead within five years. Putin doesn’t want them there, Iran doesn’t want them there, Syria doesn’t want them there, Baghdad doesn’t want them there, the U.S., the U.K., France — so, after a while, they won’t be there.”

Clarification: This article has been clarified to reflect that the International Institute served as the event's primary sponsor, while the other organizations involved were co-sponsors.