ISIS in context
August 2014. Yazidi women escaping ISIS. Photo: Domenico on Flickr, 2014; cropped. CC BY-ND 2.0.

ISIS in context

Several recent events addressed the history, ideological beliefs and practices of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Historian Zeynep Turkyilmaz called the massacre of Yazidis in Sinjar, Iraq, a genocide, arguing that the ISIS campaign met the definition cited in the1948 UN Convention against Genocide.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, April 21, 2015 — The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS; also known as IS, ISIL, and Daesh) did not spring out of nowhere in the summer of 2014. Rather, its roots can be traced to al-Qaida in Iraq, radical Islamist ideological beliefs that ISIS shares with the original al-Qaida organization and a tradition of Islamic jurisprudence that hues close to that of Wahhabi jurisprudence.

Although ISIS appears to be spreading through affiliates in Nigeria and Tunisia, these “affiliates” are far more likely local extremist groups who are re-branding themselves for publicity purposes. The group arose in the specific local context of northern Iraq and remains fragile in terms of both its capacity and staying power. Its practice of enslaving female captives, moreover, must be seen in the context of migrant labor and marital practices in the Gulf States over the past several decades, which have acculturated a generation of people to the idea of people owning people.

These were some of the principal arguments made in several public talks held at UCLA over the past few months, the major points of are distilled in this article (a longer version  may be downloaded below). James L. Gelvin, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at UCLA, and Zeynep Turkyilmaz (UCLA PhD 2009), assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College, spoke on “The Islamic State and the Yazidi Genocide,” at the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) on January 29, 2015. Political geographer and UCLA PhD candidate Ali Hamdan gave a “teach-in” on ISIS cosponsored by CNES and the UCLA Department of Geography on April 1, 2015.

And Khaled Abou El Fadl, Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law and chair of the Islamic Studies Program, addressed “ISIS and the Enslavement and Trafficking of Women,” on April 9, 2015, at a lecture cosponsored by UCLA's Al Talib Magazine, Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, Muslim Law Students’ Association and Political Science Student Organization.


Historian James Gelvin. According to UCLA historian James Gelvin, ISIS “evolved in parallel but not out of al-Qaida” and has in most circumstances been in direct conflict with it. Gelvin traced the origins of ISIS to 1989, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a native of Jordan, went to fight in Afghanistan. Rather than join al-Qaida, however, al-Zarqawi created his own group dedicated to the idea of building an Islamic state.

“Zarqawi was not a copycat of Bin Laden,” noted political geographer Ali Hamdan, “he wanted to preserve a vision of radical Islam that differed from that of al-Qaida.” After fleeing Afghanistan, the jihadist landed in Iran and later, Iraq, where by 2003 he had created the network that became al-Qaida in Iraq.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Zarqawi sought to unleash a sectarian war that would make the cost of occupation too high for the United States. Eventually, Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq agreed to help fight his organization and Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. His organization then went underground and after undergoing a number of permutations, it became the Islamic State of Iraq before being taken over by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (a native Iraqi born in Samara in 1971).

Al-Baghdadi concentrated his efforts on Iraq, said Gelvin, but sent Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria, where the latter established Jahbat al-Nusra (also known as the al-Nusra Front). The latter, however, concentrated on waging jihad against Assad in Syria and eventually came into competition with ISIS. Thereafter, ISIS concentrated its efforts in Syria on fighting al-Nusra.

In 2013, al-Baghdadi formally broke with al-Qaida. In summer 2014, his renamed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant launched the lightning military strike that gave it control of a large swathe of territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate.

Political geographer Ali Hamdan. The territorial conquests of ISIS had little to do with its leadership or military prowess, said Gelvin. Rather, said the historian, its conquests can be attributed to a number of factors: the military help provided by Baathist groups and allied Sunni tribes in Iraq; the legacy of the brutal suppression of the spring 2014 protest movement of Iraqi Sunnis against the Nouri al-Maliki government; the hatred of those Sunnis for al-Maliki’s crony-based, sectarian Shia government; the concentration of oil-producing facilities in the areas of Syria and Iraq seized by ISIS (enabling the group to finance itself); and a slick media campaign that attracted foreign fighters.

Hamdan noted that the territory occupied by ISIS is a functional geographical region known as the Jazira: the “island” or peninsula between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Traditionally comprised of what are now northwest Iraq, northeast Syria and southeast Turkey, the Jazira has a long history of being recognized as a distinct region, he said.

Ideological beliefs

Islamic law and human rights expert Khaled Abou el Fadl pointed out that both al-Qaida and ISIS grew out of an ideological dogma inspired by Wahhabi theology. Both ascribe to idea of takfir, he said, believing that they are the true Muslims and that everyone who disagrees with their understanding of Islam are apostates (i.e., people who have renounced their religion).

They see themselves as fighting the sects of apostasy (i.e., the Shia, the Sufis, others who disagree with their conception of monotheism) and consider anyone who commits a whole range of sins as being immediately cast out of the faith, he continued. Where they differ with later Wahhabism, he noted, is in their rejection of the doctrine that all Muslims must obey their ruler, regardless of whether he is good or bad, just or unjust.

Legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl. Although ISIS cultivates a mythology about its caliphate having developed a system of morals and principles “unadulterated and uncontaminated by anything that comes from anywhere else,” said Abou El Fadl, “it just so happens that the jurisprudence that it ends up resting on, or accepting, is jurisprudence that closely mimics the jurisprudence of Wahhabi jurists.”

The legal scholar noted that two critical ideological texts inform the theological teachings of both al-Qaida and ISIS: “Managing Barbarity” (or “Managing Barbarism,” often incorrectly translated as “Managing Savagery”) and “The Manifesto of International Islamic Resistance.” The first quotes Samuel Huntington and depicts the world as being in a constant state of civilizational conflict, contending that when civilizations are at their peak of power, they become savage or barbaric. The only solution to this situation, says the text, is to engage such civilizations in prolonged wars of attrition of unpredictable violence.

The “Manifesto” describes as an unrelenting war of Christians against Muslims since the birth of Islam. The most critical — and to Abou el Fadl’s mind, ideologically dangerous — part of the text is its dismissal of all alternatives (including all previous Islamic movements) to an open-ended war of attrition against the crusading Judeo-Christian civilization, including the institutions that it has produced — including the United Nations. Muslims, claims the text, will never be saved unless a caliphate is created.

The Yazidi genocide in Sinjar, Iraq

ISIS justified its August 2014 slaughter of Yazidis — a predominantly Kurdish-speaking, non-Muslim minority found in Armenia, southern Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq — by its belief in takfir. Historian Zeynep Turkyilmaz called the massacre in Sinjar, Iraq a genocide, arguing that the ISIS campaign met the definition cited in the 1948 UN Convention against Genocide. The group removed children and women and willfully exterminated community members with the goal of eliminating them as a people. She pointed that that the Yazidi genocide occurred in the centennial anniversary year of the Armenian genocide of 1915.

“What is unique about ISIS is that they openly claim [a] kind of religious model and religious ideology for their genocidal intent,” she said. “We work with a model of genocide that is, perhaps, derived from the Holocaust and we assume that the Holocaust, as the product of a modern age, needs to have all this secular baggage.”

Historian Zeynep Turkyilmaz. The need to exterminate the Yazidis was an established part of the official ISIS narrative, explained Turkyilmaz, and is clearly stated in one of the group’s own published documents. When ISIS fighters conquered the Sinjar region of Iraq, very few Yazidis were given the option of converting. Most male Yazidis were immediately exterminated and the females were taken as slaves. Unfortunately, observed the historian, the practice of slavery had support in the region: people came not only from Iraq, but also from Syria, to buy Yazidi slaves.

Asked whether one can teach American students about ISIS without reinforcing western stereotypes about Muslims or confusing political and religious issues, Turkyilmaz said, “If you look at what they say, their tools, how they justify their actions: I don’t think there is anything un-Islamic about [ISIS], but it’s not the Islam. There are different ways of being Muslim and there are different interpretations of Islam. . . It’s not representative of the entire Islam.” To refuse to recognize ISIS fighters as Muslim, she noted, would be to practice takfir.

Slavery in the context of human trafficking

Abou el Fadl stressed that the enslavement of women by ISIS must be seen in the context of the rapid modernization, spread of cosmopolitanism and use of migrant labor in the Gulf Region over the past several decades. According to the international protocol against human trafficking,* the treatment in Gulf countries of workers from such countries as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, and Nepal amounts to human trafficking, he argued .

Crucially, their treatment has legitimized a culture in which the denigration of other human beings, and the idea of people owning people, has become a norm, he said. “Why does this relate to ISIS?” asked Abou El Fadl. “We are talking about building cultural associations and cultural understandings.”

In his view, the development of misyar marital practices** was another crucial step in this acculturation process. The defense of such marriages by Saudi and other clerics in the Gulf area has, he said, legitimized a practice in which wealthy people — mostly from the Gulf countries — travel to villages in countries like Egypt, India, and Lebanon and “pay a sum of money and marry a woman pretty much like they’re shopping.”

The legal scholar contended that the ISIS slave trade was interconnected with organized criminal networks that traffic in children and women. Although ISIS is believed to specialize in the trafficking of minorities that are neither Christian nor Jews, Abou El Fadl said that human rights organizations have found repeated cases of ISIS helping transport and sell Shia, and even Sunni, Muslim women.

Calling this trafficking a particularized problem in a larger context, Abou El Fadl lamented that the international condemnation of the enslavement of women by ISIS has not been matched by a similar condemnation of migrant labor practices that approximate slavery in the region.


Both Gelvin and Hamdan believed that ISIS was severely limited in capacity and reach and would soon crumble. Rather than attracting skilled Muslim professionals to help build its Islamic State, said Gelvin, the group is mostly attracting marginal figures motivated by bloodlust.

Hamdan noted that ISIS is most successful recruiting people who do not come from the region where the group is based, but are primarily drawn from “small, embattled communities outside of what you would traditionally call the Islamic world.” As for the group’s so-called “affiliates” in northern Africa, he claimed that they were simply existing radical groups taking advantage of an opportunity for publicity.

Turkyilmaz, however, argued that ISIS would have an enduring impact in the region. “Perhaps in the long run ISIS is not going to survive, but what it has already done is going to survive,” she said. “It has already committed a genocide that changed the demography and the political and cultural setting of the Middle East.” In particular, she doubted that the Yazidis would ever be able to return to their homes in the region.

*See U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2000)

** See discussion of misyar marriage in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online, under the category of  "Modern Practice.".

Photos of Gelvin, Hamdan, and Abou El Fadl by Peggy McInerny/ UCLA. Photo of Turkyeilmaz courtesy of Dartmouth.

A longer version of this article can be downloaded below.

Download file: ISIS-article_long_posting-q2-x1z.pdf