Understanding Islamic State

understanding Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality. Here, The Conversation, has prepared a series of articles on understanding IS.

How can we understand the origins of Islamic State?

Its seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of IS?

Do the answers lie in the 20th century, which saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of new nations in its wake and their struggle for independence as well as articulation of national identities? Is it hidden in the debris of the Gulf and the Iraq Wars? Or do we have to look deeper in history – to the fundamental tenets of Islam, the Crusades or the so-called Assassins of the 11th to 13th centuries?

Which of these – if any – can be said to have created the conditions necessary for the rise of IS? In the article kicking off our series on the genesis of the group, James Gelvin cautions against easy answers. Just because one event followed another, he says, doesn’t mean it was also caused by it.

Far better, we decided, to look at the interplay of historical and social forces, as well as recognising that outfits such as IS often cherry-pick ideas to justify their beliefs and behaviours. So, our series on understanding IS attempts – in a dispassionate way – to catalogue some of the many forces and events that can arguably have played a part in creating the conditions necessary for these jihadists to emerge. We’ve spread the net wide but make no claim to being comprehensive or having the final word on the historical origins of IS.

After Gelvin’s broad introduction to the group and warnings about the misuse of history, we turn to Islam and its theology, then to the Assassins of medieval history and the Crusades, before leaping into the 20th century.

The series concludes with a look at more proximate events – the role of the recent wars in the region and their aftermath. It seems that to understand Islamic State, we need to look not just at the Middle East itself but also at the complicated role of the West in it.

Reema Rattan
Understanding Islamic State series editor


Our series on understanding Islamic State attempts to catalogue many of the forces and events that can arguably have played a part in creating the conditions necessary for these jihadists to emerge.

Understanding Islamic State: where does it come from and what does it want?

James L Gelvin, University of California, Los Angeles
How far back in history does one have to go to find the roots of the so-called Islamic State? The first article in our series on the genesis of the terrorist outfit considers some fundamentals.

Islamic State lays claim to Muslim theological tradition and turns it on its head

Harith Bin Ramli, SOAS, University of London
What makes Islamic State different to traditional Islam isn't necessarily the religious texts the group uses.

If Islamic State is based on religion, why is it so violent?

Aaron W. Hughes, University of Rochester
Despite what we're told, religion isn't inherently peaceful. People kill in the name of their religion, just as they love in its name.

Why is Islam so different in different countries?

Aaron W. Hughes, University of Rochester
Since Islam is predicated on law, variations in the interpretation of that law – along with geography and distinct legal schools – have all contributed to differences in the religion.

Islamic State and the Assassins: reviving fanciful tales of the medieval Orient

Farhad Daftary, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
In seeking to link IS to earlier Islamic movements, Western commentators have associated the jihadist group with the medieval Ismailis, made famous in Europe by returning Crusaders as the Assassins.

Did the Crusades lead to Islamic State?

Carole Cusack, University of Sydney
Representing even the Crusades as wars between Christians and Muslims is a gross oversimplification and a misreading of history.

The post-colonial caliphate: Islamic State and the memory of Sykes-Picot

James Renton, Edge Hill University
The leaders of Islamic State do not see their caliphate as an exercise in theocracy for its own sake, but as an attempt at post-colonial emancipation.

How the political crises of the modern Muslim world created the climate for Islamic State

Harith Bin Ramli, SOAS, University of London
The rise of Islamic State and its declaration of the caliphate can be read as part of a wider story that has unfolded since the formation of modern nation states in the Muslim world.

Out of the ashes of Afghanistan and Iraq: the rise and rise of Islamic State

Greg Barton, Deakin University
The final article of our series on the historical roots of Islamic State examines the role recent Western intervention in the Middle East played in the group's inexorable rise.

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