What Created ISIS in the Middle East?

Before I begin, let me make one point absolutely clear to the reader…. War is extremely complicated. It is an avalanche of different factors, like different pebbles rolling down a mountain slope, that grows into a catastrophe. The natural reaction is to always find a way to blame certain people, certain situations or certain governments. We always try to find the easiest way to ‘cure’ or to ‘contain’ the madness. Cause and effect is something so embedded in our view of rationality that we cease to consider the complexities of human nature. However, the truth is that society with a capital-S is too unpredictable for us to have any real semblance of control. The best we can do is pray that we don’t repeat history.

That being said, I will now try to tackle the most hotly discussed topic in international politics – ISIS. Although I will be making an attempt at a clear explanation, I do not claim to have any sort of expertise in these matters. More importantly, I do not claim to even begin to understand the plight of the people suffering under the rule of ISIS. I’m sitting here in a comfortable room, with a comfortable drink in hand. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that an attempt must be made. Turning away from the relevant political topics of the world to search for new cat videos just because ‘It’s not my problem’ is, in blunt terms, a lame excuse for your ignorance.

No, I have never been a victim of terrorism and I would like it to stay that way. I cannot empathize with the victims and the refugees no matter how much I try, but I can certainly sympathize, despite my distance and apparent privilege. The first step towards that sympathy is to try and understand the myriad origins of this vile organization.


The Fall of the Ottoman Empire

Historically, the Middle East is one of the most interesting places in the world. In fact, an area called the Fertile Crescent is where human civilization began! This is where the wheel was invented, where agriculture was first practiced, and language was codified. This is where Babylon was situated, as well as Constantinople. This is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Finally, this is where the Ottoman Empire began in the 11th century.

Once a glorious and powerful empire, the Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate by the 19th century. The First World War proved to be the last straw for the Empire, as it ended up being on the losing side. Already politically weakened, the Allied powers saw their opportunity and took advantage of the situation. They decided to end the Ottoman Empire once and for all.

Two men then entered the picture – Mark Sykes of England and Francois George-Picot of France. Even before the war was over, these two men decided to carve up the Middle East based on their own political agenda. Obviously, neither of them knew the first thing about the ethnic diversity within the region. The borders they drew were so arbitrary that Sykes had famously claimed “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ of Acre to the last ‘k’ of Kirkuk”!


Clearly, doing this was not a good idea. Artificially drawn new borders, especially for countries that have existed for thousands of years, are always so. However, the disillusioned Middle East, at that point, didn’t have any choice but to comply with the Sykes-Picot Agreement.


Saddam Hussein

These new borders forced people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to learn how to coexist with each other. That being said, it’s important to remember that these were people with a long history (emphasis on long). They had unresolved conflicts between each other that were older than most civilizations. By ‘they’, I am referring to the old Sunni-Shia conflicts. Areas that earlier had Sunnis in power suddenly had a Shia majority and vice versa. Also, you can’t forget the Kurdish, another ethnic group in the Middle East, who were extremely upset by the new borders, as they no longer retained their old geopolitical region of Kurdistan, making them minorities in all of these new countries.

Bad Luck Kurds

Naturally, in order to maintain the sovereignty of these ‘nations’, dictatorship arose. In Iraq, we saw the rise of Saddam Hussein, who replaced the more liberal leader, Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr, who was forced into retirement by Hussein.

So… Saddam Hussein… How do I even begin to explain how terrible this one man was for Iraq? How about the fact that he undid all the progressive policies that had been put in place by Al-Bakr? Or that he launched a war against Iran that killed 100,000 Iraqis? Or masterminded the controlled genocide of Iraqi Kurds that killed between 50,000 and 180,000 Kurds? Or perhaps the fact that he invaded Kuwait to capture its oil reserves? Or that he crushed a revolt staged by the Shias and the Kurds, killing another 80,000 – 230,000 Iraqis?

Clearly, Saddam Hussein drove Iraq towards the path of violence. However, he did manage to effectively control all the uprisings in the country. Iraq’s madness did not spill out into the international arena under Hussein. Of course, once 9/11 happened, Iraq had no idea what was about to happen.


US Invasion and Aftermath

While the US army was in the country, things were bad, but not hopelessly bad. In the wake of the American storm, however, things got progressively worse.

The new government that was formed was supported and encouraged by the then American cabinet. This newly formed government had a Shiite majority. The country’s leader, Nouri Al-Maliki, was also, for the first time, a conservative Shia Muslim and he made no attempt to appease the Sunni Muslims of Iraq. 

Now is time for a note about the Middle East’s population demographics. Most of Iraq’s population is Shiite, BUT, and this is an important ‘but’,  it was the minority Sunnis that held power for decades because the Middle East, in general, has a Sunni majority. However, for the first time in decades, things changed in Iraq. The Shias were now in power. Keep in mind that Iraq’s neighboring countries, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, have had Shias in power for years. However, because Iraq had previously been ruled by the Sunnis, the three countries had their agendas fragmented.

Source: Channel 4

Source: Channel 4

With the new Shiite government, Iran, Iraq and Syria formed a sort of Shiite power-axis that collectively discriminated against its Sunni population. In Iraq, Sunni discrimination was unprecedented, and the Iraqi Sunnis were frustrated and furious with the new government. Even the peace-loving Sunnis could no longer contain their rage.

middle_east (1)

Shiite power axis


ISIS Rises

ISIS originally began in 1999, led by a Jordanian journalist that formed an insurgent group. It was on the decline though, with the US troops invading the region. However, in 2010, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi became the head of ISIS. He got the group back on its diabolical track and brought Saddam’s military personnel into ISIS. When the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, ISIS joined the fray as a rebel Sunni force against the Shiite Syrian government. Their acts in the war were so horrific that even Al-Qaeda cut all ties from the organization!

Soon after their brutality in Syria, ISIS went on to attack the already weary Iraqi populace. Iraq, exhausted by the number of regime changes and wars, quickly gave up in the face of the superior arms and ammunition of ISIS.

ISIS soon gathered enough resources to create not just a terrorist group, but a terrorist company. ISIS, in addition to its brutality, is very modern and well organized. They are extremely adept at social media as well. More importantly, it is the richest terrorist group in the world.

How did they get to be so rich? Saudi Arabia, an extremely rich neighboring country with a Sunni majority, was terrified of the Shiite power-axis that had formed, which is why there are rumors that ISIS has prospered due to funding received from the Saudi Arabians.

ISIS intends to create an Islamic Caliphate, as was the situation in the Middle Ages. What they fail to acknowledge is that the Caliphate of old was highly receptive to arts, education and enlightenment in general. What ISIS plans on doing is nothing like that. Its atrocities are carefully planned according to its political motives, and are not an idealistic religious campaign as it claims to be. In fact, the ones most affected by the cruelty of ISIS are Muslims themselves, as this short video proves.

The point remains that ISIS is a political organization that arose from the embers of international and ethnic conflicts. However, our perception of ISIS should not cloud our view of Islam or Muslims in general. If it does, then ISIS has already won the battle by increasing hatred throughout the world. My wishes and sympathies lie with all the victims of these conflicts and hope they find peace and happiness.


  1. Vice News
  2. Wait But Why
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About the Author:

Vaishnavi has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology/Anthropology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai (India) and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Global Studies (whatever that is) from Humboldt University, Berlin (Germany). She loves to read and to sing, especially to avoid awkward situations. She claims she has learned a lot through traveling but she still ends up pulling a door marked ‘Push’, so the jury is still out on that one.

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