In an increasingly violent Middle East, where strategic alignments and military alliances are as hard to untangle and comprehend as ever, perhaps the sole remaining point of unification across the region is the condemnation of the Islamic State (IS). Since sweeping into public consciousness in mid-2014, the brutality of the group’s actions, in accordance with their strict, Salafist interpretation of Islam, may have served to draw in thousands of Muslims with similarly unpleasant doctrinal views, but has also led to rapid censure from Riyadh to Tehran, Baghdad to Cairo, Damascus to Ankara.
Decrying its harsh actions, which IS insist are condoned by God, many, if not most Muslims insist that IS have fundamentally misinterpreted Islam and its last prophet. Also of note, but perhaps a topic for another day, is the vast number of non-Muslims today who also take up the task of undermining the Islamic State’s theological roots. While their attempts to foster harmony are worthy, their hollow opinions—since that’s often what they boil down to—ought to be taken with a healthy amount of scepticism as many try to conclude what is factual, based solely on what is preferred.
Returning to the Islamic State, it seems that the very actions which have made them infamous, and the unifying horror which they provoke, are one of the few remaining strands holding together the religious fabric of the Middle East. Before talking about that though, we have to go back a few hundred years to 632 AD, when the Prophet Muhammad died and the question of his successor arose. Simplifying drastically, Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father in law, and his descendants are the rightful caliphs (leaders) of the Islamic world, whereas Shia believe that Muhammad’s son in law, Ali and his progeny ought to rule. These Islamic sects have fought wars based on this and other doctrinal disputes over the centuries: an often vicious cycle of fighting which has been rising in the Middle East in the last few decades.
The sectarian aspect of the current ‘civil’ wars in Syria and Yemen, appears to be a major motivation for fighting at all, and other concerns, such as government corruption, poverty, and a lack of opportunities, might just be added incentives for taking up arms. In both cases Iran—the world’s most populous Shia nation—and Saudi Arabia, arguably the world leader of Sunni Islam, are supporting rival groups. In Yemen, the Houthis (Shia) have seized the capital in recent months, while Saudi-backed rebels and the previous government, who sometimes form alliances with Al-Qaeda (Sunni), are fighting back. In Syria, dictator Assad (Shia) is backed by Iran—and Russia, but for different reasons—while ‘moderate’ Sunni rebel groups are encouraged by Saudi Arabia and the United States and its allies. In Iraq, the United States and Iran are essentially aligned—despite backing opposing forces in Syria—since both are supporting Iraq’s predominantly Shia armed forces and militias against the Islamic State (Sunni). If you can follow all those sectarian and geopolitical twists and turns, you’re doing better than most.
Back again to the Islamic State, no state officially endorses it, because while Sunni, the line it has adopted has proven to be too orthodox (as they see it) even for the strict regime in Saudi Arabia. In short, most Sunnis, and all Shia (to generalise) stand against IS. The accident waiting to happen, which many must fear but dare not voice, is that somehow the Islamic State is able to capitalise on the sectarian discord that it has in part helped sow and gain the support of a much wider segment of the Sunni world. To do this, it would have to dial down the severity of its regulations and allow a slightly broader interpretation of Sunni Islam to become its norm. In doing so, the many Muslims who, while denouncing its current brutality but also recognising the significance and attraction of a Sunni caliphate, may end up having less reasons to not support IS. If this were to occur, it is conceivable that the Islamic State would no longer alienate the majority of its Sunni recruitment base, but rather become a better supported player in the increasingly sectarian turmoil in the region.
The only ‘good’ thing about the Islamic State is its viciousness, which many hope will be its undoing. The only thing worse than the group as it currently stands, is an IS that modifies its definition of ‘Muslim’ to include a much larger segment of the world’s Sunnis, capturing the hearts of those who already view the world through sectarian lenses, but are yet to find a means of expressing their sentiments.