Last week, the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) officially declared the establishment of their version of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which has been somewhat ideologically crystallised through the shortening of their name to simply: ‘Islamic State’, or ‘IS’.
In their latest video, IS talks about the area covered by the caliphate, while denouncing the existence of borders and nations, claiming them to be sinful and blasphemous concepts. They vow to liberate all the borders that have been created as a result of decades of Western intervention, most notably of late, the colonial legacy of Sykes-Picot.
"IS has thrived off the civil war in Syria and off political grievances in Iraq"
IS has thrived off the civil war in Syria and off political grievances in Iraq; their ideology is similarly cemented in an environment of maintained instability. In light of this, our understanding of IS brutality and its continued advances towards Iraqi towns and villages needs to be recognised within such a paradigm, and the media has a duty to present the facts as such. The more we read and listen to reports from journalists, the greater insight we develop into this conflict. However, as observers from the outside, we must be careful to realise that the way a conflict is framed is an important part of the media narrative, and we are actually exposed to a specific discourse promulgated by various news outlets that seeks to frame our version of the truth. It is crucial to situate this conflict in its context.
The current situation in Iraq is consistently referred to as a culmination of an ‘entrenched sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias’, which is misleading and inherently incorrect; instead, this misrepresentation has the potential to start a catastrophic, global, sectarian war. This ‘framing’ of the current conflict between the two primary Muslim denominations is a relatively modern phenomenon that has its roots in political grievances rather than Islamic theology and ideology; unfortunately, it has become structured along these fault lines. The virulent ideology that drives IS members is representative of extremist Salafi-jihadism and we must not confuse this by describing the conflict as intrinsically sectarian.
From the 7th century AD, the Islamic empire was firmly established in Iraq, and by the 14th century AD, the Ottoman Empire took control until the early 20th century. During five centuries of Ottoman rule, members of all religions and denominations (including Sunni and Shia Muslims) co-existed without the resentment that we have come to understand as allegedly being conventional and customary. This is not to say that issues of sectarianism weren’t there; rather that they had not become as toxic and politicised as they are today.
Throughout the 20th century, the socio-political narrative of Iraq changed due to a shift in strategic politics in the region as well as within the country itself; the language of nationalism began to weave in and out of the various governments, bringing with it, a language of sectarian discourse. The seeds of this contemporary conflict between Sunnis and Shias were sown during the 1970s when a sentiment of Shia revivalism swept through the region as a cause and an effect of the revolution in 1979. This brought with it counter-narratives that were rooted in highly exclusivist political discourse and nationalist agendas. Over the years, a sense of absolute disillusionment with despotic leadership has been created, and subsequently carved out deep cleavages within society.
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Decades of tyrannical Sunni governance in Iraq served to engrain this ideology, thus we are currently witnessing the fragmented fallout of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish nationalisms that have been sculpted only within the last 35 years.
The 2003 US-led invasion must be mentioned as another key driving force of this crisis; another corrupt (this time, Shia) government was implemented, and the failed neoliberal economic reforms imposed on Iraq only maintained an environment of instability, widening the gap between the rich and the poor, focusing wealth into the hands of the elites. The consequences of this led to widespread unemployment, poverty and even greater disenchantment, creating an ideal situation to recruit individuals to further an alternative political cause, rooted in nationalist agenda.
"Throughout the 20th century, the socio-political narrative of Iraq changed"
IS is a manifestation of a specific strain of ‘nationalism’, a refined form of Salafi-jihadist extremism, propagated under the guise of a ‘true’ Islamic nationalism. This distortion has enabled the press to frame the conflict under the banner of a sectarian war, rather than as extremist. The actions and rhetoric that IS is promoting are no different to that of Boko Haram, Al Shabab, or al Qaeda.
So, this should not be understood as a deep-rooted Sunni-Shia conflict, but instead as extremists perverting and exploiting religious Islamic principles. The threat of Boko Haram has been framed in this way; their unrepentant massacring of fellow Muslims and of anyone else who doesn’t adhere to their doctrine has escaped falling into a discourse of sectarian conflict, but somehow the massacres of IS have not.
For communities of Shia and Sunnis around the world, it is very important for media agencies to situate coverage of conflict within the particular context behind the news that we are digesting.
As such, it is an over-simplification to refer to IS as “Sunni insurgents;” the danger of pursuing this sectarian narrative has not yet resonated amongst Muslims in the West, but should it do so, there could be terrible consequences. Not only is fuelling this framework maintaining exclusivist propaganda of autocratic regimes in the region, it may simultaneously contribute towards feeding IS recruitment of vulnerable individuals who expose themselves to this very one-dimensional, simplistic narrative of the conflict.