Section I: The Islamic State and the Events that Have Brought Us to this Point

Read the introduction to the full document.

For centuries, the Middle East has been an intersection of many different religions, ethnicities and cultures, set at a crossroads of competing empires.  Predominantly Muslim since the time of the Prophet, more than thirteen centuries ago, it has always had significant religious minorities: Christians, Jews, and various other smaller religious groups such as Druze, Yazidies and Zoroastrians.

The United States started out the 20th Century with a relatively minor involvement in the Middle East. At the conclusion of WWI, major European colonial powers sought to take control of lands previously ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Woodrow Wilson made an early affirmation of a vision of self determination in the region. However, our government soon endorsed decisions made at Versailles to hand over large tracts of lands formerly part of the Ottoman Empire to the British and the French as mandates, actions seen by many Arabs as betrayal. [1] The Zionist vision, newly emerging in Europe, brought new challenges to the region. The forcible take-over of more than 500 Palestinian villages as the state of Israel was founded in 1948 brought about resentment among dispossessed Arab Palestinians and throughout the region, becoming a turning point in Arab relations with the West. Since the end of WWII, the region was caught up in the struggle between West and East in the Cold War. To add further complexity, the discovery of oil in the Middle East in the early part of the 20th century provided a significant new economic allure. 

Inhabitants of the region have had their share of internal conflicts, as the region’s rich ethnic mosaic and religious plurality have spawned regional disputes. The second half of the 20th Century saw all of these conflicts played out with increasing ferocity, fueled by continuing diplomatic and military intervention by the major world powers. In that process, the United States played an increasingly central role.  Some examples of this, focusing particularly on our country’s role in escalating the level of militarization of the conflicts, are provided in an endnote below. [2]

Turning more specifically to the emergence of the Islamic State, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and ensuing fighting against invading forces as well as among local factions were important factors in helping create conditions for the birth of Al-Qaida in Iraq, many of whose supporters later separated from that organization to form the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). In spite of a relentless and often brutal crackdown by US forces on militants in Iraq, this organization was able to gain a significant following in that country.

In March, 2011, winds of the Arab Spring blew through Syria and a popular uprising against the Assad government brought thousands of Syrians to the streets of Damascus and other cities. The Syrian Islamists among the demonstrators were quickly joined by militants from several other counties, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern and European countries. Eventually, as many as 2,000 Islamist groups emerged and joined in the conflict in Syria, thus hijacking what had started out as a popular, nonviolent protest by Syrians.

The conflict in Syria has been aptly described as a proxy war. Populations longing for democratic societies sought to rise up against a totalitarian regime. Those seeking a secular, modern-style society struggled against supporters of an Islamic state. The US found itself opposing Russia (i.e. the Cold War continues). Ancient religious differences were inflamed, pitting Sunni against Shi’a Islam and exacerbating conflicts within each of these major groupings.

On April 8, 2013, the leader of Al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (who himself had been imprisoned and possibly tortured by US forces at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq) announced the formation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Not long after Al-Baghdadi extended his campaign from Iraq into Syria, he succeeded in persuading a number of the militant groups in Syria to join ISIS, defeating other groups that opposed his leadership. Within a few months, ISIS emerged as the largest and strongest of the militant groups in Syria and Iraq; in a swift campaign, they gained control of sizable swaths of territory in Syria and western Iraq.

On June 29, 2014, ISIS announced the establishment of a worldwide caliphate, the "Islamic State" (IS). [3] Al-Baghdadi was named its Caliph and given the title "Caliph Ibrahim". A week later, Al-Baghdadi gave a speech at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, declaring himself the world leader of all Muslims and calling on Muslims everywhere to support him. Subsequently, radical groups in Libya, Nigeria, Egypt, and Algeria have pledged allegiance to IS, which now claims affiliates in other parts of the Middle East, North and West Africa, South, and Southeast Asia.

It is noteworthy that across the Muslim world, a great majority of Muslim scholars and religious leaders quickly deemed the Islamic State and its leader illegitimate, rejecting its tactics and ideology. [4]

Assigning all the blame for the rise of IS to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq or the Obama Administration’s policies toward Syria would be a simplistic assessment of current geopolitical dynamics in the world and the Middle East. Yet it is clear that US intervention, especially as the strongest military power in the world and a major supplier of weapons and military support to participants in the conflict, has played a major role in the geopolitical dynamics of the region. Through its selective interventions, the US government has given new significance to long-standing differences. In selecting “winners” in an environment of rapidly-changing alliances, underpinning its choices with diplomatic support backed by weapons and military engagement, it reinforced the idea that violence and overwhelming force are the most normal and effective way of addressing conflicts. 

Today, we find a situation with a multiplicity of competing groups, each feeling they must arm themselves and fight for their own existence, even seeking dominance, in order to keep from being swallowed up by others. The Islamic State has established itself as the most brutal and uncompromising among those competing groups. But the main other competing groups have been equally clear that, given the chance, they will seek total dominance in areas they control. It is an environment where seeking resolution through the force of arms is accepted as the default setting. But that approach has no hope for outcomes that respects the rights of all to live together in peace.

Read the next section of this document: What, then, is the Church in the United States to do? 


[1] See Ezer Manela, “The Wilsonian Moment and the Rise of Anticolonial Nationalism: The Case of Egypt,” in Diplomacy and Statecraft, Vol 12 No. 4 (Dec, 2001), pp. 99-122.

[2] Among the examples of on-going US military and diplomatic engagement in the region over the past century are the following:             

  • In 1953, the US government (CIA) and British counterparts masterminded the violent overthrow of the freely elected government of Iran, establishing in its place a government under the control of one of the factions there that was more favorable to our interests. 
  • Decades later, the policy of “shock and awe” was designed to demonstrate overwhelming military might as a means of instilling fear and subduing opposition, at the onset of the second Gulf War.  Again, the aftermath of that conflict was a government which was dominated by one particular interpretation of Islam and which we expected would serve our interests there.
  • In the course of the on-going conflict, prisons were established by the US military, using the harshest of techniques to “extract information” from those incarcerated (our leaders now recognize some of those practices as torture).
  • The use of drones, ostensibly for targeted killing but in practice with imperfect targeting and inevitable “collateral damage,” spreads anger and terror, becoming a powerful recruitment tool for extremist groups.
  • Our government continues to supply a generous flow of weapons to countries we have chosen to support, many of which have appalling human rights records.
  • Military supplies which we have provided to one group have often found their way into hands of those currently opposed to US interests, as recipients “changed sides” or as weapons are captured in the course of conflict.

For a fuller exposition of the role of the United States in this unfolding drama, see the article by Ambassador Charles W.  Freeman, “Responding to Failure: Reorganizing U. S. Policies in the Middle East,” Middle East Policy Council, March 10, 2015. A recent article in Christian Century, presenting an interview with Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and the Middle East, provides very helpful additional perspectives.

[3] One can follow the evolution here:  from ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) to ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) to IS (simply, The Islamic State, claiming to have world-wide scope).  Many people, particularly in the Arab world and in Europe, have objected to using the term IS, implying as it might the acceptance of the group’s claim to legitimacy and world-wide scope.  Instead, some have referred to the group as “Daesh”, an acronym based on the Arabic name, the Islamic State in Iraq and “el Sham” (which could be translated as “Syria” – i.e. ISIS – or as “the Levant – i.e. ISIL).  Daesh, then, is the Arabic equivalent of ISIS, but does not reflect the latest claim by its leaders to be simply IS (i.e. the Islamic State, for the whole Muslim world).  Critics assert that the group is neither authentically Islamic nor fully a State, much less one that represents all Muslims in the world.

[4] See, for example, Michelle Leung and Ellie Sandmeyer, “Muslim Leaders have Roundly Denounced Islamic State,” in Media Matters, Aug. 21, 2014. This posting lists 6 major Islamic organizations as well as a number of major Muslim leaders who have condemned the Islamic State.