Academics and Research

Quick Questions: Middle East expert Nader Hashemi on ISIS

Editor’s note: As part of the University of Denver’s focus on serving the public good, faculty members from across the disciplines routinely share their expertise with the community. They answer questions from reporters, host lectures on trending topics and write op-ed columns for local, national and international publications. They also field questions from the University of Denver Magazine via our Quick Questions feature.

Associate Professor Nader Hashemi of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is director of the University’s Center for Middle East Studies. He also is co-editor, along with the center’s Danny Postel, of “The Syria Dilemma” (MIT Press, 2013), which collects a wide range of articles exploring the origins and complexities of the Syrian crisis and analyzing various solutions.

Hashemi will join Josef Korbel School Dean Christopher Hill and Deborah Avant, director of the Korbel School’s Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy, for “The ISIS Crisis,” a panel discussion about what the U.S. should do about the Islamic State. The discussion is scheduled for noon Monday, Sept. 8, in room 150 of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center.


Question: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, seems to have come out of nowhere. Who is ISIS, and what is its relationship to al-Qaeda?

Answer: ISIS emerged after the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is an extremist Sunni Islamic cult that was responsible for many of the attacks against U.S. troops, and later it tried to foment a sectarian war with Iraq’s Shia population. Ideologically, it is cut from the same cloth as al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but organizationally, they are separate groups. This means ISIS is informed by a deeply puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam with roots in Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. Its modus operandi is violent military attacks against anyone who disagrees with their political vision, Muslim or non-Muslim.

It is important to highlight the link between ISIS and the war in Syria. By 2011, ISIS had been militarily and ideologically defeated inside Iraq. It then moved into Syria and was given a new lease on life in the context of Bashar al Assad’s crackdown on the Syrian people, replete with state-sanctioned war crimes and crimes against humanity that were and are borderline genocidal. In other words, ISIS re-emerges and becomes a potent military force in the context of the horrors of the Syrian war. It eventually becomes powerful enough to extend its reach back into Iraq, where it gains some local support due to Sunni grievances against the Shia-led government in Baghdad.


Q: What is ISIS’ ultimate goal?

A: It seeks to establish an “Islamic state” across the Middle East and North Africa. In this sense, they are a deeply utopian organization not unlike what we have seen in the past with other radical revolutionary groups that seek to tear down the established social and political order and rebuild a new one in its place based on a romanticized conception of history.


Q: Is their extremism more likely to stir up fear or to unite the opposition?

A: Both. The brutal nature of their behavior has instilled fear in the populations that they have conquered, especially minority religious and ethnic groups. It has also struck fear throughout the Middle East and in the West as well. The expansion of ISIS across eastern Syria and now northern Iraq has united many countries and groups who previously were pursuing different political interests in the Middle East. For example, in Iraq today, the interests of the United States and Iran are almost perfectly aligned, in the sense that both countries want to defeat ISIS and support the central government in Baghdad.


Q: Is it likely that ISIS would attack Western countries?

A: I suspect that if President Obama begins a military campaign against ISIS targets in Syria, especially against the city of Raqqa, which is their unofficial capital/stronghold, they will try to respond by attacking targets in the West. The murder of the American journalist James Foley took place as a direct result of Obama attacking ISIS in northern Iraq. This is a sign of things to come, and it also gives you an indication that they were very angered by U.S. military action. The key question, however, is: Does ISIS have the capacity to attack the West in a significant way? The answer to this is: no.


Q: Can they be stopped?

A: Yes, they can be stopped and should be stopped. If ISIS is not stopped, they will destabilize the entire Middle East and beyond. One reason why ISIS has expanded and been so successful is because, to date, they have not been faced with any serious military opposition. But it should be emphasized that ISIS cannot be stopped by military power alone. A political plan for democratization and economic reconstruction for Syria and Iraq must be part of a package deal. This means dealing with the ongoing war in Syria by getting back the Geneva II peace process and pressing the new Iraq government of Haider al Abadi to govern more inclusively and responsibly. Fundamentally, what is needed is global leadership from the Obama administration to mobilize the international community to tackle the “ISIS crisis” from a long-term perspective. The roots of this crisis go back many decades, and consequently, there are no short-term, easy fixes or overnight solutions to this problem.

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