Who is ISIS? A Cultural and Historical Perspective

An Interivew with Professor Mark Berkson, Ph.D.

Who is ISIS? What are their doctrines, beliefs and cultural impact? On this episode of The Torch we examine the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—the militant group more commonly known as ISIS.

Join Mark Berkson Ph.D., professor of religion at Hamline University, as he discusses why ISIS calls itself a caliphate; their source of their wealth and power; whether their goal of a pan-Islamic state is achievable, and what the global community can do to prevent ISIS from gaining more power.

The following transcript has been edited slightly for readability.

Who is ISIS?

The Great Courses: The militant organization ISIS, is grabbing front page headlines and disrupting the global landscape, spreading their brand of brutality and political unrest through the Middle East and perhaps beyond.

Their recent rise to prominence and influence raises many questions. Where did ISIS originate? Who supports them? What are their ideological goals, and are they obtainable? What, if anything, can the global community do about them?

To gain some perspective and insights into ISIS, I spoke to The Great Courses Professor Mark Berkson, his course Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know is an appreciation of what is powerful and compelling about world faiths, while at the same time critically examining the tensions and blind spots within a religious tradition. His is a unique cultural perspective on the dogmatic terrorist group ISIS.

Learn More: Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know

The Great Courses: Mark, tell me who is ISIS?

Mark Berkson: First of all, there’s a lot of different names by which they’re referred. ISIS, if you use that term, and I’m happy to do that, the New York Times still goes with that, as do a number of other organizations; stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and some would brand them, of course, including the United States along with the United Nations and other countries, a terrorist organization.

However, at the same time, clearly some of their behavior would indicate that that is exactly what they are.

The Great Courses: Yes. Videos of beheadings classify as terrorist.

Mark Berkson: Yes. The brutality is remarkable even by militant standards. Beheadings, executions, amputations, they really are striking terror into large numbers of people. Many refugees are just fleeing rather than facing that.

At the same time, the reason why I think maybe we don’t want to just say a terrorist organization, is because they really are functioning as a quasi-state. They actually are, they do have an army.

In effect, their threat is different than say a group that has scattered terrorist cells that are trying to plan single events somewhere. They actually now control territory and have a great amount of wealth.

ISIS is functioning as a quasi-state, their threat is different than scattered terrorist cells. Click To Tweet

In terms of the name, we can say ISIS, another name by which they’re referred is ISIL, which is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is a term referring to the territory in the Eastern Mediterranean. This includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and in some cases can refer even to Egypt and Turkey.

Image of Middle East under the magnifying glass for the Who is ISIS? podcast

Why that’s significant is it indicates a bit about their ambitions. They sometimes have also referred to themselves as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, which is the classical Arabic way to refer to Syria.

These terms say that while the territory they’re focusing on now is in Iraq and Syria, they plan to move beyond that. They actually recently have dropped all references to particular territory and want to be known just as the Islamic State, and even beyond that, actually now claim to be a caliphate, with authority over Muslims around the world.

Learn More: Muhammad, Qur’an, and Islamic Civilization

Al Qaeda Separatists NOT an Islamic State

Many leading authorities in Islam have argued that we should not use the term Islamic State. In fact, they have proposed another term to refer to them, which is simply call them Al Qaeda separatists in Iraq and Syria. QSIS.

Others yet call them, a term that comes from the history of Islam, it’s called a Kharijite, Kharijite heretics. This was a group going all the way back to the late 7th century, which assassinate the fourth Caliph who was the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammad, and they were one of the first, I suppose you could consider them, extremist militant groups.

They don’t want to give them the authority that’s inherent in that term, Islamic State and think they’re really just extremist terrorist separatists.

The Great Courses: You mentioned Al Qaeda. What is their relationship to Al Qaeda?

Mark Berkson: The group known as Islamic State now, started off as Al Qaeda in Iraq. They actually took part in the Iraqi insurgency against the US, starting early in the Iraq war under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

He was killed in an airstrike, but the organization continued, which actually showed it was well-organized enough to persist after the death of its leader. They then changed their name to the Islamic State of Iraq, although they were originally tied with Al Qaeda.

I believe, the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, cut ties with ISIS after he was rejected as an authority by al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi is now the leader of the Islamic State and the self-proclaimed Caliph. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is his name. He, in effect, rejected Zawahiri’s authority. Zawahiri was trying to heal a rift among a number of militant groups including the al-Nusrah front.

The leader of Al Qaeda cut ties with ISIS. Click To Tweet

ISIS was really known for being uncompromising and being actually so extreme and so brutal that even other militant groups were rejecting them because they were alienating the populations that other Muslim Islamic groups they needed to attract.

They were attacking all Shiites and Christians and many ordinary Iraqis and Syrians were outraged.

Image of Silhouette of several muslim militants with rifles

Public Support?

The Great Courses: Aside from their military success, do they have public support?

Mark Berkson: That’s complicated. I think overall if you look at the number of refugees, the number of people who have fled, the number of people who oppose them, overall they represent only a very, very tiny minority, of course, of the Muslim world, but even of the more militant Islamist world.

You might say, no, they do not have popular support. At the same time, there are some people who say look, it was so bad before, particularly in Syria with the breakdown of order, civil war, crime, and then of course Assad’s forces who had their own forms of brutality, that ISIS has reestablished order and is actually providing some key services.

Map of the middle-east region of Syria

In a way, it parallels what happened with the Taliban. After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan and the war lords were all fighting each other, people originally said we may not love these guys, but at least they’re providing some order here.

Then of course once it was revealed how brutal they were, then people turned against them. I think this is continuing to happen. Right now, for instance, they can provide electricity because they control dams.

They maintain roads, they control traffic. On the one hand you have the order, on the other you have oppression of women, these incredibly puritanical laws, you have amputations, you have beheadings. All of that.

I wouldn’t call it popular support. My personal opinion. You do have some people who say that they’re providing at lease, some civil and legal and political authority.

They’re also very wealthy, by the way, compared to every other terrorist group in history because they control oil fields, factories, power plants.

Their sale of oil, some estimates bringing in over $2 million a day. A lot of it’s smuggled. They actually are known for smuggling oil and other gang activities. They make money from kidnappings and from extortion.

One analyst called them the Taliban with oil wells and the wealthiest terrorist organization ever known. This actually poses a problem for countries that are trying to deal with them, because their finances come largely locally.

Other terrorist group were supplied with funds by supporters in different parts of the world, which allows certain kind of economic sanctions and intervention with banking.

ISIS finances come largely locally so economic sanctions and banking intervention don't work. Click To Tweet

The Great Courses: Right. You can lock it down.

Mark Berkson: If you’re making all your money locally, it’s much harder to get at that. They also of course seize weaponry from Iraqi and Syrian forces. Now they’re also very well armed.

The Great Courses: You spoke about the name being important because it adds legitimacy. Can you talk a little bit about the context of where their power comes from? Is there a religious or cultural context from which they can rise?

Mark Berkson: There’s a couple ways to get at that. One is to ask why it is that they’re using this term Caliphate. What is the resonance with that?

They really do believe that if they use that term and establish themselves as a caliphate, Muslims will come from all over the world to join them. In fact, there are.

They’ve been very successful at recruiting foreign fighters, which we can talk about later. Maybe it might help if I talk briefly about what that means, this idea of a caliphate.

The Great Courses: Yes, please.

What is a Caliphate?

Mark Berkson: After the death of the prophet Mohammad, they needed to find a leader that would succeed him. This would not be another prophet or messenger.

Learn More: Muhammad—Prophet and Statesman

Mohammad is considered by Muslims, to be the last of the prophets, the seal of the prophets. What you needed was a leader who would be what they called the defender of the believers or the defender of the faithful, the Amir al-Mu’minin.

Calipha means successor. We call them a Caliph. After Mohammad, here was a succession of Caliphs, initially four, considered the rightly guided Caliphs, and then after them two great Caliphates, two empires, in a sense. It’s interesting to note what their capitals are. The first, the Umayyad Caliphate, which lasted from about 661 to 750 was centered in Damascus.

You have this presence in Syria, and then of the Abbasid Caliphate, which began in 750, lasted all the way into the 16th century, had its capital in Baghdad. Iraq and Syria were the two places where these great early Caliphates existed. In fact, one of the greatest of the Abbasid Caliphs, Harun al-Rashid, briefly relocated his capital to Raqqa in Syria where the Islamic State now has its capital.

After that, the last Caliphate was the Ottomans. That ended in the early 20th century, but the key thing about that is, this existed prior to the modern nation state, and particularly the borders that were drawn in the 20th century, and these borders were in the Middle East, for instance, so they were drawn by European powers, like the British and the French.

What the leaders of a lot of the Islamic groups say, including the leaders of ISIS, is we reject those borders. We reject this idea of the divided nation states. What they’re trying to do is appeal not to nationalism, not to save Arab pride, not to any ethnic principle, but to pan-Islamism and the notion is that’s what made us strong.

There’s a sense of responding to these humiliations, these oppressions during the colonial period when the vast majority of the Muslim world was either occupied directly or controlled by European powers.

The idea now is we’re going to return to our strength. Al-Baghdadi has kind of used that language. He said something to the effect of we’re going to restore our might, our pride, our rights as Muslims. That’s the sense that they’re trying to appeal beyond anything divisive to a pan-Islamic identity.

Of course, the reality is they’re incredibly divisive, rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims, even other Islamist groups. That’s what they are aiming to do. Another irony is what made these earlier Caliphates great, especially the Abbasid Caliphate, was the fact that they were one of the more tolerant and open societies in the world at that time.

Early Caliphates were great, because they were tolerant, open societies. Click To Tweet

They welcomed people from all over the world, Muslims and Jews and Christians into Baghdad. They had what was called the house of wisdom, which was a place where these great leaders all came together to advance science, mathematics, astronomy, physics.

Some people believed that that was the precursor to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the scientific method, the great works of philosophy were all preserved there. ISIS is using this language and appealing back, in fact, to the Abbasid Caliphate, and yet their whole approach, their whole ideology is the antithesis of what that stood for.

Learn More: Unity in Islam—The Five Pillars

Tremendous Opposition

The Great Courses: Does that speak to ISIS’s goal, a pan-Islamic state, and if so, is that achievable?

Mark Berkson: We could hope not, and personally I think it would be almost impossible for them, given they’re opposed by not just the Western powers, Europe and the United States, but every Muslim country in the world. They of course would like to, they aspire to expand to beyond Iraq and Syria ultimately.

Scholars have written that the prize for them ultimately would be to take Saudi Arabia and looking to be the keepers of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Given their numbers, yes, they are wealthier and better armed and more powerful than Al Qaeda or other groups before them.

For them to face the kind of alliance that they’re now facing, if you look at the organizations that have denounced them, the organization of Islamic Cooperation representing 57 countries, the Arab League, denounced them as committing crimes against humanity.

The organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League, denounce ISIS. Click To Tweet

The top clerics, the grand muftis in Egypt and Saudi Arabia who have a great authority in the Muslim world have strongly denounced them. in the rest of the world they would face tremendous opposition. Yet, in a place where there’s chaos and disorder, that’s why they’ve been successful in Iraq and Syria, they were able to move in and fill a void.

That’s why they’ve been successful there. It would be difficult to imagine that they would have that kind of success moving into Saudi Arabia, for instance.

The Great Courses: The president is laying out a strategic plan to combat ISIS. What do you think is going to be the most effective approach that the United States and maybe the global community can take in combating their influence?

Mark Berkson: First of all, one of the biggest problems that we face is that if we don’t want to put American troops on the ground there in any significant number. You are going to have to have people that are going to be on the ground.

We are going to use air strikes. We’ve used air strikes in Iraq. There are still going to need to be ground troops and that’s going to have to come from Iraqi’s and Syrians.

Perhaps, I think we would like help from other Muslim countries, but right now it’s going to be Syrians and Iraqis, and the question is which groups do we work with there? There is talk of setting aside money, to support vetted moderate opposition groups in Syria like the Free Syrian Army.

Some however say that the most effective groups to oppose ISIS are other Islamist groups, and in some cases other militant groups have had the most success. One of the big questions the United States is going to have to ask is do we support them in some way?

Some say the most effective groups to oppose ISIS are other Islamist groups. Click To Tweet

Iran has a strong interest given the fact that ISIS believes that Shiite Muslims are heretics and they have targeted Shia communities. Iran opposed ISIS and Saudi Arabia does so that’s even brought together two oppositional forces of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

One thing to do, of course, is to get together this coalition that’s going to include all these groups, some of whom have been enemies of each other.

We’ve got a 10 nation coalition, Obama announced at a NATO summit in Wales, of Western nations, the United States and Britain and Australia and France and others, and Turkey’s part of that. Turkey can be a very important part too. The United States will provide money, we’ll provide intelligence, we’ll provide air strikes, but we’re going to have to figure out who to ally ourselves with on the ground.

There’s going to be Sunni groups in Iraq that are going to have to be welcomed in to a coalition in Iraq. One of the reasons ISIS has gotten strong is because disillusioned Sunnis in Iraq have been attracted to them because they haven’t felt part of the Iraqi government. That may change now with the new Iraqi government. All of that is going to be on the military side.

Iran and Saudi Arabia both oppose ISIS. Click To Tweet

That’s an important part of the strategy. Another thing that’s really important though, is to limit the recruitment of foreign fighters. There’s a lot of elements to that strategy, but ISIS has been incredibly successful at using social media. They’ve used Twitter and Facebook and YouTube. They’ve made very technologically advanced videos.

Now a number of western nations have announced a strategy to combat that, to make sure that the content on the web gets pulled down and a counter narrative be released. Moderate voices need to be heard.

Britain for example, a whole group of British imams have issued fatwas with against ISIS, calling them a heretical extremist organization. The potential foreign fighters need to be identified before they leave. Some of them have been arrested in airplanes or on airports ready to go join them, or if they’re already there, identified before they return before they can do damage back here.

One of the fears is now that ISIS has recruited hundreds of Europeans and dozens, perhaps, of Americans, that these people now, some of them can come back and commit terrorist attacks here. The threat has to be looked at in terms of what ISIS is doing abroad, but also the potential for them to become another safe haven and training ground for terrorists like Afghanistan was under the Taliban.

The Great Courses: I think sometimes there’s a tendency in the West to not understand why the Middle East can’t find a peaceful equilibrium. From your perspective, how can this play out and can the Middle East ever achieve a peaceful equilibrium?

Mark Berkson: That’s a very large question.

The Great Courses: I know. I know I’m asking you to put on your soothsayer hat here, but it’s such a quagmire and has been such for such a long time. ISIS has seemed to come out of nowhere to the average American. What can we do to get to the place where I think the Western countries want, and that is a peace and acceptance among nations in the Middle East.

Mark Berkson: It is helpful to look at history here, because some people when they look at the Middle East or they look at Islam and they’re like why are things so bad now? Is it something about that part of the world? Is it something about that religion?

Learn More: Forms of Islam—Diversity among Muslims

I really hope people take a larger historical perspective and say this phenomenon in terms of the bloodshed and the militant organizations, it has a history and it’s a fairly recent history. Much of this is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon.

I’m not saying that the earlier history was perfect by any means, but if you look at the periods that I was talking about earlier, we see that some of the greatest cities in the world, some of the greatest civilizations, some of the most enlightened groups were Muslim Caliphates. Far ahead of where Europe was for centuries.

There’s nothing inherent in Islam or in the Arab Middle East or anything that would say somehow it has to be this way. In one sense, looking back could be a guidance to looking forward. Here’s the thing. The difference was that back then they were in a position of strength. I think after World War I, World War II, and a period of colonialism and imperialism.

Map of Middle East And West AsiaSo we’re talking about now going back to the 18th centuries, 19th centuries, that left not only psychological scars, but it also carved up the map in a way that has been really problematic because these nation states, often times didn’t take into account a lot of factors, everything from religious and tribal affiliations and things like that, historical grievances.

A lot of the problem was created by border drawing, and then by the support by autocrats who would be favorable to European countries and the United States, I think oil has played a big role.

You think what a great find. It created wealth. It’s also created a huge number of problems. For me, of course, and I come from my own perspective here, but the Arab spring showed promise. If you looked at the demographics in the Middle East, there are so many young people who are plugged in globally. They’ve got the social media and the internet. The same time that militants can use this stuff, it also has the potential to really fuel this passion for democracy, for a more progressive vision. There are many young people who have that there.

If we can support that and see the potential for creating the basis for at least some form of democracy, and it may not look like ours, that’s the other thing, is that we have to accept the fact that in some countries in the Middle East, if a democratic election is held, there might be an Islamic candidate that will win and we have to learn to live with that. The hope is that this will be a vision that is compatible with ours in terms of many of the values we share.

You don’t have to agree on everything to be able to work cooperatively together. We do this with many countries of the world. There’s no reason we can’t do it there. I think this is going to be a long term project, of course.

Did anything think that the Soviet Union would fall as quickly as it did, that the Berlin wall would fall and that Germany would be reunited? I want to keep some degree of hope alive for this project, because it’s essential.

One other thing and I know this complicates things a bit, but if we can address the Israel Palestine conflict in a productive way and now that there’s some degree of calm after this horrible Israel Gaza conflict, that would actually, I think, take a lot of the fuel away, at least from the propaganda that’s used. That’s another way I think that we can look towards perhaps creating a more peaceful Middle East.

The Great Courses: All right. We continue to watch with extreme interest. Thank you very much for your perspective today, Mark.

Mark Berkson: Thanks a lot. Appreciate it.

From the Lecture Series: Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know
Taught by Professor Mark Berkson, Ph.D.