ISIS wants to make the world in its own image. How the international community reacts to its horrific attacks will determine whether it will succeed. 

ISIS has claimed more than 400 innocent lives in less than a month with attacks beyond Iraq and Syria in Paris and Tunis, a twin suicide bombing in Beirut, and the downing of a Russian jet in Egypt. Many saw in those attacks a civilizational struggle between the values of a liberal western world and a parochial intolerant Islam. Across Europe, calls are increasing for stringent measures restricting fundamental freedoms and eroding personal privacy as more than half US governors declared that their states will not accept Syrian refugees. 

Maha Yahya
Yahya is director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on citizenship, pluralism, and social justice in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.
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Through such responses policymakers are inadvertently dancing to the tune of ISIS that also views the world as divided in two; in their terms the “camp of Islam” and the “camp of the crusader coalition” that also includes Muslims who do not believe in the mission of ISIS. Its bloody attacks are one step in its efforts at eliminating the grey zone between these camps. This grey zone is the cosmopolitanism of Beirut and Paris; the places where the deliberate and accidental encounters between cultures, ethnicities and religions find themselves in music and writing, in scientific discoveries and in architectural feats. 

ISIS did not begin its elimination of this grey zone in Paris or Beirut. It began with a pogrom in Iraq in June 2014, attacking more than two and a half million people of diverse religions and ethnicities that coexisted for centuries. Christians were expelled, the Turkomans and Shiites slaughtered and Yezidi women and children enslaved. 

To justify its actions, ISIS exploiting the broader narrative of Sunni/Shia conflict perpetuated by the regional rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran and the growing sense of injustice and disenfranchisement amongst Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. The bulk of ISIS commanders and supporters are either former Baath army officers, ostracized by the 2003 de-baathification program and dissolution of the Iraqi army or members of Sunni tribes tormented by the governments of Nuri al Maliki. To the IS’s dismay, the Syrian regime’s campaign against Sunnis areas including barrel bombs and population transfers in local ceasefire agreements as happened in Zabadani, perpetuated a refugee crisis rather wholesale support for its agenda. The deliberate linking of the Paris bombings to Syrian refugees though a passport left on the scene, was meant to both punish those who have turned away from the Caliphate and to stifle European support for refugees. 

ISIS is also tapping into a general crisis of citizenship and malaise with dysfunctional Arab governments that are also presenting a dichotomous view of the world as divided into nationalist versus terrorist. Through a vicious and widespread clampdown on all spaces for dissent including arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and stripping citizens of their nationality, evident in Egypt and some Gulf countries for example, these governments are eliminating the middle ground between support for states and patronage of radical organizations. Indeed, it is those experiences of injustice and abuse by authorities, and not poverty, that is driving disenfranchised individuals toward radical extremist ideology similar to that of ISIS.

ISIS is also building on a different crisis of identity and citizenship in Europe, particularly for second and third generation citizens of Arab descent. Many live the sting of discrimination and of structural inequity in work and daily life and are radicalized online rather than in Mosques. In reality, mounting evidence suggests that knowledge of religion is no longer a prerequisite to joining such movements. 

A serious approach to combatting ISIS requires a multifaceted strategy. It needs political consensus building amongst the international and regional players involved in the Syrian conflict, including Turkey, Russia and the US, and to focus more on these underlying causes. While some military operations may be necessary, the focus should be less on the reactive security-first military approach that on its own offers no long-term solution, whatever tactical victories they may achieve. 

Challenging the world view of ISIS begins by openly recognizing that this is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity but a monstrous projection of the tremendous imbalances of our world today. 

In Europe, this means embracing refugees fleeing the very horrors visited by ISIS on Paris last week and addressing the sense of exclusion and alienation, among other factors, that are driving thousands of its own citizens to join ISIS. 

In the Arab region, it means engaging with the root causes for ISIS’s emergence by tackling the political and socio-economic exclusion of Iraqi Sunnis; addressing the complex Syrian conflict without maintaining the presidency; and working to end the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is fueling much of the current strife.

Undermining ISIS’s seemingly fatal attraction to a broader spectrum of Arab youth begins with inclusive governance systems that offer this youth the alternate future demanded by the millions who took to the streets during the uprisings. 

Defeating ISIS and dismantling its allure are a tall but not impossible order. Ending this means mustering the political will and proactively working to end the circumstances fueling it. Otherwise, we will all be dancing to its tune for decades to come.

This article was originally published in Arabic in Al-Hayat.