The rise of the Islamic State was not as swift and sudden as is it often portrayed. The factors that led to its consolidation have been present for some time. French historian Pierre-Jean Luizard explains in his latest book, Le piège Daech, L’État Islamique où le retour de l’Histoire, that for several years, everything in Iraq seemed to indicate a change in the course of the history and geopolitics of the Middle East.
The military conquests by its militias, however, have been swift and surprising. In January 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s armed men conquered Fallujah, one of the largest cities in the western Iraqi province of al-Anbar; in June it was the turn of Tikrit and then Mosul, a city of two million inhabitants. The next target of conquest, although unsuccessful, was Baghdad, due to the great symbolic value of the city, which in 762 AD became the capital of the Abbasid Empire for three centuries and is now the capital of Iraq’s Shiite government.
According to Luizard, to understand this rapid success, it is important to know the history of modern Iraq, from its birth as a nation-state in 1920-25 up to the American invasion of 2003.
Iraq was afflicted by sectarian conflict between its Sunni minority and Shiite majority for several decades. By taking advantage of the internal conflict and an Iraqi society now in ruins, al-Baghdadi has been able to ride the wave of sectarianism and exploit the resentment of the Sunni minority, who are politically marginalised and victims of Shia abuse. The “Caliph” presented himself as the saviour who has come to free the minority from the Shiite yoke and restore power to local Sunni players. Apparently, at least initially, the Islamic State did not impose itself on the local population as a foreign occupation force, unlike al-Qaida. This “forward-looking” policy, combined with the plan of establishing a State and substantial financial resources (from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE), has proven to be a factor of success.
Therefore, the Islamic State can be viewed as the legacy of decades of sectarian policies and exclusion, for which Iraq and Syria are now paying the price. Although the situation in Iraq has deteriorated since the American invasion in 2003, it can hardly be said that the previous decades were free from the sectarian tendencies that allowed the Islamic State to germinate.
Since its inception, the Iraqi State has asserted itself against the will of the society through confessional and ethnic domination of Sunnis over Shiites (or vice versa, depending on the historical period) and Arabs over Kurds. The proclamation of the new State, in 1920, was greeted with hostility by the Shiite community, which at that time represented 75 percent of the population; a few years later, in 1924, the Shiites were the victims of further abuse: the decision was made to adopt Iraqi nationality and grant it automatically to those who had previously held Ottoman nationality. This excluded the Shiites, who had never been granted Ottoman nationality as they did not recognise the authority of the sultan. A few years later, the authorities decided to resolve the problem by creating two types of Iraqi nationality: “A”, based on Ottoman nationality, and B”, based on Persian nationality. However, not even this decision spared the country from confessional division, as Saddam forced Iraqis of nationality “B” into exile in the 1960s.
This story of abuse and excess was repeated, reaching its peak in the period between 2003 and 2008, when, according to analysts, the ideal conditions were created for the birth of the Islamic State. The first sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites (the second is currently being fought) began a process of social and territorial fragmentation, leading to the sectarian cleansing that has emptied entire districts in Baghdad and other cities of their Sunni citizens (Shiites were marginalised in previous decades and the roles have been now reversed). An overdose of abuse, rising unemployment, particularly among the Sunni tribal militia, which in 2006 had been armed and paid by America to fight al-Qaida in Iraq and which the Shiite government has always refused to integrate into the army, and the corruption of those in power (Nuri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister, secured the support of the tribes in exchange for black market oil profits) have helped to radicalise Sunni society, making it susceptible to the lure of the “Caliph”.
In the light of history, it is not only the “Caliph” that threatens the Iraqi State, just as it was not the militants who triggered the process of destruction of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Rather, “the Islamic State capitalises on its opponents’ weaknesses and thrives on the ruins of crumbling institutions”1, says Luizard. This view is shared by another French historian, Philippe Migaux, who affirms that “the jihadist threat has been able to change its nature over time to exploit the weaknesses of its opponents”2. A study of the process of delegitimisation and decomposition of states that are flawed since their origins can provide a better understanding of the origins of the Caliphate.
1Pierre-Jean Luizard, Le piège Daech, L’État islamique où le retour de l’Histoire, La Découverte, Paris 2015, p. 58
2David Bénichou, Farhad Khosrokhavar, Philippe Migaux, Le jihadisme. Le comprendre pour mieux le combattre, Plon, Paris 2015, p. 29