Facing America’s Boogeyman: ISIS and Islam, a guide for people who wonder

ISIS is the new boogeyman of our times.  Rarely does a day go by without some news story linking some horrible event in the world back to ISIS, often whether there is an actual link or not.  If the media truly can’t find a story to link to ISIS, they speculate instead on why ISIS is so quiet.  This spreads a sense of panic throughout the population as people collectively wait for the hammer to drop.  Meanwhile, they take it out on those around them.  This scapegoating catches all Muslims, young and old, and it’s become so bad that Arab nations have warned their people not to travel to America wearing traditional Arab garb.   Islamaphobia is on the rise, and  hate crimes against Muslims in the US have tripled.  The current presidential election has pushed this even further, and it’s reaching a breaking point.  People are dying.  Kids are being beaten half to death while being called terrorists.  Shooting at churches because you don’t share their beliefs is the very definition of Unamerican.  This is not okay.  I, for one, can no longer remain silent.  I want to be clear, I loathe ISIS, I am not defending ISIS.  I am, however, defending the innocent Muslims who hate ISIS even more than we do.

Me too, Yoda, me too.

Star Wars has taught us that this hate largely stems from fear and anger.  Much of the recent anti-Muslim sentiment comes from the actions of Al-Qaeda and more recently ISIS.  They have become America’s boogeyman, but like the boogeyman, as you come to understand it, the fear goes away.  The greatest weapon against fear is understanding.


The holy flames around him show this is Muhammad, but all other identifying features are removed.

Islam was founded in the Middle East by a prophet named Muhammad who traced his prophetic ‘lineage’ to both Jesus and Abraham of the New Testament.  The newly founded Islam shared many of the basic beliefs of Judaism and Christianity.  One of its distinguishing features was an emphasis on pure monotheism.  That means, among other things, that Muslims believe Jesus was not the son of God, but a Prophet like Muhammad and Abraham.  It also means that they don’t revere any sort of idols, spirits, or saints.  Only God was to be worshiped.  This is, incidentally, why images of Muhammad, Jesus, and Allah are forbidden in Islam.  Muslims believe that to be a form of idolatry.  Where you do see images of Muhammad, identifying features are removed.  Christians themselves suffered the same anxieties early in the formation of the religion, leading to several ecumenical councils to resolve the conflicts and unite the church.  Islam believes that they share a God with Jews and Christians, and  respect the teachings of Abraham and Jesus.  We have more in common with Islam than not.

Now, fast forward to the 20th century.  The Ottoman Empire stood


The Ottoman Empire’s reach before World War 1 destroyed it.

as a powerhouse in the region since 1299, and managed to mostly fend off western powers seeking to conquer the Middle East (With a few notable exceptions.) Most of the major colonizers did not care to push too hard, as the area was seen as largely worthless desert and the Ottomans made it more trouble than it was worth.  At the end of World War I, however, the Ottoman Empire fell.  When Allied forces took it apart, failed to consider the ethnic diversity of the areas.  It was far too large for that.  Instead, Britain and France signed a secret treaty with Russia (The Sykes-Picot agreement)  dividing the Middle East between them based on their own interests.


This effectively removed any self government among locals as the French, British, and Russians played a game of “Whose (territory) is bigger?”   If you think I’m just making these connections up, ISIS fighters have said it themselves.  These people know their history, and they are angry about it.

Over the next few decades, Arab control over their countries dwindled.  This was partially borne out by the actions of Western rulers, who treated the countries like their own private resorts.  In 1906, Iran had experienced a constitutional revolution, and installed the new Pahlavi government government which was popular with Iranians and the west.  In 1953, the United States overthrew it.  Iran was a major tourist destination, but westerners were not subject to Iranian law, leading to several high profile cases where Westerners literally got away with murder.  That’s right, for decades, America, Britain, and Russia ran


A photo op at the Tehran conference.  Notice anyone missing?  Iranians sure did.

roughshod over the Middle East–and it infuriated the population.  Populations in the Middle East starved while western countries became rich off their oil.  For example, the 1943  the Tehran Conference between Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill was held in the Soviet Union’s embassy in Tehran.  The problem?  The Shah of Iran was not invited to talks deciding the future of his country.

The Middle East in the 21st Century

This sets the stage for the 21st century, when ISIS formed.  Most westerners think that this is where we step in to the story.  To most, September 11, 2001 was the opening salvo of a war between Islam and the west.  Not true.  From the eastern point of view, the war had been going on for decades, and they were losing.  For 50 years western countries treated the Middle East as their personal piggy banks.  This lead many Muslims to believe Jews and Christians were out to destroy Islam, giving many of these colonialist struggles a religious bent.

So, imagine how these people felt when US forces invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq, after 9/11.  Americans moved in and toppled Saddam Hussein, disbanded the army, and set up forces in Iraq.  Right or wrong, many Muslims considered this another conquest of Islamic territories by western forces.  Many of the soldiers from Iraq’s army, well trained and armed, went north to join the insurgency lead by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the northern regions of Iraq, along the Syrian border.  They were ruthless, brutal, and efficient.


Al-Qaeda, which had been mostly based out of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan formed an alliance with this group in Iraq.  They saw it as an opportunity to expand their power, which was declining after US forces waged war on them after September 11.  However, the Iraqi group was too brutal, and they lost a great deal of support among the populations as they sought to enforce Islamic fundamentalism to a degree unheard of in the region: smoking, drinking, and TV were forbidden and the rights of women were heavily curtailed.  The US helped drive Al Qaeda out of Iraq with what we call “The surge” in 2006, but the group was not destroyed.  It moved and began to rebuild in Syria.

In Syria, they sought to overthrow Assad, who had once nurtured their network and sought to use it against the United States.  As the emboldened terrorists became more brutal, Al-Qaeda even cut ties with these extremists.  Think about it: They were so vicious that Al-Qaeda thought that they were just too extreme to be allied with them.  It became a theocratic militia that was heavily armed and willing to brutally kill anyone who stepped even slightly out of line with their beliefs.  Shortly thereafter, al-Zarqawi is killed in a US strike, and the group becomes known as the Islamic State in Iraq. (ISI)

In 2011,  the Arab Spring protesters spread across the region.  Assad had always been a


If your neighborhood looked like this, wouldn’t you try to take your family somewhere safer?

heavy handed dictator, but torturing a group of young students who painted some anti-government graffiti sparked massive protests spread throughout the country.  Climate change leading to failed crops also likely contributed to the tensions.  Assad’s crack down created rebels and sparked a civil war, which led to destruction like this image, and the flood of Syrian refugees fleeing the destruction of their country.  Assad took it even further when he intentionally radicalized the rebels by releasing Jihadist prisoners to prevent western countries from coming to their aid to overthrow him.  The Syrian Rebels and ISI join forces, forming the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or as the Arabs themselves know them: Daesh.  These groups turn away from Assad and launch strikes into Iraq, defeating the weakened army and allowed them to take control of a large portion of Iraq within days.  This was the heyday for ISIS, but it is now over.  Libya, Russian, and US forces continue to drive them back and weaken them.

Isis’ goal is to resurrect the old Caliphate, which they believe will lead to the Apocalypse.  However, to date they have not managed to land a successful attack on US Soil.  While they have organized horrible attacks in Europe, most of their victims are the Muslims that ISIS perceived as “not Muslim enough.”  Here is the UN report on where most of ISIS’ casualties lie.  According to the Global Terrorism Index, only 2.6% of terrorism victims worldwide are in the west.  That number includes 9/11.

 But now, ISIS is declining, becoming increasingly fractured, and losing power fast.  isis20mapISIS has gone from a massive, militarized force conquering cities and holding huge portions of countries while promising world domination, to a few small pockets with militants who occasionally launch suicide attacks.  “This is definitely the death knell of ISIS’s territoriality as it was once known,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider. “The caliphate as it was is gone. They’re not going to be able to hold anything like the territory they did before.”  They have switched to traditional terrorism in order to try to stay relevant, and occasionally make bold claims, many of which are unsubstantiated.  For example, today ISIS claimed to have shot down a US war plane, but that was quickly dismissed by the Pentagon.  Which makes sense, when you consider that the US isn’t currently fly missions over Syria due to the recent coup attempt in Turkey closing our main base in the region.

While ISIS is a horrible, evil, vile organization that should be cleansed from the earth, it is not a phenomenon that Americans need to live in fear of or drastically change policies over.  We also shouldn’t seek to ascribe every bad thing that happens stateside to ISIS, as the Media tends to, nor to blame all Muslims for what ISIS is doing.  They are even more the victims than we are.  While some pledging allegiance to ISIS have attempted terror attacks, these are called “lone wolf” attacks.  They are largely amateurish, no more damaging than what Americans are doing to themselves every day, a635837782338429979324976173_muslims-vs-terroristsnd nothing on the scale of what ISIS does to Muslims in the Middle East every day.

We need to understand that ISIS doesn’t represent all Muslims anymore than Westboro Baptist Church represents all Christians.  Every religious and social movement has it’s extremists, and ISIS is an example of Muslim extremism.  They’re just loud, annoying extremists that tend to get a whole lot of attention, which encourages them to be louder and more annoying.  And you see where this is going.

This is only scratching the surface of the elements that brought ISIS into the world.  There is so much more, among other things the various sects of Islam and the jockeying between them, the political responses of each, but to go into all that would take far more than a short blog post.  If it is something you are interested in, I highly recommend Reza Aslan’s book No God But God.  He does a far better job of explaining this incredibly complex topic.