The Islamic State: A Break with History

Tewfik argues that the rise of the Islamic State is the result of the obsolesce of the power sharing agreements borne out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. To permanently defeat the Islamic State and bring stability to the Middle East it may be necessary to reinvent the institutions that govern the Fertile Crescent. 

There is nothing “Islamic” about the Islamic State (IS), and I don’t mean that in the patronizing tone used too often by politicians and quasi-intellectuals who are toeing a line of political correctness or trying to garner favor with Middle Eastern moderates. To discuss IS’s “Islamic” heritage, as a form of fundamental excess, indicates that a more moderate form of IS may be Islamic, which is untrue. It also ties the movement to a region (the Middle East) and a religion (Islam) in a way that does not help us understand its existence and allows us to revert to lazy theories that describe the rise of IS as a “clash of civilizations” or Islamic Extremism ad infinitum.

IS exists because the institutions that held together a series of power sharing agreements following the decline of the Ottoman Empire have collapsed. These institutions manifested themselves in borders, the ethnic mixup of governing bodies (Syrian and Iraqi state) and vast security and military apparatuses. Some of these institutions collapsed due to exogenous reasons (the US invasion of Iraq in 2003) and others due to endogenous ones (the Syrian “Spring” of 2011 and the policies of the Maliki government). Each event set off a series of centrifugal forces that dismembered the region and left behind a void that violent groups such as IS sought to fill. In this regard IS’s “Islamic” nature is akin to Kony’s Lord Resistance Army’s “Christian” nature, i.e. not a claim to be considered as anything more than rhetorical.

Thus, the rise of IS can be seen as a logical result of the events of the past decade. It took almost two years of violence of dramatic proportions (including the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Al Assad) before IS began consolidating control on the ground. With a backdrop of immense violence and the unravelling of state institutions it should surprise no one that a group such as IS captured so much territory and popularity.

IS represents a break with the past. Whichever way the campaign against IS plays out, certain tenets of Middle Eastern power sharing agreements will cease to exist. Alawite dominance of Syria and Sunni-Arab dominance of Iraq are vestiges of the past. Several ethno-national groups understand that. The Alawites are carving up their enclave around Latakia, the Kurds are consolidating their hold over territory that encompasses Iraq and part of Syria. Both these groups may end up with their own states (or semi-autonomous enclaves) as the dust settles. In some ways, those are the easy parts of the equation.

The problem lies in the vast swathe of territory between Aleppo and Baghdad. A sustainable power sharing agreement will be hard to come by but is crucial to achieving a lasting peace and to deprive violent groups such as IS the grounds from which they recruit. How that will look like post-IS is difficult to guess, but it seems highly improbable that Syria and Iraq (and even perhaps Jordan and Turkey) will return to what they were pre-IS. Some of the alternatives are frightening. For one thing, what is to become of the smaller ethnic and religious groups (Christians, Druze and Yazidis) as the more dominant groups settle in? Also, how much of the post-IS settlement will be based on ethnic, tribal or religious grounds? And what precedent does that set for the broader region which struggles with ethnic and religious pluralism?

One thing, however, is certain, the institutions and power sharing agreements that preceded IS were unsustainable, they required the threat of immense violence and sowed the seeds for a plethora of violent, genocidal movements. In order to permanently stabilize the Middle East regional actors may need to rethink those agreements. The European path to a stable and prosperous peace included dark periods of genocide and ethnic cleansing. How the Middle East will avoid that is unclear to me but another whack-the-terrorist bombing campaign and a return to the status quo will only accelerate the trajectory to a more bloody future.



By Tewfik Cassis, a student at Harvard Business School. Tewfik has an interest in the global political economy with a particular focus on Middle Eastern politics and conflict resolution and used to be Executive Editor of the MIT International Review. 

Tewfik Cassis, Egypt


Tewfik Cassis received a BSc in Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a graduate of the Cairo American College. He is currently a second year student at Harvard Business School. Most recently, Tewfik served as Head of Business Development for Roominate, an educational toy company based in Palo Alto, aimed at closing the gender gap in STEM fields. Prior to that he worked for McKinsey’s Dubai office focusing on Telecommunications, Marketing and Sales projects. Tewfik was part of the founding team of Romulus Capital, a student-run VC fund. As an undergrad he was an Executive Editor for the MIT International Review. He has an interest in the global political economy with a particular focus on Middle Eastern politics and conflict resolution.

  • Wyatt

    Really interesting take, Tewfik. A couple of thoughts it provokes:

    1. Why do you choose “Islamic State” as your nomenclature, rather than ISIL or ISIS? Interesting take on “what’s in a name” over at NPR on this question: (I have noticed many NPR programs are now terming “so called Islamic State”).

    2. I think an interesting question underlying your essay focuses on what happens in Syria. The Syrian end-state is anyone’s guess at this point, I suppose, but it seems like a power vacuum there spells doom, and vacuum is the alternative to Assad. Assad’s staying power is still in question, sure, but I don’t see him folding up shop, nor do I see the Western airstrikes campaign shifting to target pro-government forces. But if they do? Fertile ground for ISIL, or its progeny.

    Look forward to discussing more with you and others.

  • Wyatt thank you for your questions.

    1. I use Islamic State namely because that is the way the group now calls itself and provides for some degree of clarity amongst all the acronyms that are thrown out there. There is an interesting debate and subtext that goes on about whether calling it the “Islamic State” makes it “Islamic.” I’ve generally chosen to ignore this in the same way the LRA of Uganda is in no way the Lord’s Army but just an acronym used to define a group.

    2. I agree that predicting what will happen in Syria is anyone’s bet. I think what I am trying to do is predict what can not happen in Syria and also be sustainable. I think Assad’s method of rule (sectarian) can’t be reinstated in any long term form without awakening a longer term beast. Some form of power sharing agreement will need to be put in place (ideally it won’t be in the constitution like in Lebanon). Other, more dramatic, institutions, such as borders, might also end up being changed as the realities on the ground change. For one, it doesn’t seem like the Iraqi Kurds will not push for larger autonomy and might even go so far as to annex Syrian Kurdish territory. I have no idea if that is what will occur but these are questions worth asking.

    – Tewfik

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