Scholars Discuss the Origins, Consequences and Responses to ISIS

Omid Safi discusses the rise of ISIS during a faculty panel discussion Wednesday.
Omid Safi discusses the rise of ISIS during a faculty panel discussion Wednesday.

Tearful refugees landing on European shores. Terror in Paris, San Bernardino, Beirut, Istanbul and Jakarta. Gruesome calls to action and videos of beheadings in Iraq and Syria.

From its financing and recruitment to the catastrophic human rights consequences of its reign of terror, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has commanded global media attention since the “caliphate” was established in June 2014.

But according to four experts who spoke at Duke Wednesday about the growing security and refugee crisis, the fearful rhetoric of the U.S. presidential election and right-wing European politicians misrepresents the political forces that shaped the terror group and leaves little room for a solution.

Professors Omid Safi, Suzanne Shanahan, David Schanzer and David Siegel took part in the discussion, which was moderated by political science professor Abdeslam Maghraoui. The forum, held at the Sanford School of Public Policy, was co-sponsored by the Duke Middle East Studies Center and Campaign Stop 2016.

Schanzer, a public policy professor, traced the origins of the so-called Islamic State not to religion but to political disputes that have plagued the Middle East since the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire broke into independent states.

“ISIS is an outgrowth of political grievances with the order imposed in the Middle East by Western powers after World War I, not to mention decades of U.S. interventionism,” said Schanzer, who is also the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “ISIS is a political ideology wrapped up in religious themes to give it legitimacy and spiritual power over its followers.”

The real danger of ISIS as a political movement, Schanzer said, is its ability to spread across the region, as numerous terror groups in Africa and Central Asia have already aligned themselves with ISIS’s core tenets.

Siegel, a political scientist, argued that ISIS’s primary difference from Middle Eastern terror groups like al-Qaeda is its control of territory across eastern Syria and western Iraq.

“By holding territory, ISIS has put itself in a different category [of terror] altogether,” Siegel said. “This is why cutting off its financing is so difficult. While they sell oil and smuggle antiquities to raise some money, much of its financing comes from its extortion of [Syrians and Iraqis] living in its territory. They levy these heavy taxes and fees and that is very difficult to cut off without removing them from the region.”

In addition to its sophisticated financing mechanisms, ISIS uses social media and flashy recruitment videos to produce a steady stream of radicalized followers, according to Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center.

“When scholars of film analyze ISIS videos, they find that the way the action is cut and pieced together matches the aesthetic of American horror movies,” Safi said. “So we are not dealing with a medieval nightmare but [one that] is distinctly 21st century.”

Safi joined Shanahan, co-director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, in urging the audience to not conflate refugees fleeing ISIS and the Syrian Civil War with terrorists.

“The perception that these refugees are terrorists-in-waiting is undermining our moral and legal obligation to them as human beings,” Shanahan said.

Discussing international refugee law, Shanahan also pointed out that the thousands of Syrians and Iraqis entering Europe -- and the millions in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey -- are asylum-seekers who have the legal right to protection by European and Middle Eastern countries. In the U.S., refugees undergo an extensive screening process by both Homeland Security and the United Nations before they are admitted, and this country has welcomed 800,000 refugees since 2001.

The country has moved slower to reach out to Syrian refugees however. Of the 400,000 targeted by the UN for resettlement – only 10 percent of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees registered with the UN – the United States has accepted only a little more than 2,000 since the conflict started in 2011.

Schanzer added that beyond its moral dimension, accepting more Syrian and Iraqi refugees might be a strategic move on the part of the U.S.

“The Islamic State says it is the best place in the world for Muslims to live,” Schanzer said. “Yet you see this immense population fleeing its territory, which to me represents a catastrophic failure on ISIS’s part to create an ideal Islamic caliphate. What better way to [de-legitimize] them than to open our doors to the very people they claim they are serving?”

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