By Saad Hafiz
Some newspaper reports indicate that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made an appeal to the local population in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan to support its struggle for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. It has also been reported that a number of hardline groups operating in the area have announced support for the self-styled ISIS caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. These groups have claimed that they want to “strive for the enforcement of Islamic sharia not only in Pakistan and Afghanistan but throughout the world.” Certain local militant groups still consider the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, the commander of the faithful.
ISIS’s origins can be traced to the Second Gulf War in 2003, when the US, along with a small coalition of other nations, invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. In 2006, various insurgent factions and the representatives of a number of Iraqi Arab tribes opposed to the US invasion swore the traditional Arab oath of allegiance known as ilf al-Muayyabîn (oath of the scented ones). During the ceremony, the participants swore to free Iraq’s Sunnis from what they described as Shia and foreign oppression, to further the name of Allah and restore Islam to glory. More recently, the spokesperson for ISIS described the establishment of the caliphate as “a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer” and “the abandoned obligation of the era”. He said that the group’s ruling shura council had decided to establish the caliphate formally and that Muslims around the world should now pledge their allegiance to the new caliph.
The world has already witnessed the gruesome murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two US journalists captured and executed by ISIS. Other reports suggest that ISIS compels people in the areas it controls, under the penalty of death, torture or mutilation, to declare the Islamic creed and live according to its interpretation of Sunni Islam and sharia law. It directs violence against Shia Muslims, indigenous Assyrian, Chaldean, Syrian and Armenian Christians, Yazidis, Druze, Shabaks and Mandaeans in particular. Torture, flogging and summary killings are rife in secret prisons run by ISIS, an armed group that controls large areas of northern Syria, according to Amnesty International in a briefing published recently. “Those abducted and detained by ISIS include children as young as eight who are held together with adults in the same cruel and inhuman conditions,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
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According to local witnesses, ISIS has issued a constant stream of new decrees in the areas it controls in Iraq as follows: “First it was that women were only allowed on the streets in an abaya” — an ankle-length outer robe — “then no one was allowed to be outside during prayer time. Then smoking was forbidden and recently music as well. Now they check weddings to make sure no music is being played. They are worse than the regime.” ISIS seeks to impose an Islamic state where hardline Islamist rules are followed, limiting the role of women and imposing crude Islamist justice on those who violate their codes. It is a terrorist organisation that uses modern means and instruments with a rigid ideological discourse.
It may be worth noting the fervour of fresh international recruits to the ISIS cause as described by a Turkish facilitator on the Syrian border: “When they get to the fence, they kneel and cry, they weep, like they have just met something more precious to them than their own family. They believe that this land is where God’s judgment will come to pass.” For many recruits, the crossing into Syria itself is a religious experience. Many of these devout Muslims believe they are joining the final battle prophesied as happening in Syria, known as al Sham, which will herald the end of the world. The recruits are ecstatic; they never thought this final fight would come in their lifetimes. According to the facilitator, the global jihadi response has become overwhelming due to the inaction of the international community.
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ISIS rejects the political divisions established by western powers at the end of World War I in the Sykes-Picot Agreement as it absorbs territory from Syria and Iraq to create a pan-Islamic state and self-proclaimed caliphate. ISIS is taking full advantage of the legacy of foreign interventions, failed states, poverty, illiteracy and the sense of dispossession and alienation that has created deep wounds in the social and political landscape of the Middle East. Like other political opportunists before them, ISIS is using religion and the longstanding grievances of ordinary people to advance their primary goal of political domination. Along the way, they seek to overthrow governments, assassinate collaborators and undertake sectarian and ethnic cleansing. Whether in Iraq, Syria or Pakistan, they are using the methods of totalitarian groups that seek power at all costs.