Part of the ISIS Explained series.
ISIS have taken responsibility for several attacks across Paris, Baghdad and Beirut that occurred within a few days of each other. This is the first in a series of explainers on ISIS, this lays the foundations of what those four letters mean.
According to Wikipedia, ISIS/ISIL/ Daesh is a Wahhabi/Salafi jihadist extremist militant group and self-proclaimed Islamic State and caliphate. What’s not to understand?
One word at a time.
ISIS are an armed group, they use violent and coercive methods to achieve their goals.
This word is often translated as “holy war”, but is more accurately translated as “struggle in the way of God/Allah.” It is a religious duty to defend Islam and to seek self improvement as a Muslim. The word has become associated with the violent tactics of a minority of Muslim groups like ISIS, but many Muslims want to reclaim the word and take it back to its nicer origins.
Salafi and Wahhabi are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Wahhabism is an interpretation of Islam that ISIS has been strongly influenced by. Wahhabi Islam started with the founder Mohammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab in the 1700s who thought that, rather than listening to what religious leaders of the day thought about Islam, we should live more closely in line with the original religious texts. This approach to Islam now has a very bad rep these days, as being a version of the faith that is used to justify the very graphic forms of execution and control of women used by ISIS (and also Saudi Arabia). People have very strong and varying views on its relation to the broader faith and whether the way ISIS practise it is representative of the Muslim faith. While Sharia law, an Islamic version of law, does allow the death penalty under very specific circumstances, it should be emphasised that many feel ISIS distorts what the Islamic texts say to the point that they are no longer practising a kind of Islam that most Muslims would recognise as their faith. “Wahhabi” is considered by some who practise this form of Islam to be insulting, preferring “Salafi” instead. “Wahhabi” emphasises the name of the guy who started the movement, whereas “Salafi” emphasises the earlier Muslims and their practices whom the Salafist movement aims to emulate.
It’s important to mention that ISIS should not simply be described as Wahhabi/Salafi but as Wahhabi/Salafi jihadists. This refers to a specific movement from within Wahhabi/Salafis which emerged in the 1990s in the context of Afghanistan’s US-backed war with the Soviet Union. In a nutshell, some members of the Salafist movement came to feel that violence was a necessary means to achieve their political goals. These political goals essentially included leading a return to a society based on a “purer” form of Islam, which did not include democracy and which rejected the Shia political rule that had dominated parts of the region. So not all Wahhabi/Salafists are violent Wahhabi/Salafi jihadists. Early Salafi jihadist groups include Al Qaeda.
What should be understood by the word “extremism” really depends on your point of view. When this word is used in conjunction with Islam, people might be talking about a strict and conservative approach to interpreting religious texts and practising religion. However, people using the word “extremist” might be talking about people who think grisly violence is a reasonable way to get what they want, in which case they actually mean militant. Words are tricky things, so it’s best to be sure we know what we mean.
ISIS want to set up an Islamic State: a country run according to laws drawn directly from the Islamic faith. A caliphate is an Islamic state. It’s led by a caliph, a person considered to be a political religious successor to the Islamic prophet Mohammed. The laws of Western countries draw heavily on Christian morality, and Israel was set up as a Jewish state. ISIS control large areas of Syria and Iraq, and claim to have already set up an Islamic State there, and are running it according to a very controversial interpretation of Islam. Plus, the aim doesn’t stop at turning the current occupied territories into a full on Islamic State. To say that ISIS want world domination sounds like fear mongering, but they did say in their Dabiq magazine that they want to “expand” until their “blessed flag…covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth.”
All these names refer to the same organisation and they’re all based on the same thing. However, ISIS has had even more different names in the past. The group used to be a chummy affiliate with Al Qaeda, and so were known to us as Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group became known as ISIS after they split off from Al Qaeda. They had aggressively taken over large areas of Iraq and had stopped being a team player. Al Qaeda cut ties with them, fearing they were giving them a bad name. Declaring itself a country of its own in northern Iraq around 2006, the organization began calling itself Islamic State in Iraq. Then they took a bunch of territory in Syria in 2013. This is when they became ISIS – which stands for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām.
Some people translate al-Shām to mean “the Levant”, which is a loose term for a large region in the Middle East . This gets you the name ISIL. Others go for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which gets you ISIS. Daesh is another name for ISIL used by a bunch of state leaders and media outlets, but ISIS have banned the use of this name. It comes from taking the first letters of the full Arabic name for ISIS: al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq we al-Sham, which gives you DAIISH. ISIS take this acronym as an insult, because it sounds a lot like the Arabic word “dahes”, which can be translated to mean “one who sows discord”.
“So-called Islamic State” is how the BBC choose to refer to the group. This is a way to sass them on the regular by refusing to recognise Islamic State as a legitimate country.
ISIS Explained: Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām are an armed group who use violence to achieve the goals they have set themselves based on their controversial interpretations of the Muslim faith and the religious duty to defend the faith.
They dominate our headlines, but what do we actually know about the so-called Islamic State? Who or what is it? What do its members believe in? What do they want? Are they really so powerful? How do we combat them? All your questions; simply answered in our five-part guide.
What even is the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Wikipedia says it’s a Wahhabi/Salafi jihadist extremist militant group, but what do all these words even mean? We broke it down.
Members of the group want to create a caliphate. What is this? What is Muslim Sharia Law? Is this actually anything to do with Islam or is the group twisting it to suit its own ends?
Islamic State seems like an unstoppable force. How powerful is the group really? Why are young Westerners attracted to join the ranks?
A global coalition of 62 countries led by the USA is targeting the so-called Islamic State with airstrikes. What’s the best way to tackle terrorist groups? Is dropping bombs the answer or do we need actual boots on the ground?
All those questions you had about ISIS but were too embarrassed to ask? Yeah, we answered them. Trust us, ISIS can be a tricky subject to get your head around. So we took a bunch of frequently asked questions and broke down the answers. What does ISIS mean? What does the flag say? How did ISIS get weapons and Toyota jeeps? Are ISIS terrorists? Is ISIS actually Islamic? All this and more, with simple answers.
A tonne of material has been written on ISIS and our understanding of the group is constantly changing. World leaders, journalists and scholars continually struggle to explain the group and its motives. If there are any definitive answers, it’s clear we won’t have them for a while due to the lack of information we have on the group. The information we do have is often conflicting and challenged. Most importantly we can’t claim to be able to explain ISIS as we cannot assume there is a rationality behind their actions that we can fully understand. This is not to say that they are just batsh*t crazy and fueled purely by evil. Instead, we are saying that the ISIS worldview may be so different to that of most Western journalists and analysts that they may simply be unable to wrap their heads around it, not with the little information we have on them anyway.
Take it from us – the guys doing the explaining – some things don’t have a rough and ready straightforward explanation. But what the hell, we thought we’d try anyway.