From the desk of Dr. Newton Key:
On April 14, a group of faculty and students gathered in Booth Library to discuss one aspect of the Middle East, in a presentation entitled “Making Sense of ISIS/ISIL,” organized by Prof. Jinhee Lee, History, as part of Asian Heritage Month. Panelists Prof. Brian Mann (History), Prof. Hasan F. Mavi (Kinesiology), and Prof. Newton Key (History), moderated by Prof. Gordon Tucker (Biology), made brief opening presentations. Prof. Mann noted ISIS has different strategies and goals than al-Qaeda, though historically they have similar origins. Mann also noted that active ISIS or even ISIS supporters were a small group compared with the large Muslim population world-wide. Both Mann and Prof. Mavi stressed the very un-Islamic nature of the self-titled Islamic State. Mavi distinguished between the faith and culture of Muslims and that of the ISIS “modern pirates.” He also noted Muslim suffering in the 2nd half of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. Prof. Key noted the importance of the Syrian Civil War in providing a space for ISIS, as well as the vast spaces across which fighting continues to take place (noting ISIS current holds what is the equivalent of a huge chunk of Illinois-sized Syria combined with a huge chunk of California-sized Iraq).
After a break for pizza and soda (many thanks, Asian Studies), attendees asked about the relative success of ISIS social media campaigns and the sociological even psychological make-up of those joining from abroad. The panelists suggested distinguishing media wars from actual fighting, that ISIS could seize the jihadi mantle on social media because al-Qaeda followed a more “traditional” route for modern, guerilla or terrorist war of hiding and being slow to lay claim for actions. The panelists also suggested distinguishing means and ends, the some joining ISIS from outside Syria-Iraq might be attracted by horrific acts of violence or rape, but that in theory the violent terror of ISIS could be viewed as the means, while their ends could be viewed as a new, in their view “ideal” state. Mann pointed out the intriguing development that, much against all previous Islamic teachings, ISIS now believed that they could identify and punish heretics. Key noted a key question for academics is how we can understand or comprehend ISIS (or other) horrific events or actions before condemning without condoning (accepting) them.
Ninety minutes was not enough time to explain the vast issues involved in the spread of ISIS (let alone the Syrian Civil War), but the panelists hope they brought a bit more historical, not hysterical context to bear.