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Geopolitics & Security

ISIS and Religion

Briefing25th September 2014

Key facts

  • While other jihadi groups around the world seek to establish an Islamic Caliphate, ISIS claims to be one. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared himself "Caliph Ibrahim", and goes by the title "Commander of the Faithful."

  • ISIS is not just a terrorist group, but an army that can hold and administer territory. It governs according to harshly interpreted principles of Islamic law, including the imposition of Dhimmi pacts on minorities – guaranteeing protection in exchange for the payment of a tax and the acceptance of second-class citizenship – and worse.

  • From 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki implemented sectarian policies, creating grievances that ISIS was quick to exploit. 

  • The start of the Syrian Civil War created a fertile new cause and battlefield for ISIS's recruitment, and moulded it into the military force it has become.

  • In 2013, al-Baghdadi changed the name of group from "Islamic State of Iraq" to the "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham" ('al-Sham' being the Arabic name for Greater Syria) indicating their expanding ambitions.

Chapter 1

Development and Changing Tactics

ISIS goes back to 2002. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi –a Jordanian– founded a jihadi organisation called Tawhid wal-Jihad in northern Iraq. Zarqawi had links to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s. He was not a member, however and disagreed on al-Qaeda's focus on the far enemy. In 2006, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) was created by the amalgamation of nine Islamist insurgent groups. The name choice indicates an early ambition for establishing a caliphate. The group operated as an Islamist insurgent group in the Iraq and Syria conflicts.

Following increasing regional factionalism and disagreements about tactics, particularly ISIS's desire to govern territorythrough the implementation of Sharia and the enforcement of public morality, al-Qaeda officially cut all ties with ISIS in February 2014. This graph showing allegiance and enmity between global jihadi groups emphasises the importance of the al-Qaeda/ISIS split across the world. ISIS now seeks to supplant its former ally as leader of the global jihadi movement, with the implications worldwide becoming increasingly turbulent.

ISIS changed tactics in June 2014, making a blitz assault to conquer territories in Iraq and Syria. Cities, including Mosul, with defending forces many times the size of ISIS fell to the group. Buoyed by its advances, the group declared a caliphate on 29 June.

ISIS is implementing a harsh form of Sharia in its territories. It is taking and executing hostages, massacring minorities, changing education systems, and continues to expand its territorial control. It is now operating as a state.

Chapter 2


The conflict in Iraq and Syria, as well as many other crises currently facing the Middle East, are increasingly framed in terms of a conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. This narrative of a centuries-old Sunni-Shia war in Islam is so prevalent it is now commonly accepted without challenge, but this "primordial" division does not stand up to historical scrutiny.

Although ISIS's campaign has a significant sectarian motivation, not least because it plays upon Sunni grievances against perceived unrepresentative Shia rule, it cannot be accurately understood as simply an aspect of a wider "Sunni-Shia" conflict. In this supposedly sectarian regional conflict, the Sunnis seem to distrust each other as much as they distrust the Shia. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia officially designated the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and ISIS as terrorist organisations.

Rather than resulting from an ancient and unresolvable division, a better framework for considering regional dynamics is as a 'cold war' in which Iran and Saudi Arabia play leading roles. A proxy contest for influence plays out in the domestic political systems of the region's weak states. Regional media outlets, from Hizbullah's al Manar television stations, to Saudi owned newspapers and television stations, all play up to the sectarian nature of these struggles. ISIS is similarly using sectarian rhetoric to inflame tensions and gather recruits.

Chapter 3

Targeting of Religious Minorities

On 1 September 2014, in response to ongoing human rights violations in Iraq, the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR) convened a special session to look at abuses committed by ISIS in the country. The meeting noted the Christian, Yezidi, Shabak, Kaka'e and Shi'a communities that have been particularly targeted by ISIS in Northern Iraq, including the besieging of communities because of ethnic, religious and sectarian affiliation. The United Nations Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights reported that over a million people have been forced from their homes due to threats to their lives by ISIS and associated armed groups.

Key Findings:

  • Over one million people have been forced to flee their homes since the violence began in June 2014;

  • Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Kaka'e, Sabaeans and Shi'a communities have all been targeted by ISIS;

  • At least 850,000 people belonging to ethnic and religious groups under attack have found refuge in displacement camps set up by the Government of the Kurdish Region;

  • Around 180,000 people entered the Kurdistan Region in the course of a single day;

  • ISIS has intentionally destroyed Sunni and Shia shrines, and Christian places of cultural and religious significance;

  • It is estimated that at least 1,000 Yezidis have been killed in recent weeks, with close to 2,750 kidnapped or enslaved;

  • At least 2,250 women and children have been detained as hostages in the Badoush prison in Mosul, in Tal Afar, and other locations under the control of ISIS;

  • All 8,000 members of the Christian community in Mosul have fled, according to officials, and many more from other locations in Ninewa Governorate;

  • At least 13,000 villagers from the Shabakand Turkman communities, including some 10,000 women and children were besieged by ISIS and associated armed groups in Amerli, in Salah al-Din Governorate until 31 August;

  • The United Nations has received reports of executions by ISIS of religious leaders, including 12 Sunni religious leaders in Mosul who refused to pledge allegiance to IS

Mass killings have occurred in parts of Sinjar, with reports by Amnesty International of the abductions of women and children, where in some cases entire Yezidi families have been abducted, and significant pressure on communities to convert to Islam. To highlight this, the report identifies the Yezidi hamlet of Kocho in Sinjar, with a population of around 1,200 where ISIS killed over 100 men and boys and abducted all the women and young children. Iraq's non-Muslim minorities used to make up around 10% of the population, but the conflict is hugely accelerating displacement.

International leaders have responded to these reports, notably NATO, who in their Summit Declaration in early September placed a much greater emphasis than in previous communiqués on the role of religion and the persecution of religious minorities in conflict zones around the world, with particular reference to concerns around ISIS's "systematic and deliberate targeting" of religious and ethnic communities in Iraq. The leaders also singled out the threat by ISIS to the Syrian people, the wider region and to NATO nations, condemning the attacks by ISIS and offering security and humanitarian assistance.

Chapter 4

Justification for Genocide

ISIS's harsh interpretation of Sharia is key to an understanding of its treatment of religious minorities. ISIS' sudden advance into Mosul was accompanied by decrees imposing a dhimmi pact on Christians in the city: in return for paying a tax (jizyah), they could remain in the city, though subject to severe restrictions on their status and religious practice. However, if they could not or would not pay, then they were given a choice: leave, convert to Islam and submit to ISIS, or die.

The majority chose to leave, and at ISIS checkpoints many had what goods they could carry confiscated. This is not the first timeISIS has imposed the jizyah. In Raqqa, a city in central Syria seized by the group in January 2014 it was imposed with similar consequences for minorities – though there was less international attention.

This "covenant of protection" is stretched to non-Muslims defined as "People of the Book" (Jews, Christians and Sabeans – those following religions acknowledged in the Quran to be based on the revelation of God), meaning that those considered to hold divergent beliefs (the mushrikun) are not extended the same courtesy.

As such the Yezidi, an ancient and syncretistic religious community incorporating (among others) elements of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Zoroastrian beliefs, have been particularly brutally targeted by ISIS in Sinjar. They were not presented with the option of a Dhimmi pact, but rather a choice between fleeing, converting or dying.

The group's perception by some Muslims in the region– not least by ISIS – as "devil worshippers", apparently stemming from an Ottoman fatwa that identified a Yezidi angel/deity Malak Tawus (Angel Peacock) with Shaytan (Satan), has also fed the narrative of their enemies.

Chapter 5

Use of Religious Imagery

ISIS recognises the powerful potential of appeals to Islamic imagery and history. The group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's sermon at Mosul in July, his only public appearance since being declared "Caliph", made meticulous use of religious symbolismintended to resonate deeply among observant Muslims. In particular Baghdadi's carefully considered dress, use of language, and Salafi emphases were intended to boost his credentials as a successor to the early Caliphs.

Despite these frequent appeals to Islamic imagery and history, the vast majority of Muslims reject this "Caliphate" claiming to speak for all of Islam, and concerns about Islamic extremism are particularly high among countries with substantial Muslim populations.

In September 2014 a group of more than a hundred Muslim scholars and leaders from around the world released an open letter addressed to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, telling the self-proclaimed caliph, that the group's use of Islamic scripture is illegitimate and perverse. The letter lists a number of practices employed by ISIS that its authors say are explicitly forbidden by Islam including torture, slavery, forced conversions, the denial of rights for women and children, and the killing of innocents.

For more information on ISIS read our 'What is ISIS?' backgrounder, or our Briefing Note outlining recent developments in global jihadi movements.


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