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Asking the Right Questions about ISIS: Between Politics and Ideology

Hisham A. Hellyer


The discussion around whether or not the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is Islamic began as soon as the group entered onto the world stage. It throws up a number of queries for policy makers in the United States, Europe, and the Arab world, and the policy prescriptions will differ depending on how we answer the question of ‘how Islamic is ISIS.’ Or perhaps we have been asking the wrong questions.

A plethora of articles examine this question, including the now infamous Atlantic article by Graeme Wood, investigations by Jennifer Ruth in Vox, pieces by Muslim community figures like Mohamed Ghilan, and discussions in Foreign Affairs by Nathan Brown and myself. But as the debates continue, it seems clear that the analytical frames of discussion have yet to be adequately established. It ought not to be difficult to break down the issue of extremist radicalization in a more regimented fashion – but for years, the discussion has lacked this type of basic framing.

Social and Economic Factors

As policy makers proceed to continue discussions on ISIS, there is a particular frame that ought to be employed, by answering the following queries:

1. Is there something we can describe as a single radicalization process?
2. What are the factors that allow people to become more sociologically vulnerable to extremist radicalization?
3. How can we tackle those factors?

In addressing the above, the following applies:

1. There is no such thing as a ‘radicalization process’—rather, there are many processes. The reasons why a Syrian whose family has been attacked by Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs might radicalize differ from those for a Malaysian in southeast Asia who has travelled to Syria to join ISIS. The paths of radicalization are particular to the social and political context for each individual.

2. The factors will not only differ from place to place, but also from person to person in the same place. For example, many Syrians have suffered the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but only a minority of them joined groups like ISIS or the Nusra Front. Scores of Muslims in the UK have suffered from anti-Muslim bigotry and racism, but radical groups have only recruited a precious few – less than 1 percent of Muslim Britons. 


The article’s full-text is available here.

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