A U.S. Navy F-18E Super Hornet engaged in a bombing run in Iraq in October 2014Staff Sgtw Shawn Nickel, U.S. Air Force

On Monday, King’s Politics hosted a debate on the threat posed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the West’s role in its rise to power because of past military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and recent involvements in Libya and Syria.

The panel consisted of Adam Deen, head of the counter-terrorist Quilliam Foundation, Cambridge law undergraduate Allan Hennessy, former Left Foot Forward editor James Bloodworth, and ex-UN employee Victoria Stewart-Jolley.

Andrew Murray, Chair of the ‘Stop the War’ Coalition, was unable to attend due to illness.

An immediate divide was evident between Stewart-Jolley and Hennessy, who argued that Western intervention was the primary driver of ISIS’s growth, and Deen and Bloodworth who attributed the group’s rise owed to the strength of its ideology. As one audience member put it, there was a disagreement around whether ISIS was “idea-driven” or “people-driven”.

Stewart-Jolley opened the discussion by analysing Western involvement in the Middle East. She focused on three core turning-points – the 2003 US- and UK-led invasion of Iraq, the appointment of Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister of Iraq in 2006, and Western refusal to accept Syria as a proxy war, which Stewart-Jolley argued “cut the heart” out of the Middle East.

She was heavily critical of the West for framing Middle Eastern politics as “unimportant” and for ignoring its “highly-complex political landscape, imploring those present to “rapidly look beyond the simplistic, binary notion of what is fed by the media”.

Bloodworth argued that it had become “fashionable” to blame the West, and that this analysis was far too “neat and tidy”.

While he conceded that the West had blundered at critical junctures, he urged for a deeper inspection of indigenous factors such as internal brutalisation in Syria and Iraq.

Criticising Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, he pinpointed the alienation of the Sunni population in Iraq as the breeding ground for ISIS, who model themselves as the “last defence from Shia repression”.

Bloodworth concluded that we ought to understand that “people in the Middle East have autonomy too” and that we should reject any notion of either nation being stable even without Western intervention.

In seeking to explain ISIS, Deen provided a detailed genealogy of Islam. Drawing on examples of Wahhabism, he reasoned that ISIS is “nothing new”, merely an “intolerant, ugly and perverted reading” of the religion.

Rejecting the assertion that ISIS is a “liberating force against the West”, he proposed that it is “far more than that” and was instead an “aspiring state”. Speaking from personal experience, he argued that what drove people to the group was “disengagement with […] religion”.

Deen went on to characterise as participating in a “venomous version of Islamic revivalism”, preying on a vision of living in a “Muslim promised land.” In contrast with Stewart-Jolley, he concuded that “to blame the West for ISIS is to blame the West for Wahhabism and radical ideology”.

Hennessy agreed that ISIS capitalised on a “utopian idea”, but believed that this stemmed from the “fall of Saddam Hussein” rather than a long-termist reading of Islamic theology. He argued that it was motivated by the “power vacuum” created by deposing Hussein, which created the conditions in which ISIS has flourished and has separated it from the “hundreds of other terrorist organisations”.

Hennessy was ultimately critical, however, of the question itself, which he deemed “reductive”. He suggested than an enquiry into how far the West was to blame, not ignoring the many factors related to ISIS.

During the panel discussion, the audience were given the opportunity to contribute verbally or via a live Twitter feed. The conversation moved away from foreign policy and towards the role of domestic policy in ISIS’s recruitment in Europe.

Questioning whether radicalisation at home could be attributed to the failure of the British welfare state, Hennessy argued that racism and socio-economic deprivation continues to make ISIS attractive.

Stewart-Jolley proposed that “as a society, we don’t ant to look at the dirty and nasty, such as racism”.

While the panel generally agreed on the role of insecurity in radicalisation, Bloodworth drew on a report written by scholars from Queen Mary University, which concluded that those joining ISIS come disproportionately from educated backgrounds.

Deen disagreed that oppression could lead to this kind of violence. Instead, he emphasised the need to understand ISIS and what they say about themselves.
He argued motivations can be personal and the organisation is “self-motivated” and “rotate on their own axis [so that] they don’t need America”.

Despite animated debate, Hennessy was keen to conclude that while “this might get heated […] ultimately, we would all like to end ISIS”.