Magnus Bernhardsson, professor of Middle Eastern history at Williams College, spoke about the rise of the so-called Islamic State in the Middle East and the impact it has had on the world in recent history on Oct. 26.
Bernhardsson presented his talk, “What is ISIS? And What Does it Want? A Historical Perspective.” The event was sponsored by FSU’s Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta in the North Hall Commons.
According to Bernhardsson, there are three common names for the group – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic State in Islamic Lands (ISIL) and Daesh, the Arabic abbreviation for the group’s name.
Bernhardsson is “hesitant” to refer to the group as ISIS. “Just because somebody calls themself a state doesn’t mean that they are a state,” he said. “Why would we call them ‘islamic’ when they are doing things that are very un-islamic?”
Throughout his talk, Bernhardsson referred to the group as Daesh because “it doesn’t identify them as a state or with religion. … It’s a term that really, really annoys the leaders and the people of ISIS.”
One of the main reasons for the birth of Daesh, according to Bernhardsson, was the U.S.’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Iraqi military was disbanded, and many of them “felt the system was against them,” said Bernhardsson.
This group of “trained military men … not intellectuals” who served under Hussein created a rebel group against the U.S. forces and, as a result, formed the infancy of Daesh, said Bernhardsson.
The second aspect people need to consider when trying to understand Daesh, according to Bernhardsson, is the Arab Spring.
Starting in December of 2010 and booming in early 2011, it was an uprising against many dictators in the Middle East. One specifically addressed by Bernhardsson was Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator.
During the Arab Spring, Daesh members provided guns to protesters, greatly raising their numbers, said Bernhardsson. Social media was a great boon to the Arab Spring.
Daesh continues to use social media aggressively. “They are very image-conscious,” said Bernhardsson. “That makes them more dangerous.”
The group posts recruitment videos to their Twitter which, according to Bernhardsson, puts out over 10,000 tweets per week. Their tweets include “calls to arms” and “inspirational messages.”
Bernhardsson considers Daesh to be neo-fascist. They envision a strong government that tells people what to do, how to act and what to believe. It has a “particular idea” of who should and shouldn’t be in their country. They strive to be an “Arab-Sunni” state.
On top of its land being rich in natural gas deposits, according to Bernhardsson, Daesh has control of large portions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. If they get desperate enough, they have the ability to “starve people downstream,” said Bernhardsson.
He compared Daesh to similar Muslim extremist groups such as the ‘30’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the ‘90’s Al-Qaeda. Ultimately, Bernhardsson came to the conclusion that Daesh is more dangerous since its Arab-Sunni standards are “more particular” in the group’s “attempt to cleanse and clear out undesirable elements of society.”
After pillaging ancient archaeological sites such as Nimrud, Daesh sells ancient artifacts on the black market. “It’s an easy way to raise cash,” said Bernhardsson. This is how the group launders its money.
He spoke about the way Daesh treats members of minority groups. Women are often sex slaves and “rape is often used as a weapon,” said Bernhardsson. For Daesh, the age of consent for females has been lowered to puberty. That way, the group’s influence will reach as many people as possible.
According to Bernhardsson, many “copycat” groups have formed in the wake of Daesh. “They’re not quite Daesh, but they’re similar,” he said.
To be on the same level as Daesh is no simple task, he said. “They’re worse than Genghis Khan, worse than the Black Death, worse than Saddam Hussein.”
Bernhardsson stressed his concerns in regards to defeating Daesh. “We haven’t tried the diplomatic approach. … It’s worrisome that the superpowers aren’t talking to each other,” he said.
The best way to defeat Daesh is by “allowing them to fail.”