Why do people continue to join the Islamic State?

by Daniel Patrick Shaffer

On March 4, 2015 I attended a talk entitled “Arab Public Opinion on Terrorism: A Ground View From Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and Libya” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The burning question that is so prevalent in think tanks, universities, administrations, and even households around the world is: Why are people continuing to join the Islamic State? The talk, featuring Dr. Munqith Dagher, attempts to answer this question. Through extensive public polling and statistical analysis, Dr. Dagher comes to a very plausible conclusion about the allure of the Islamic State.

Dr. Dagher’s first point is that people are not joining the Islamic State for religious reasons. The evidence he gives for this is that 90% of the people in the Islamic State controlled areas of Iraq and Syria say that religion is either “important” or “very important” to their lives. However, only 13% of the people in Syria support what the Islamic State is standing for and 97% of Sunnis in Iraq view the Islamic State (a proclaimed Sunni caliphate) as a terrorist organization. The bottom line is that people who are outspokenly religious do not support this terrorist organization that claims to be devoutly religious.

The second reason that Dr. Dagher explores is lack of services and poverty in the region. He discounts these reasons by citing that there is no substantial difference in Sunni vs. Shia controlled areas in the level of services provided or the unemployment rate. There are more public service jobs available to Iraqi Shias because of the largely Shia government, so there is cleavage in the level of economic opportunity for Sunnis and Shias.

This brings us to the conclusion and the reasons that Dr. Dagher gives to the relative popularity of the Islamic State. Sunnis are not satisfied politically or socially and that has created a lack of trust between Sunnis and their government. Just this past January, 82.7% of Sunnis said that Iraq was going in the wrong direction as a country. More Sunnis than Shias reported feeling “unhappy” and unsafe in their neighborhood. When asked about the Iraqi military, Iraqi police, parliament, the courts, and the judiciary system, Sunnis reported a significantly lower level of confidence and trust in every category.

An effort needs to be made to address the social and political problems presented in the structure of Iraq in conjunction with the fight against the Islamic State. Addressing the problem at its social and political root is the only way to one day create a stable state of Iraq.

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