Ever since the attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Kuwait City a few months ago, analysts of all stripes have published their theories about the rise of ISIS, the terror organization based in Iraq and Syria that has claimed an uncountable number of lives since 2011.
According to The Guardian reporter Ali Khedery, ISIS was born as the “illegitimate child. . .of pure hate and pure fear—the result of 200,000 murdered Syrians and of millions more displaced and divorced from their hopes and dream.” Although the group’s origins will require a small history lesson, what is important to keep in mind is their ultimate goal: “to revive the ancient Caliphate and expand it to encompass all Muslims.” This objective has inspired thousands of Muslims from the Middle East and Europe to swell their ranks, but while some of the new recruits are truly inspired by religious fervor, most are just disillusioned with the socioeconomic status quo and are searching for answers. We will return to this point shortly.
The story of ISIS must first begin with the 2003 U.S. military intervention in Iraq, when thousands of disgruntled Sunni soldiers from Iraq’s disbanded military formed an insurgency against the occupation. They were supplemented by Sunni jihadist groups, including an old associate of Osama Bin-Laden’s named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose ruthless tactics sparked a Sunni-Shia civil war. His group soon allied with al-Qaeda, but he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. In the following years, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was largely defeated, leading up to the U.S.’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.
It was then, during the Arab Spring of 2011, that President Bashar al-Assad’s violent response to protesters in his country sparked the Syrian Civil War. Fearing that foreign nations would back the rebels, Assad’s government released jihadists from prison in order to color the rebellion with extremism. These extremist rebels were joined in 2012 by a deputy, Jabhat al-Nusra, from al-Zarqawi’s former group, which was by then known as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi reinforced his troops with jihadists from Iraqi prisons, and in 2013, announced he was taking control of all Islamic State forces in both countries. Thus the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, was born.
Yet al-Nusra defied al-Baghdadi’s attempt to consolidate power, bringing the two jihadist groups, al-Qaeda and ISIS, into conflict. ISIS won the upper hand in Syria through Assad’s lack of resistance, since their presence divided his domestic enemies and distracted the foreign ones. In early 2014, ISIS launched a full-on military invasion of Iraq, and although they briefly managed to occupy large portions of Syria and Iraq, they quickly lost much of the territory in conflict with Kurdish forces in Iraq and a U.S. air strike in retaliation for the death of journalist James Foley. The rest of the story is recent history, with ISIS claiming responsibility for the attacks on Kuwait, Beirut, and Paris. Let’s return to the question of who exactly makes up ISIS’s ranks, and how they came to be there.
According to French economist Thomas Piketty, it is not any sort of religious conviction that drives many of the new radicals, but rather socioeconomic resentment turned to outrage. He writes that “the Middle East’s political and social system has been made fragile by the high concentration of oil wealth into a few countries with relatively little population. If you look at the region between Egypt and Iran—which includes Syria—you find several oil monarchies controlling between 60 and 70 percent of wealth, while housing just a bit more than 10 percent of the 300 million people living in that area.” In other words, the wealth that has come as a result of oil exports has benefited a disproportionately small percentage of the people living in the region, while the majority lives under much poorer conditions.
“Those economic conditions,” he says, “have become justifications for jihadists,” along with “the horrors of wars that benefited only a select few of the region’s residents.” These wars, in many cases perpetuated by Western powers, have had the effect of returning much of the oil wealth to the hands of the elite, creating what Piketty has called “a ‘powder keg’ for terrorism.” By Piketty’s estimates, the Middle East might be even more economically iniquitous than the United States, with the top 1 percent owning more than 25 percent of the wealth, as opposed to just over 20 percent in the U.S. The ISIS recruiters have cleverly played up these socioeconomic divides in order to attract disillusioned youth into their ranks.
Severe economic quality? Resentment for the establishment? An attempt to return a nation to the way things used to be? Does this sound familiar? It should.
Americans, like many citizens living in the Middle East, are sick of the appalling economic inequality that separates the rich from the poor. They distrust the corrupt elite of the ruling class, and they are vulnerable to the beguiling suggestion that their problems would be solved if they could just rid themselves of the “Other.”
To ISIS, the Other is anyone who is not Muslim—and that is “Muslim” defined by their violent, extremist standards, not Muslim by any true interpretation of the faith.
To Donald Trump and his supporters, the Other is anyone who is not a hardworking, white, straight, Christian, male, blue-collar American.
Both Trump and ISIS want to see their country returned to the hands of the “deserving;” while ISIS attempts to reestablish the Caliphate of old, Trump’s slogan proclaims his intention is to “Make America Great Again.” In both cases, the aim is to improve the moral, political, social, and religious state of a country by wiping out diversity. They both play off of popular fear and discontentment, blaming the country’s racial or religious diversity for socioeconomic instability.
In the words of Bernie Sanders, “Many of Trump’s supporters are working-class people and they’re angry, and they’re angry because they’re working longer hours for lower wages, they’re angry because their jobs have left this country and gone to China or other low-wage countries, they’re angry because they can’t afford to send their kids to college so they can’t retire with dignity. What Trump has done with some success is taken that anger, taken those fears which are legitimate, and converted them into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims…” Like many who are being recruited to ISIS, Trump’s supporters are seeing their economic discontent radicalized into hatred towards those who are different.
But as journalist Ezra Klein astutely observed, “Trump doesn’t offer solutions so much as he offers villains. His message isn’t so much that he’ll help you as he’ll hurt them.” Just like ISIS, Trump doesn’t promise solutions that will actually relieve the socioeconomic concerns burdening his constituents. Rather, he offers them an outlet, a punching bag onto which to channel their anger. He provides a scapegoat, promising that if they can run it out of town, everything will be fixed.
ISIS, like Trump, also offers an outlet. They take fear, anger, and discontent, and mold them into hatred. The point of this article is not to trivialize the suffering and the horrific acts of violence perpetuated by ISIS by comparison to a media clown like Donald Trump. Instead, it is to make clear that Donald Trump is no clown. He echoes the same tactics as ISIS to gather supporters for his cause, breeding the same fear and hatred that has all too readily turned to violence once before.