Nation, World + Society

UCLA’s Middle East scholars shine light on ISIS

Terrorist group's future survival is in doubt

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Iraqi Yazidi refugees at Newroz camp in Syria
Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee/Wikimedia Commons

Iraqi Yazidi refugees arrive at a camp in northeastern Syria after fleeing ISIS militants, who have targeted this non-Muslim minority group for genocide. Some 12,000 people have walked up to 37 miles in searing temperatures to reach the Newroz camp.

Middle East scholars at UCLA brought the terrorist group ISIS out of the shadows at several public talks on campus over the past few months.

UCLA historian James Gelvin, professor of modern Middle Eastern history; political geographer and UCLA Ph.D. candidate Ali Hamden; and Khaled Abou El Fadl, the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law, spoke in great detail about the origins of ISIS (also known as ISIL), its ideological beliefs and its enslavement of women, among other salient issues.

Also giving her perspectives on the ISIS campaign to commit genocide against the Yazidis, a non-Muslim minority living in parts of Armenia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, wasZeynep Turkyilmaz, an assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College who earned her Ph.D. at UCLA in 2009.    

These speakers were featured at several recent events hosted separately by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Department of Geography and a group of cosponsors that included UCLA’s Al Talib Magazine, the Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, the Muslim Law Students Association and the Political Science Student Organization. One of the many topics they addressed was the question of whether the terrorist group will continue to get stronger.

Although ISIS appears to be spreading through affiliates in Nigeria and Tunisia, these “affiliates” are far more likely to be local extremist groups who are re-branding themselves for publicity purposes, said Ali Hamdan. The group arose in the specific local context of northern Iraq and remains fragile in terms of both its capacity and staying power.

Both Gelvin and Hamdan said they believe that ISIS is severely limited in capacity and reach, and will soon crumble. Rather than attracting skilled Muslim professionals to help build its Islamic State, said Gelvin, the group is mostly attracting marginal figures motivated by bloodlust.

Hamdan noted that ISIS is most successful at recruiting people who do not come from the region where the group is based; its recruits are primarily drawn from “small, embattled communities outside of what you would traditionally call the Islamic world.” As for the group’s so-called “affiliates” in northern Africa, he maintained that they are simply existing radical groups taking advantage of an opportunity for publicity.

Abou el Fadl emphasized that the enslavement of women by ISIS must be seen in the context of migrant labor practices in the Gulf region over the past several decades, practices that he maintained amount to human trafficking.

Turkyilmaz argued that while ISIS may not survive, it will have an enduring impact in the region. “What it has already done is going to survive,” she said. “It has already committed a genocide that changed the demography and the political and cultural setting of the Middle East.”

Read the full story on the International Institute’s website.

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