UH Expert Lends Historical Context to ISIS Insurgency in Iraq

Emran El-BadawiAs Islamic militants continue their rampage and rapid takeover in northwestern Iraq, civilians are trying to flee the violence. International powers, such as the United States, are considering what action to take.

Emran El-Badawi, assistant professor of Arabic language and literature and director the Arabic Program at the University of Houston, is available to media to discuss the current ISIS insurgency in Iraq. El-Badawi can give historical context to the current situation and insight into why and how, to the surprise of the world, ISIS has been able to overwhelm a trained Iraqi military force. 

El-Badawi has studied in the Middle East and South East Asia. His research areas include Arab intellectual history, early Islamic history and Qur’anic studies. He teaches courses on Arabic language, literature, Islamic studies and Middle Eastern history. El-Badawi recently established the Arab Studies minor and helped develop the curriculum for the Middle Eastern Studies concentration for the Bachelor of Arts degree in World Cultures and Literatures at UH. 

What is your perspective of what we are seeing happening in Iraq right now in respect to the insurgency and different factions involved?

On June 9, the world was shocked to witness the terrorist group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), attack and occupy the city of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. By now, ISIS, which is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda originally sworn to topple the Assad regime and form a unified contiguous state between eastern Syria and western Iraq, has ruthlessly taken over the cities of northwestern Iraq and is threatening the nation's capital, Baghdad itself. However, new findings have come forth which explain how several hundred gunmen (although well armed and trained) could seemingly defeat thousands of Iraqi soldiers. ISIS was able to infiltrate Iraqi government ministries and has the support of members of the Saddam Hussein's Baath party, the Islamic Front (originally formed in 2004 as a resistance group to the U.S. occupation) and other Sunni groups.

I do not think the most seasoned experts or analysts could have predicted just how well organized, funded and galvanizing ISIS could be. There are now reports that ISIS has instituted an extremist interpretation of Shariah in Mosul and have seized more than $400 million from city banks.

Can you give us some historical context into the underlying causes of the insurgency why did ISIS start its offensive by freeing Sunni prisoners? 

Before ISIS became a major state player — in the span of one short week — the headlines in Iraq were about the heavy-handedness of its Shiite president, Nouri al-Malki, even likening his tactics to the former dictator Saddam Hussein. Sunni Arabs decried injustice in the courts, and Iraq's oil sector has suffered billions of dollars in corruption for several years now. This explains why ISIS portrayed themselves as Sunni heroes when entering Mosul by immediately freeing dozens of (Sunni) prisoners and reducing rolling blackouts in the region. These facts provide some context for the recent military incursion by ISIS and the carnage that has wreaked havoc in Iraq for over a decade.  

Can you explain the power vacuum created in Iraq since the Iraq War began in 2003?

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 destabilized the entire region. Since then, Sunni insurgents (often backed by Arab-Gulf states), including Al-Qaeda, and Shia militia, backed by Iran, have been trying to fill the power vacuum. The front created by this power vacuum spread eastward into Syria in the wake of the uprising, which spread throughout the Arab world in 2011.

Even now from Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of the Shiite political and military organization Hezbollah, is weighing in and vowing to protect Shiite holy sites in Iraq from Sunni extremists. ISIS is waging a sectarian war, but it is fueled by regional and international powers. It is little surprise that Washington is now "talking" to Tehran. One can only hope that it is not “too little, too late.”

What do you want people watching this story unfold from other places, like the U.S., presumably with little knowledge about the region, to understand about the situation in Iraq today?

Iraq has been the cradle of civilization much longer than a hotbed sectarian warfare. In the U.S. media, we often hear about the tripartite division of Iraq: the Shiite Arabs in the south, the Kurds in the north and the Sunni Arabs in the center. While this fact is true, it does not tell the whole story and, furthermore, only supports the sectarian narrative that has inflamed the conflict thus far. Iraqi households are frequently mixed along ethnic and sectarian lines, and they have lived side by side in relative peace for centuries. Baghdad is home to one million Kurds, and there are sizable Sunni minorities throughout the predominantly Shiite cities of the south.  

The Middle East has developed a reputation because of its problem with "sectarianism." However, it is critical for every discerning global citizen to realize that sectarianism was the guiding principle of the British and French when they dismantled the Ottoman Empire and carved up the region to serve their interests. Among their agreements was that of Sykes-Picot in 1916, which imposed upon the Fertile Crescent the outlines of the modern states of Syria and Iraq. Sectarianism was also the guiding principle of the Bush administration's attempt to establish a new Iraqi government 2003. If we are to consider modern history— even the map of the Middle East itself— the craft of European and American governments, then we can consider the latest onslaught by ISIS a vicious and bloody attempt to unmake that very history.


El-Badawi is author of “The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions”. He completed his Ph.D. with distinction from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Prior to that, he earned a master’s degree in Religion from Temple University and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Rutgers University.