ISIS/The Islamic State: Some Thoughts on What’s Happening Now


The rise and spread of ISIS* has made international news for more than three years now. This brutal, militant form of Sunni extremism quickly conquered large pieces of Iraq and Syria, and regional forces, with support from a coalition of 68 countries around the world, have been fighting to take back the territory ever since. Meanwhile, ISIS claimed responsibility for horrific terror attacks committed all over Europe and bleeding into the United States.

ISIS attracted many young people into its ranks both in the Middle East and in western countries. Surprisingly to many, ISIS actually attracted many well-educated, economically well-off youth in addition to more traditionally disenfranchised people. As its numbers and territory grew and its terror attacks became more frequent, ISIS inspired a great deal of fear throughout the world. Within areas controlled by ISIS, native people suffered greatly, and in the West, people feared more terror attacks and the organization spreading further.

For years, at least to me, it’s felt as though the international community has made little progress in taking ISIS down. ISIS would lose territory and then gain it back, all while continuing to commit terror attacks. However, there has been a recent turn of good fortune – the leaders of both Iraq and Iran have declared that ISIS has been militarily defeated in both Iraq and Syria. I am honestly skeptical of this; the news is new and in fights such as this, victories are seldom so clear-cut. However, ISIS’s loss of Mosul in July signaled the beginning of significant territorial losses for them, and for once, ISIS really does appear to be losing ground.

I am incredibly pleased that ISIS is retreating and that native Iraqis and Syrians are beginning to get their countries back. However, based on all of the research I’ve done this semester, I think it’s incredibly important that western powers who’ve been assisting regional forces in Iraq and Syria militarily to attempt to solve the root causes of terrorism, rather than just the symptoms. Military victory is fantastic, but because ISIS is just as much an ideology and a rallying cry for many who feel disenfranchised, I fear that military victories will be temporary. Western responses to terrorism often treat the symptoms of terrorism but fail to tackle the larger roots: economic inequality, ineffective and ill-thought-out foreign policy, and social unrest, to name a few. Admittedly, these issues will be significantly more difficult to tackle, but I think this makes them all the more important. Yes, we need to fight back against ISIS with military strength, but I think that we also need to fight back with ideas.

Obviously, I am but an undergraduate biology major with an interest in foreign policy. I fully recognize that my statements above are an oversimplification of these complex, multifaceted international events and issues. I by no means claim to be an authority here; I would simply like to start a conversation about these issues. I think that terrorism has many root causes, and work on tackling those, rather than fighting the fires that emerge as a result, has the potential to affect real, lasting change. The difficulty, of course, lies in figuring out how exactly to go about fighting those root causes.

*There are many names for this organization, and what is most widely accepted continues to change. Throughout this post, I’ve chosen to use ISIS for simplicity and because this term is widely recognizable to the American public.

The Roots and Rise of Islamophobia in the West


This semester, I have had the immense pleasure of doing honors research on the roots and rise of Islamophobia in the West under Dr. Charles Kimball. The semester is far from over, and I learn new things every day, but my research has many parallels to current events both in the United States and abroad, and I want to make a quick post sharing some of the things I’ve learned so far. This is a quick summary of my thoughts on what I’ve read so far.

Islam is the world’s second-largest religion and the fastest growing religion in the world. It was founded in 622 by a man named Muhammad, who Muslims believe is the messenger of God. The Quran, the central Islamic religious text, is believed to be God’s final revelation, a purification of the Torah and the Bible that came before it.

Islam shares many doctrinal similarities with Judaism and Christianity, and it even looks up to many of the same holy figures (the Quran mentions Jesus and Moses many more times than it mentions Muhammad). Yet, despite these similarities, many, many Americans and Europeans who are not Muslim view Islam to be a religion of violence and oppression, something far removed from so-called “Western values.” Post-9/11, both anti-terrorism efforts and anti-Islamic sentiments have been on the rise in the United States, but these prejudiced views of Islam are far from new. Rather, they date back to the earliest interactions between Islam and Christianity, and Western society has largely been unable to shake these biases that it formed so long ago.

When Islam first arrived on the scene, it definitely shook the status quo for the Christians at the time. Islam gained followers, power, and knowledge incredibly quickly, making the Western countries appear backwards by comparison. Thus, the first impressions that the West formed of Islam were formed in fear; Islam was the greatest threat to Christianity that Christians had ever seen, and in their fear, their initial assessment of Islam was incredibly inaccurate. They painted Muslims as godless villains and relied much more on their own imaginations than on research into what Islam is really like to form their first impressions. (Source: Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, R.W. Southern)

Over the years, when Islam ceased to be as much of a military threat, Western scholars began to conduct more accurate research on Islam, but an anti-Islamic sentiment still persisted throughout much of the Western world. Negative caricatures of the prophet Muhammad and damaging misunderstandings of Islamic law and practices were pervasive. Even as Western society as a whole gained more understanding of the actual text of the Quran and of the actual religious practices observed by many Muslims, the prejudice generated in the Middle Ages remained ingrained in their societies. Events like the Crusades underscored the fact that Islam was treated as the enemy, and though some in the Western world, most notably St. Francis, sought peace and interfaith dialogues between Christians and Muslims, this attitude was the exception, not the rule. (Sources: Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, Norman Daniel, and The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, Paul Moses).

European colonialism threw yet another wrinkle into Islamic-Western relations. European powers dominated many majority-Muslim countries for many years, and when they left, propped up oppressive authoritarian regimes, choosing their own economic interests over the implementation of the democracy that they claimed to value. These actions led to many political tensions in Africa and the Middle East that have yet to evaporate, as well as, understandably, mistrust of Western powers in the eyes of many Muslims. Western countries left terrible governments in their wake and claimed to support democracy but failed to do this in practice. As a result, many Muslims looked to Islam as a framework that could guide their political lives in addition to their private religious ones. Many majority Muslim countries have sought to implement Islam in some way into their governments, and this is an uncomfortable idea to many European countries, and to America, who pride themselves on the separation of church and state. (Sources: Islam: The Straight Path, John Esposito, and The Future of Islam, John Esposito).

Some in Muslim countries have felt so oppressed by the West that they’ve lashed out in terror attacks. Many non-Muslims in the West are quick to equate these attacks with all Muslims, when in reality, many of these attacks are politically-motivated, using Islam to justify violence but born from fear of Western political and military intervention rather than from fear of Christianity. (Sources: Islam: The Straight Path, John Esposito, and The Future of Islam, John Esposito).

What all of this boils down to is that there is a great deal of fear and mistrust on both sides of this divide, and these emotions and sentiments are far from novel. The challenge now comes in cutting through the fear and focusing more on our similarities and less on our differences. I know that sounds incredibly idealistic, but it is an ideal that I would like to strive for in my life moving forward.

At this point in my semester, I’m turning my attention to the specific case studies of the United States and Great Britain, looking at the historical roots of Islamophobia in each country and the modern manifestations of it. So far, it seems to me that much of the problem arises with an inability for many non-Muslims to imagine Muslim society complexly. Many have difficulty distinguishing between Muslims and Arabs, and equate all Muslims with the violence and extremism demonstrated by only a few. With my research, I hope to shed even a little bit of light onto this complex issue, as well as to champion the idea that we can and should see Muslims as the diverse, multifaceted group that they are. The enemy of ignorance is knowledge, and I hope to share a bit of that with my community with this semester’s research.

Epcot: the World Showcase


Over this spring break, I had the immense pleasure of visiting Disney World with my family. It’s funny, because I pride myself on going off-the-beaten-path and taking care to experience more than just the touristy side of new places. I want to immerse myself in the real culture and to blend in, not to stand at-odds with the amazing places I visit. Walt Disney World, in all honestly, stands a little at-odds with these tendencies: as vacations go, it’s up there on the touristy scale.

However, despite it’s cheese factor, to me, Disney really is magical. For one thing, I’m a fairly high-stress person, and the opportunity to spend a week at Disney with my family and best friend meant getting to take a week off of responsibility and to just focus on fun. That’s rare for me. For another thing, I think there’s something admirable about a place dedicated entirely to bringing people joy. From the perfectly engineered details of the place to the friendly employees to the massive media presence that they whole place is founded upon, it’s clear that Disney is carrying out their mission well. It was an amazing week, and it gave me some wonderful memories.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’ve decided to ramble on about the wonders of Disney and what exactly this has to do with international events. We’re getting there! Because my favorite Disney park has always been Epcot, and my favorite part of Epcot has always been the World Showcase. If you haven’t been, the World Showcase is a long, circular walkway around a lake that features miniature versions of eleven countries from around the world. Each country’s area is themed to that country, filled with its cuisine, music, and even employees from that country. Walking through the showcase is like taking a mini trip around the world, all in a day. Obviously, it doesn’t beat experiencing these countries in real life, but there is something so cool about strolling from country to country and feeling immersed in so many exotic places so close together.

Some could, justifiably, argue that this showcase is guilty of reducing massive and diverse countries into a limited number of their most famous traits. This is true, but I like to think that Epcot is celebrating what makes each of the eleven countries they’ve chosen unique in the world. After having been to the U.K., Canada, France, Italy, and Morocco, I can honestly say that Disney does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of these places, and the fact that the employees in each country’s section are residents of that country makes it all the more awesome. Many people don’t have the means or opportunity to get to places like Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, but a trip to Epcot can help them better appreciate all of these places, as well as getting to meet people who’ve lived there.

One of my biggest passions has always been learning about other cultures and traveling to new cities and countries. I love my own culture, but I’ve always been hungry to experience others. To me, Epcot is the best of this – it gives people a taste of what lies outside the U.S. and celebrates foreign countries for being uniquely great. I like to think that Epcot inspires other people to love and celebrate the international community. I know it inspires me.