The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, smashed its way into the world’s consciousness earlier this month when it seized Mosul and the Beiji oil refinery in Iraq. Starting last fall, ISIS began imposing its theocratic rule over a wide swath of Syria, then quickly wrested control of the emblematic Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. With the more recent attacks, it menaced the government in Baghdad; it also forced President Obama to reengage with a war from which he thought he had extricated the United States.
In trying to explain ISIS’s rapid success, alarmed observers have pointed to the extreme tactics that drew condemnation even from Al Qaeda: mass executions, beheadings, and crucifixions. Some see local conspiracies, believing Arab governments allowed the group to grow in order to justify their own heavy-handed crackdowns. Others suggest that Shi’ite Iran indirectly funded the movement as part of its own strategy to divide the Sunnis from within.
Most analysts predict that ISIS’s conduct will ultimately limit its future: They say it has no meaningful political program or ability to form a state, and its extremist views will alienate the people who live under its rule.
But that view of ISIS’s success and prospects overlooks one key element. A look at both ISIS’s written edicts and its tactics suggest that the group has gotten one important thing right: It has created a clear—and to some, compelling—idea of citizenship and state-building in a region almost completely bereft of either.
ISIS’s support comes from a direct appeal to Sunni Muslims as a religious and political constituency. It has made clear that it expects people under its power to take an active role in establishing a new Islamic state. And it has enlisted them in a project to assert the power of their religious community over the Shia, who currently dominate the territory from Iran to Lebanon.
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