10/06/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

Dig Deeper Into the Roots of ISIS


While working as a media consultant in Jordan this summer, I was in the car with my cousins heading to an engagement party. As we were stuck in Amman traffic, the topic turned to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Daish as they are called in Arabic.

This was early June and ISIS had just advanced and taken over most of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. "I am not spending time in public areas with my kids. I don't want you to either," said one of my cousins, continuing by instructing me to "Avoid malls, restaurant and other public areas as much as possible."

Her sister thought differently, "obviously, there is danger," she said, "but it is not dangerous enough to put our lives on hold. The government has things in control." For these relatives, Amman is home and perhaps their worry stems from the fear of an attack similar to the 2005 Amman hotel bombing that killed at least 57 people or even more frightening; a homegrown ISIS.

In Palestine, ISIS is also a hot topic. While there a week later, I overheard a shop owner in Ramallahexpress his fear of ISIS, blaming their power and spread on a number of issues, including US policy in Iraq, Gulf funding and conspiratorially Israel's involvement. As for my relatives in a nearby town, the distress comes from seeing thousand year-old buildings and artifacts destroyed in the name of Islam.

ISIS and its increasing control of the region poses a serious threat to the ethnic and religious make-up of the Arab World. The group is targeting anyone who disagrees with its policy or interpretation of Islam, including Yazidis, Christians, Shias and Sunnis. They have recruited followers on the international level, and even created propaganda videos to boost their support in the communities they have occupied.

At the same time my relatives in Amman are recalculating their daily lives to limit their time in public places, the international community has begun strategizing ways to defeat ISIS. This week, the United States launched several airstrikes against ISIS inside Syria, after more than 30 countries pledged to defeat the "global threat of Islamic State" by "whatever means necessary" in a meeting in Paris last week. Time will tell if their strategies are successful, but so far, ISIS is getting stronger and gaining new members every day.

While the increasing numbers of young people joining ISIS baffles many, little has been done on the diplomatic level to figure out the root cause of this. The increasing sectarianism in the Arab World, which has allowed for an environment where ISIS thrives, is not due to thousand-year-old conflicts between minority groups, as mainstream media has reported.

In Iraq U.S. policy over the last three decades factionalized the political landscape into religious blocs. The longstanding U.S. embargo once aimed at Saddam Hussein's ouster left Iraq reeling in poverty. That, combined with American ground forces pulling out created a governmental vacuum that ISIS capitalized upon. The U.S. armed and trained ISIS and allied groups in Syria, while continuing to support the Baghdad government, providing Hellfire missiles with which to attack Iraqis.

Three years ago in Syria, people took to the streets to address economic grievances, social injustice, and everyday oppression -- not due to sectarian issues. At the same time, there is no doubt that for the past 48 years, minority groups have dominated the Assad regime, with Alawites making up the majority of the leadership, excluding and oppressing people for political purposes. Today, both the regime and its enemies (including ISIS) are taking advantage and feeding off these religious and ethnic differences to nurture a hateful environment for their benefit.

The U.S. also continues to feed off sectarian tensions. As part of the U.S.-driven coalition to combat the ISIS threat, Shia-majority Iran is being left out, although hundreds of Iranian soldiers are now taking part in operations with Kurdish forces to retake towns held by ISIS. Instead, the U.S. is joining forces with its longtime ally and Sunni-majority, Saudi Arabia, which until recently helped build ISIS through donations from wealthy donors.

If their actions from the past few months are any indications, ISIS is committed to its cause and gaining new members every day. Only time will tell if they will advance to Jordan and other countries, threatening the lives of my cousins and millions of others.

As we neared closer to the engagement party that day, my cousin said something that I, as a Palestinian-American could never understand. She said, "Where will we go if something happens here? We can't go back to Palestine. We can't flee to Syria, Lebanon or Egypt. Neighboring countries will close their borders and we will have nowhere to go."

While my cousins are safe in Amman for now, the same cannot be said for the millions of Iraqis who barely had time to heal from the wounds of Saddam and U.S. occupation and are now under ISIS control. Or the millions of Syrians who are fighting the Assad regime only to have ISIS begin taking control of their cities and fight for self-determination.

ISIS is a microcosm of a much larger issue at play: they are a remnant of countless failed policies in the Arab World imposed by Western powers. The Arab public has been a victim of decades' old policies that continue to change their communities for the worst. The first step is undoing the psychological damage that colonialism and occupation has wrought upon them. Only then can we move forward.