A student’s guide to understanding the Islamic State

While the Islamic State, Iraq, and Syria may be on the complete opposite side of the world, in light of the dedication to the ‘global community of the 21st century’ here at Marist College and recent national security concerns within an hour and a half from the Marist College campus, it’s important for  students to understand international forces at work. So, without further to do, below you will find a simplified guide to what the Islamic State is, what the Islamic State wants, and why you should care explained by two members of the Political Science department here at Marist College, and myself.

The Islamic State flag, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Islamic State flag, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What is the Islamic State?

In the dog days of this past summer, news headlines across the nation declared the existence of a new, deadly Islamic terrorist group wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East. Yet while the American public was aquatinted with this new horrific force, the media reports simply confirmed what political analysts and officials had known for months.

The Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS and ISIL) is a Jihadist militant group in Iraq and Syria that has declared itself a nation after capturing various key locations within the region of the two countries. “Simply put, they’re a cancer to modern society,” says Dr. Juris Pupcenoks, a political science professor here at Marist College who specializes in international relations and comparative politics. Though Dr. Pupcenoks certainly makes a strong point given the group’s awful human rights record, let’s take a look at the militant group’s formulation.

Syria and Iraq, the region that the Islamic State controls.

Syria and Iraq, the region that the Islamic State controls.

“They were inspired by the radical Wabi movements of Saudi Arabia, the members of the Islamic State are Sunni Muslims who hold very strict, conservative interpretations of the Quran,” says Dr. Artin Arslanian a professor of history and international relations here at Marist College who specializes in Middle Eastern politics and history. Though it should be clear that not all Sunni Muslims believe in this strict interpretation, this group does and after decades of being in power in Iraq with Sunni President Saddam Hussein at the helm, a leader who believed in a separation between so-called ‘church and state’, the 2011 conclusion of the Iraq War left Shia Muslims, an additional belief sect of Islam, in power [for an understanding of the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims click here].

While Shia Muslims make up the majority of the population in Iraq with 80%, the other 20% are Sunnis, and since 2013 Sunni communities in Iraq have demonstrated a strong lack of faith in their national government. Combine this sort of negative opinion with government instability and a frustrated, unemployed youth, the conditions for this sort of extremist group are present as Dr. Pupcenoks explains. “The extremist members of the Islamic State are mostly young, which is all too common for terrorist groups of this sort. They hold dissatisfaction with the government actors in their nation and turn to violence as a means to achieve their ends”. With similar unstable political conditions occurring in neighboring country Syria, it’s understandable why the particular border between Iraq and Syria was so vulnerable to the growth of an extremist group like the Islamic State.

What does the Islamic State want? 

The Islamic State, originally called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS, at first wanted to conquer Iraq and Syria and establish their own nation that would follow strict Sharia law, the moral code and guidance laid out in the Quarn. While the Jihadist group has already declared itself a nation with its own leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and apparent tax collection, the scope of its agenda has shifted with its clear name change. As Senator John McCain (R – Arizona) said in an appearance on CNN, “They’re [the Islamic State] winning, and we’re not,”. The militant group’s success against their opposition has given them the confidence to change their name and their mission. Rather than limit itself to just conquering Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State would like to grow larger than that. But while their size might change, their ideology will not.

“To the Islamic State, everyone who does not believe in what they believe in is a threat. This means Christians, Jews, and even Muslims who do not necessarily buy into the idea of strict Sharia law, are considered infidels, and thus are their enemies,” explains Dr. Arslanian as he discussed why the Islamic State has been such a force for violence in the region. “It is for this reason why we have seen so much violence from the Islamic State against population groups in the area. They believe they are doing God’s work.” Dr. Arslanian’s explanation of the Islamic State’s perception of those who do not follow their own religion explains their horrific behavior but the question remains: why should you care?

Why should you care? 

The most obvious answer to this question is that as an American citizen, you should probably understand why your nation is involved in a fight against the Jihadist militant group. On August 7th of this year, President Barrack Obama announced that he would be taking military action against the Islamic State in the form of targeted airstrikes. Thus, as Dr. Pupcenoks put it, “Students should care because United States Foreign Policy tells us we all should. Clearly our government has labeled them a threat that must be dealt with lethal force and therefore we all should be aware of their activities,”. Yet while Dr. Pupcenoks gives us the basic reasoning, Dr. Arslanian brings it a step further.

“Students should care because when our nation puts ‘boots on the ground’, in one form or another whether that be advisors, special forces, or our whole military, it will be their contemporary peers that will be fighting this battle. It will be their generation that will have to deal with this complex issue for what may be years to come.” -Dr. Artin Arslanian, Professor of History and International Relations


Dr. Arslanian makes a great point as the fighting and intensity of the conflict grows each day. But, there is also the potential threat at home with reports of the Islamic State threatening subway attacks in New York City. Though U.S officials shrug off the possibility of any actual terrorist threat to New York City, with a small minority population of Marist College students commuting into the city weekly for internships, should they be concerned? Dr. Arslanian says “No”, citing the vast amount of resources given to the New York City Police Department to ensure its citizens are safe from all potential threats. “I don’t think people realize how powerful the NYC Police Department is particularly when it comes to anti-terrorism in the post-9/11 environment. The Islamic State can say what they want, but I have faith in the city’s police forces.” claims Dr. Arslanian.

So whether or not the threat of the Islamic State is a reality here at home, hopefully this guide has equipped you with an understanding of possibly the worst terrorist group to date. Look out for more news on the subject of the Islamic State and if you would like to gain a much better understanding of its internal operations, I would suggest watching the documentary linked below put together by the people over at Vice News.

One thought on “A student’s guide to understanding the Islamic State

  1. I would like to state, as The Wife of a Muslim man. And as Someone who has been To a Muslim Arab Country on multiple occasions: I.S.I.S. is NOT Muslim/Islamic in any shape way or form. They are war mongering violent individuals, with no concept of their Religion or any other. They are simply sadistic freaks. And I would like that point to be made more clear than “not all sunnis share these ideals” . Simply put ISIS isnt islamic at all. My opinion based on experience.

    Also. Sunni And Shiite (shia) are not the only two sects of Islam. There are dozens of Sects including The Sufis, (Rumi, was a Sufi scholar.).

    Anyways. I just needed to share. I apologize if my wording is somewhat harsh. I tend to take these issues to heart now that Half of My Family is Muslim now.

    Also, I do agree they are a threat. How much thats to be determined. Though in all honesty they were a direct result of the War in Iraq. *opinion.

    Our Foreign Policy needs to change. Especially Seeing them torture and kill Good People of All Faiths, Should be a sign we need to do more about them. But at what cost :/

Leave a Reply to browncoat777 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s