The Islamic State and Syrian Refugee Crisis for Dummies

It is shameful to admit, but there is so very much I do not understand about what is happening in the world outside my own four walls.  Being a Midwestern mom is no excuse for ignorance, so I found myself trying to learn more this weekend after Friday’s events in Paris, albeit in a Midwestern mom kind of way.

I fully appreciate that the methods I chose to learn are no doubt biased, based primarily on Google searches and some informative articles found peppered in my Facebook feed, but it’s a start.  There is some comfort to be found in learning that the world’s leading experts on the dire situation have no confidence that our political leaders are doing any better than most of the rest of us in understanding or responding to the threat or crisis.

Okay, let’s just jump right in and learn together.

Map from  Syria is circled in lower right corner.
Map from Syria is circled in lower right corner.

Syria is located in the middle east, sandwiched between Turkey and Iraq.  When the Arab Spring began in late 2010 and other mid-east power systems were toppling (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya among others), the Al-Assad family that has ruled Syria since 1971 dug in its heels against protest and civil war resulted.

With all of the chaos and unrest in neighboring Iraq, the problems in Syria created a prime opportunity for the Islamic State to act and claim territory for itself, expanding its reach.  This is a crucial development to understand about how and why the Islamic State is different than the other well known terrorist threat of Al-Qaeda.

The Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS, Isil, or Daesh (read about the “branding” or name controversy HERE.), has goals and objectives that are significantly different than Al-Qaeda.  For one, the name is very significant.  Al-Qaeda operates primarily as an underground terrorist network whose objectives are often political in nature, including the destruction of western economic structures.

ISIS, on the other hand, has goals and objectives that are more religious.  To be legitimate and recognized by believers, the Islamic State requires a caliph and a caliphate.  A caliph is the chief Muslim civil and religious leader.  A caliphate is a form of Islamic government, including territory, ruled by the caliph.

There are strict rules about just who is qualified to be deemed the caliph.  The last caliph was taken down by the Turks in 1924 and his successor was named in the summer of 2014.  His name is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Africa, via Boko Haram, declared their own caliph shortly after, but has since sworn allegiance to Baghdadi as the one true caliph.

When Baghdadi publicly declared the Muslim caliphate in June 2014, an influx of true believers descended upon Syria, wanting to be a part of the uprising.  These are people — men, women, and families even, that wish to live under authentic Sharia law.  The coda of Sharia is ancient and based on teachings from the Quran.

Saudi Arabia, perhaps more than any other country, practices Sharia law, though the current caliph believes Saudi Arabia does not follow Sharia thoroughly enough.  If someone is accused of theft, their right hand is amputated under Sharia law.  Death is considered a suitable punishment for many perceived sins, e.g., not believing in Muhammad as the true prophet, leading a Muslim away from their faith, not following the teachings of the Quran, and a host of other trespasses.  Common forms of punishment practiced by ISIS include stoning, beheading, and crucifixion.

Note that the vast majority of Muslims do not advocate for true Sharia law.  HERE is an excellent article from the Council on Foreign Relations about Sharia law and how most Muslim countries live under some modified form of the law.

The Atlantic is providing some excellent commentary for those who wish to better understand the crisis and what is happening and why.  “What ISIS Really Wants” was published in March and, more than anything else I have read, enables the lay person to better understand the difference between the Muslim faith and the fanaticism of the Islamic State.   And “The Confused Person’s Guide to the Syrian Civil War” will help the lay person, or Midwestern mom like myself, untangle the conflict.

With all of the unrest, between civil war and the creation of the Islamic State, native Syrians are fleeing in droves creating the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.  This animated video from In a Nutshell helps explain the proportions of the crisis.

The reality of this refugee crisis might have hit home for many of us mothers with the image of the three year old boy washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea after fleeing Syria with his family.  The boy’s name was Alan Kurdi.  He was three years old and from Syria, with Kurdish ethnicity.  His family was working to reach Canada in hopes of a better life.

This boy has a name.  It is Alan Kurdi.
This boy has a name. It is Alan Kurdi.

The refugee crisis has put immense pressure on much of Europe.  There is growing backlash against the refugees and concerns about what the larger ramifications of absorbing so many people from such a different culture will have on European day-to-day life.  Anger and hatred is on the rise.

I have no idea how to address these concerns, the growing crisis of fundamentalism in our world, the isolationist response to other’s pain and sorrow.  No.  Idea.  At.  All.

I do know that after a weekend of poking around the Internet just a bit, I feel better informed and aware of the hows and the whys.  The hate I see reflected in my own Facebook feed has been defeating to me, friends and acquaintances spreading anti-Muslim sentiment.  More informed friends providing smug updates about how much more of the world than Paris suffers.  Others shaming anyone who dare place a French flag on their profile picture.

We are so very divided.  There is so much we fear that we don’t know about.  The first step, as in everything, is to learn.  I hope these insights have helped just a bit.

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