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  • A History of ISIS by Fawaz Gerges
  • Sargon Donabed
Fawaz Gerges, A History of ISIS. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. 384, hardcover, $27.95 US.

A History of ISIS by Fawaz Gerges elucidates the founding and development of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Da'esh or IS, ISIS, ISIL) within the historical context of shifting geopolitics of the Middle East. The work has particular relevance in the wake of IS's callous acts of ethnic cleansing, wholesale sex-slavery, and (as some have argued) genocidal and ethnocidal activities which became part and parcel of visual and print media beginning in 2014–2015. Through a two-pronged approach, Gerges argues the establishment of IS is part of the "social and material circumstances and conditions" (23) in the region and beyond, highlighting the various socio-cultural and economic factors. [End Page 151]

Gerges promptly creates a scaffolding for readers unfamiliar with the history of religious radicalization in the region. Through assessments of current IS headman Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his predecessors, Gerges delves into the continuum of leadership of various radical movements revealing parallels and distinctions. The author demonstrates Baghdadi's prowess for having "surpassed his two mentors," Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Ladin, "in strategic cunning, organizational skills, and mobilizational outreach. Regardless of whether Baghdadi lives or dies, his declaration of an Islamic State in the Fertile Crescent has already upended the Arab state system in a fundamental way and brought a realignment of regional and international politics" (143). Following this discussion, Gerges tackles the question of the Ba'thist Sunni Arab "former military and police" inclusion in the overall structure of IS and the controversial discussion of just how much of the decision-making was instigated by former Iraqi Ba'thists (149). On this point, readers will see the nexus of complexity between seemingly unrelated elements which contributed to and continue providing for the ascendency of IS and its ideology.

In an otherwise succinctly erudite account, there are a few lacunae within the text that could be clarified and discussed in further detail. For example, while not the focus of the book, the engagements between the various Kurdish political and military groups and IS and their lasting impact on minorities in the region, especially the largely-vulnerable Yazidis, needs to be addressed vis-à-vis the Kurdish nation-building project and identity politics. Also, with the exception of one mention (33), Gerges does not discuss that Assyrians of Iraq and Syria have, like their Yezidi brethren, been the object of IS ire, both as ethnic Assyrians (e.g., the destruction of ancient monuments and structures from Nimrud/Kalhu to the Mosul museum) and as largely religiously Christian (e.g., the expulsion of Christians from Mosul, branding of Nun on houses designating Christian homes, and occupation and destruction of churches and monasteries) have endured ethnic cleansing and ethnocide. In some cases, like the razing of villages along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria and subsequent kidnapping of over 250 individuals, the current threat of IS has only added to the large-scale flight of all minorities from the region alongside indigenous Assyrians/Yazidis.

There is also the question of the usage of nomenclature including the application of genocide and ethnic cleansing. While for the most part, ethnic cleansing against Yazidis is mentioned (30–33), as well as the similar treatment of Christians, Gerges also gives expression to what he employs in a subheading as "Zarqawi's genocidal anti-Shia ideology" (81). While its explanation is brief, it could be utilized in a more comparative approach to explain to a more sufficient degree why in this case the term genocidal is used, whereas in the Yezidi and Christian case ethnic cleansing is adopted. Understandably, the author may have little or no desire to embark on a political and/or legal discussion of genocide, but the fact remains that with the varied usage of terms and explanations a more thorough rendering of the topic should be reviewed.

Gerges states, IS ". . . is both a symptom of the breakdown of state institutions in the heart of the Arab world and a clash of identities between Sunni...


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pp. 151-153
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