Patrick Schwerdtfeger is a motivational speaker who can cover the Arab Spring and how it has evolved into sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq at your next business event. Contact us to check availability. The full transcript of the above video is included below.
Full Video Transcript:
Hi and welcome to another edition of Strategic Business Insights. Today we’re going to talk about the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS. Who are these people? Where did they come from and what’s actually going on?
So first off let’s just define the actual term ISIS. The definition of that is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That’s what it stands for. And ISIL over here, I-S-I-L, stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which was a slightly earlier name. Now they’re referring themselves to the Islamic State or just IS and they originally, before all of this, were referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq. All the same people. It’s just different evolutions. They kind of changed their name as they went along.
Now, there are a number of things that you need to understand about what’s going on here. These same people have fought in multiple different theaters. Many of these people were fighting in Afghanistan when we the United States was in Afghanistan; they were in Iraq; they may have fought in Libya; they may have fought in Syria as well.
Now, there are a number of different things I want to explain here. First off, the concept of national borders, it’s quite foreign actually in the Muslim world. They didn’t pick that on their own. Those borders were largely imposed onto them by the British and the Americans after World War I when the Ottoman Empire fell, and these borders as it turns out are fairly arbitrary based on how the Muslim world works. Within the Muslim world religion plays a much larger role in their politics than religion does in politics here in America or in the Western world, so we should be differentiating based more on their religious sects and affiliations and less so on geographical borders and the things that we have generally chosen in the Western world to define the end of one country and the beginning of another.
In the Muslim world, there are two primary sects. There are many smaller groups and there are real tribal affiliations; tribal affiliations are very strong in the Muslim world. But there are two primary sects: One is Sunni Muslims and the other is Shia Muslims. And the difference between the two is not necessarily so important, but you should know that it starts right from the very beginning of the Islamic faith and it really started with who should be the successor of the Prophet Muhammad.
But again, that difference is not so important; what is important is that in the Muslim world there are these two primary sects and in the Sunni side, kind of the two primary players on the Sunni side are Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and they actually take a very different approach just between the two of them. So Turkey is a little bit more secular, certainly a lot more secular than Saudi Arabia, although they have been going slightly more in the Islamic religious side, not fundamentalist but a little more conservative in the last five to 10 years, but they’re certainly still much more secular than Saudi Arabia, which is much more conservative. But they’re both Sunni Muslims, okay?
On the other side you have Iran and they’re Shia – 95% Shia in Iran and 90% Sunni in Saudi Arabia. So they’re completely different and these two factions don’t like each other very much, like they hate each other in many cases. Not everybody, but there are definitely factions within both of them that hate each other and believe that they have to destroy the other in order to fulfill Allah’s vision. In other words, the truest form of their faith requires that they conquer the other faction first. This is before they even attack Western people such as Americans or Europeans. So there’s a lot of hatred between these two, so there’s a real competition. Like the fact that America is now getting along with Iran a little bit more, we’re speaking to them at least and negotiating regarding their nuclear issue and now all of sudden there are some diplomatic conversations taking place, this infuriates Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is not happy about this at all. So there’s this real competition between Shia and Sunni.
Now, in Syria and Iraq, Syria is like 80% Sunni and 20% Shia, and that’s a faction of Shia called the Alawites, but Alawites are essentially a Shia sect. Now, the thing is that in Syria the Alawites are ruling. It’s a minority rule situation. The Shia rule but you have 80% Sunni in the population. That causes a lot of tension and Assad’s regime has to be very brutal to suppress that tension in the Sunni population because that’s the majority, they’re the minority rule. The same used to be true in Iraq because Iraq is like 65% Shia and 35% Sunni, and Saddam Hussein was Sunni. So there again he had minority rule except the opposite: Instead of Shia ruling, it was Sunnis ruling with a majority Shia population. So again there was a lot of tension and Saddam Hussein had to be very brutal to keep that tension down to stop rioting and social unrest and sectarian violence. They had to be a very, very strong rule.
What happened when America went into Iraq? Well, when America went into Iraq we had democratic elections, which again doesn’t make that much sense in the Muslim world, in a country where you have these religious differences, these two different sects competing, because of course if 65% of the Iraq population is Shia then through a democratic election they were going to elect a Shia prime minister. And Nuri al-Maliki was Shia. So what did he do? Well, they don’t think the way we do in the Western world to the same extent that we do. The idea of ruling all of their people regardless of what religion they have, that’s not the way they see it. Some do but most don’t, and certainly Nuri al-Maliki did not at all. It’s also important to realize that he had a lot of pressure from Iran, who’s 95% Shia, to say, “Here is your chance. Here is your chance to make Iraq a Shia nation just like Iran.” So Iran actually supported Nuri al-Maliki. They were essentially allies, and Nuri al-Maliki basically marginalized all of the Sunni Muslims and also the Kurds in the North of Iraq. They weren’t included in most of the government posts. Almost all of the powerful positions were held by Shia Muslims.
And so what happens? The Sunni Muslims get furious. They used to rule the country. Through Saddam Hussein, they ruled the country. That was their land. They had the positions of power before the Americans came in. Now all of a sudden the tables have turned and the Shia have all the powerful positions and the Sunnis get nothing. And so they were getting more and more angry as time goes on.
So there are a lot of Sunni militias that actually are comprised of soldiers who used to be in the National Guard or whatever under Saddam Hussein. His armed forces, those people are still alive. It’s only 10 years later. So they’re still there. They’re now a part of Sunni militias. At the same time, in Syria, the Sunni rebels, the people who are against the Assad regime, they’re being infiltrated who used to be affiliated with Iraq and Afghanistan, people who fought in Libya. And out comes the Islamic State, they’re angry, they’re furious, everything’s been taken away from them, and so they become extremely brutal and the whole thing starts to spread.
Now, what really tipped the balance is that the Sunni militias in Iraq started to side with the Islamic State even though the Islamic State was incredibly brutal and their methods are harsh. I mean, the beheadings and everything – they’re hard core. But even though they are so brutal, they joined forces because joining forces with them was better than having to be under Shia rule under Nuri al-Maliki. And so they joined forces. That’s why the Islamic State just had this huge advance through Iraq and captured Mosul and Tikrit and a whole bunch of cities primarily in the north of Iraq. ISIS just went straight through and conquered wide swaths of Iraq. Why did that happen? Because the Sunni militias joined forces with ISIS because they were so frustrated with Nuri al-Maliki.
Now, what’s happened in the meantime? Well, Nuri al-Maliki, under huge pressure because he wasn’t getting any help certainly from the United States unless he was a more inclusive leader, and he said at one point, “We will go to the gates of hell before we are more inclusive…” So Nuri al-Maliki did not want Sunni Muslims in powerful positions. He is a Shia. He is more loyal to the Shia sect of Islam than he is to the country of Iraq. So he was like, “No, I’m not going to do it.” But anyway, under huge pressure from the United States and a lot of other political establishments all around the world, he finally agreed to step aside and now we have someone else who’s running the show who has promised to be a bit more inclusive. That might solve the problem. It might give us a chance to appease some of these sectarian tensions within Iraq.
But there’s one more thing that I need to talk about here, which is very important. Iraq and Syria are right side by side. They share a big border. And again, these national borders don’t mean as much within the Muslim world as they do in the Western world. They don’t think so much, “Okay, I’m south of the border so I’m American. I’m north of the border so I’m Canadian,” or something in Europe between France and Germany or whatever. They don’t think the same way. They think, “I’m Shia or I’m Sunni.” That’s the bigger distinction for them.
Now, in Syria we are against the Assad regime. The Americans are against the Assad regime because it’s minority rule. They’ve been very brutal, a lot of human rights violations frankly on both sides, but we point the ones out that are on the Assad regime side; there’s been plenty on the other side as well. But anyway, we’re against Assad and so we are for the rebels. Who are the rebels in Syria? ISIS. ISIS and a bunch of other more moderate rebel groups. But the bottom line is that they’re all the same people. These people all know each other. They have been fighting together for years because that part of the world’s been in turmoil for an awfully long time. So we support ISIS in Syria and we have found ways of getting arms and ammunition and equipment into their hands. We say we’re not doing it and we aren’t delivering it directly but, for example, there were entire convoys of equipment going from Libya over into Syria and we knew it was happening – we never did anything to stop it.
So we are facilitating weapons going into Syria into the hands of the Syrian rebels who are comprised of ISIS among other people, and then on the other side of the border, which means nothing to them but it means something to us, we are against ISIS in Iraq because in Iraq we’re for the democratically elected government, which is Shia. So in one case we’re against the Shia and for the Sunnis and in the other we’re for the Shia and against the Sunnis. So the equipment that goes into Syria ends up crossing the border. We supply indirectly the equipment on the Syrian side of the border, then they take it across the border and use the same equipment against the Shia Iraqis and indirectly against our own forces in Iraq.
So the American foreign policy is completely divided and not consistent at all in the eyes of the Muslim world. Again, think about the difference: In the Western world we think along democratic lines with national borders. In our world, it makes sense. The majority in Iraq is Shia, the majority in Syria is Sunni – so from our perspective it makes perfect sense that the majority should rule. But in the Muslim world, that doesn’t make any sense. The policy contradicts itself and the Americans are seen as not understanding the fundamentals of the Muslim world because we’re supporting opposite sides of the argument based on a national border that they hardly even recognize. So right now the key is to give arms to moderate rebel groups in Syria to fight against the Assad regime and against ISIS. Do you know how crazy that is? We’re asking a moderate Sunni rebel group to fight against Assad and against another more extreme Sunni sect, which is ISIS.
So again, I don’t have a solution to the problem but the problem is what I’m trying to explain in this video, is that we have a very contradictory policy and this whole reality of ISIS and their brutality is emerging out of a reality that we helped create. The Americans helped create this problem. I’m not saying it was intentional, but by the fight in Afghanistan, the drone strikes which they hate—imagine a foreign country flying over a bad neighborhood in your country and bombing gangs in your backyard. The people like in Pakistan, for example, and Yemen and Somalia, these drone strikes are big news items in the Muslim world and they hate those drone strikes. So the violence that we have contributed to, I’m not saying they didn’t start the fight with 9/11, but since then we have contributed: We’ve tried to solve the problem using Western rules that don’t apply in the Muslim world and that has fueled the current reality.
So what are we doing now? We’re trying to solve the problem again using Western rules and I’m not convinced it’s going to work. It might appease it for a time or shift the problem to somewhere else, but this problem can’t be solved by Western rules. It has to be solved by Muslim rules and they’ve got to figure this out themselves somehow. And I don’t know how we can help to facilitate that, but we have to really learn to look at this through their eyes and not through our own.
I hope this helps you understand who these folks are and where they came from and why this is such a complicated problem from a foreign policy perspective. Thanks for watching this video. My name is Patrick, reminding you as always to think bigger about your business, think bigger about your life.
Patrick Schwerdtfeger is a keynote speaker who has spoken at business conferences in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.