Behind the Headline: Who are Isis?

Militants from the radical Islamic group known as "Isis" have carved out a dominion for themselves in Syria and Iraq. Image from Reuters.

Militants from the radical Islamic group known as “Isis” have carved out a dominion for themselves in Syria and Iraq. Image from Reuters.

Fighters from a radical militant group known as “Isis” (short for “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”) claim to have overrun a large military base near Raqqa, Syria, though these reports could not be independently verified at press time. Meanwhile, a video has emerged showing Isis demolishing a sacred shrine in the Iraqi city of Mosul. For the past two months, this jihadist movement has refused to leave the headlines, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and seizing control of huge chunks of Syria and Iraq, setting up a government for these territories they now rule, kicking out Christians, and declaring their leader to be the new caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Who are these people that the U.S. State Department is calling “worse than Al Qaeda”? Where did they come from, and why are they doing this? It’s time once again to go behind the headline.

Who are Isis, and where did they come from?

Map of the areas under ISIS control by Doug Mataconis

Map of the areas under ISIS control by Doug Mataconis

The story behind Isis begins with the U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 2003. In the chaotic period following Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zaraqi moved in and began a campaign to oppose the U.S. military occupation. After al-Zaraqi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, his terrorist network became known in Western media as “Al Qaeda in Iraq”. For years, their suicide bombings and other attacks killed hundreds and frustrated attempts to stabilize the country. However, they started suffering a number of major setbacks. Al-Zaraqi was killed by a U.S. bomb in 2006, and not long thereafter Sunni Muslim tribal leaders in those parts of Iraq where they were operating started to turn on them. By 2008, Al Qaeda in Iraq was struggling for survival.

They started to regain some of their strength as U.S, forces withdrew from Iraq, but the event that really got them back on their feet was the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. The movement’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, decided to get involved in the new conflict across the border, and announced the merger between his movement and the Al-Nusra Front, a jihadist movement fighting both the dictatorship of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and more moderate, pro-democracy, Western-backed rebels. It was at this time that the movement changed its name to “Isis”, reflecting that it was operating in Syria as well as Iraq.

The alliance with the Al-Nusra front was short-lived; the two groups parted ways in 2013 and started fighting each other. By then, however, Isis had already gained a foothold in Syria. They started imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia law in the towns they occupied, forcing men to wear beards and women to wear a full veil. They use threats of violence against people’s families to keep them in line. To ensure that their orders are enforced as strictly and dispassionately as possible, they intentionally put people in charge who are not from the village, or even the country, they are policing, so there will be no temptation to be lenient. They execute those who violate their rules in public, and have gone so far as to chop off the hands of people caught stealing.

Isis soon found itself in a power struggle with its parent terrorist network, and by February of 2014, Al Qaeda completely disavowed Isis. Far from disrupting Isis’s momentum, the split only gave Isis the freedom to launch a massive offensive in Iraq. On June 9, they captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with about 1.8 million inhabitants. Twenty days later, Al-Baghdadi declared that the organization would change its name to “The Islamic State” and that he was assuming the long-extinct title of “caliph”, or leader of all Muslims worldwide, adopting the new name “Caliph Ibrahim”. On July 5, he released a video sermon in which he called on all Muslims around the world to support him. Since then, his ambitions have only grown, according to The Fiscal Times, who predict that he may soon try to expand his domain into even more Middle Eastern countries. The threat Isis presents has brought even the United States and Iran together in a mutual desire to stop them.

Wait, what is a Caliph, and why has Isis’s leader claimed that title?

When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD, the early leaders of the new religion of Islam met to decide who should lead the faithful. The caliph, whose title is Arabic for “successor”, was to be the supreme leader of all Muslims, sort of like how the pope is leader of all Roman Catholics. However, there was a major dispute among the early Muslim leadership over who should be the caliph, and these political divisions eventually led to the split of the Islamic faithful into two main sects: Sunnis and Shias. Sunnis supported the election of Abu Bakr, while the Shias supported Ali. The rivalry between the two led to a civil war, and over time these rival political factions started to adopt different religious teachings and practices as well.

Over the centuries, various dynasties of caliphs ruled over various parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, such as the Sunni Umayyads and Abbasids, or the Shia Fatmids. Each of these three dynasties could trace their ancestry to a relative of the Prophet Muhammad, but centuries later, as the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered and dominated most of the Middle East, the Ottoman sultans started to claim the title of caliph, and they were powerful enough that nobody dared challenge that claim.

As far as most mainstream Muslims are concerned, there has been no caliph since the Ottomans were overthrown in the 1920s. The re-establishment of a caliphate has been a goal of jihadist and radical Islamic movements for decades, yet Al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate was ridiculed by Isis’s opponents as “delusional”. If Al-Baghdadi can claim that title with no real merit, this USA Today editorial points out, what’s to stop any old average Joe from declaring himself caliph? It’s a meaningless declaration.

So, Isis is just another terrorist group with a crazy leader, right?

Actually, in many ways it has become a country for all practical intents and purposes. Ruling an area the size of Pennsylvania, it has a fully-functioning government, collecting taxes, providing key services like police, hospitals, garbage collection and welfare for the poor, and according to the U.S. State Department, they have a “full-blown army”. They have a capital city and are able to maintain control of both their own forces and the people in the areas they have captured quite effectively. Not only that, but Isis has access to enough oil and water to be economically viable as an independent country. The fear is that Isis will use their new domain as a safe haven for terrorists, as the Taliban had done in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

How do they keep power over the people?

ISIS forces image from The Telegraph

Largely through fear. As mentioned earlier, they are extremely strict and extremely brutal. They videotape themselves executing captured prisoners of war or other perceived enemies and post those videos online for the world to see. Any Muslim who doesn’t accept their radical version of Sunni Islam is killed, and Christians are told they must either convert to Islam or pay a “jizya” – an ancient tax early Muslims imposed on Christians living in their lands for the right to keep their religion. Almost all Christians in Isis-held cities have chosen to leave instead.

Having said that, they do have some legitimate support in the areas they rule. In Syria, the civil war has wreaked so much havoc that many Syrians find the Isis-held areas to be a peaceful safe haven where they don’t have to live in constant fear of being blown up or shot. In Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has done such a poor job accommodating the country’s Sunni minority that many Sunni Arab tribes and former supporters of Saddam Hussein’s regime have turned to Isis as an alternative, striking deals with Isis in return for cash and protection.

However, it’s not entirely clear how long Isis will enjoy this support. Isis has started destroying anything that smacks of their broad definition of “idolatry”, destroying irreplaceable artifacts from ancient civilizations, statues, Christian churches, and Islamic mosques and sacred shrines that don’t match their ideas about Islam.

Because nothing wins you support in the Middle East like destroying mosques!

Because nothing wins you support in the Middle East like destroying mosques!

What are Isis’s goals here?

As far as I can tell, power.

Last year, they claimed to want to conquer every land once ruled by Muslims, as far west as Spain and as far east as China. Journalist Sarah Birke argued that the biggest difference between Isis and other jihadist groups that have come before them is that Isis “tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule in conquered territory”. This is an important distinction: Isis is not content with just being a terrorist group. They want to rule, and to conquer, as the ancient empires of old had done.

John Gray wrote a column for BBC News where he argued that all of Isis’s talk of Islamic purity is a thin disguise for what amounts to a very modern revolutionary movement that has more in common with the Nazis, the Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge than with early Islam. They are a totalitarian dictatorship, he writes, who believe they can use “systematic violence” to remake society to fit their vision. An anonymous former Isis fighter who spoke to BBC News appears to have confirmed as such, describing their use of propaganda, brainwashing, and fear to get people to do what they want.

The only question left is what, exactly, can be done about them, and so far, answers to that question have proven elusive.

The Fault (and Success) in Our Hollywood Adaptations

TFIOS movie poster image from International Business Times

This isn’t going to be a normal movie review. Normally, I would simply give you a reaction to whatever movie I have just seen, with some background info on the film and a detailed breakdown of what parts of the movie I think worked and what parts didn’t. Usually, I try to make sure that the movies I review are relevant and timely – either they have just been released in theaters or have just been released on DVD and Netflix. This time, though, I watched The Fault In Our Stars, a movie based on the bestselling novel by John Green. I’m guessing that by the time this goes up, this movie will already have been pulled from theaters (it was pulled in my hometown yesterday) but won’t be available on Netflix or DVD yet.

Instead, I have decided to take this as an opportunity to give my thoughts on how Hollywood makes movies based on existing media – books, comic books, video games, earlier movies – and talk about what separates a good adaptation from a bad one. Considering the massive increase in adaptations Hollywood has been pumping out these past few years, it is getting ever more important to make good adaptations and avoid making bad ones.

If you are curious, though, The Fault in Our Stars was definitely a good movie. I didn’t care for the soundtrack, but it had great acting and a compelling story with believable characters, and it addresses some of the ugly, unpleasant sides of cancer and dying without being too dark, humorless, or preachy. I give it a 9 out of 10, and strongly recommend it. I also strongly recommend that you have some tissues handy.

With that out of the way, let’s look at what it takes to make a good Hollywood adaptation, with The Fault In Our Stars as an illustration.

It helps to have people who care about the original on the team

Fanboys image from The Examiner

When Francis Ford Coppola was asked to direct Paramount’s adaptation of the bestseller The Godfather, Coppola initially turned it down because he hadn’t finished the book yet! Now that is dedication. After Coppola finished reading the original, he changed his mind. Then, as they were preparing to go into production, the studio told him to make a number of changes to the story, such as setting it in modern-day Kansas City. Coppola fought back, insisting on staying true to the book. In the end, of course, Coppola’s The Godfather was a huge success and today it is remembered as one of the best movies ever made.

Almost everybody loves Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson had been a fan of Lord of the Rings for years, and had started thinking about turning it into a film trilogy as early as 1995. It took him years of wrangling with different studios before he was able to start making this vision a reality. Many of the people he brought on board to work on the trilogy were also fans of J.R.R. Tolkein’s books. This passion shows in the final films, all of which are clearly a sincere attempt to recreate Tolkein’s fantasy world on film.

Then, of course, there are the Marvel movies that I absolutely love. These movies are actually made by Marvel Entertainment, the company that produced the original comics they are based off of. Marvel created its own film wing that is able to make movies based on many of their most famous characters and comics (but not all of them, thanks to some old and complicated contracts).

Contrast all of this with the Transformers movies, all of which have become something of a punching bag by film critics who like to use them to highlight “everything wrong with Hollywood today”. I don’t like these movies, and I am far from alone.

Well, it turns out the director of these films, Michael Bay, has publicly stated that didn’t know anything about Transformers until he was hired to make the movies. In an interview for CraveOnline in 2007, he said, “I think I was two years older when the toys came out, so I just discovered girls then instead of Optimus Prime.” He then went on to explain that when he was hired, he had to go to a “Transformers school” where he was told about all the lore and characters of the series.

When an artist is passionate about his or her art, it shows. When the artist is just going through the motions and doesn’t really care, it shows. For movies, the last thing you want is to put people in charge who don’t care about the film in question and just want another paycheck. You get sloppy directing, actors who look tired and are clearly just going through the motions, and lazy writing that doesn’t make sense. In other words, you get Olympus Has Fallen.

Luckily, The Fault In Our Stars was made by a team that cared so deeply about getting the movie “right”, they had the novel’s author, John Green, on the set as a quasi-consultant watching everything. While he didn’t actually have any creative control over the movie, his presence and moral support almost certainly kept everyone on their toes. This is probably the first time I’d heard of such a thing – the makers of a movie adaptation of a novel asking the author to sit in on their filming. I don’t necessarily think filmmakers need to go quite that far, but the fact is that I could tell when watching the finished movie that these were people that “got it”, they understood what made the novel great and were trying (and mostly succeeding) to put that on the big screen.

That brings me to my next point…

Find the source material’s “emotional core” and get that right… not the details



Yes, I know. Every single adaptation of a movie, book, comic book, TV show, video game, and earlier movie will attract criticism from fans of the original that it got this or that detail wrong. People just love picking apart the details, angry that the filmmakers didn’t slavishly put every last thing in the movie exactly the way it was in the original, making this or that change that they don’t approve of.

Well, guess what? Somebody tried that. In 1998, Gus Van Sant did an exact, shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho. It barely broke even at the box office, and was panned by critics.

Meanwhile, the much-beloved Lord of the Rings movies took plenty of creative liberties with the source material, removing huge chunks of the books, rearranging events to make the film flow better, and adding new elements that were not in the original. Somebody even took the time to identify all of the differences between the movies and the books, if you are interested.

Likewise, one of my favorite adaptations of all time, the 1959 epic Ben-Hur, played fast and loose with the source material and made some pretty major changes. I read the book and I watched the movie, and I have to say that I am perfectly fine with the changes the filmmakers made.

What’s important is not getting the details right. What’s important is getting the emotional core right. There is something in the original material that appeals to its fans and draws them in. Your job in making an adaptation is to find what that “something” is and capture that in your film.

Fans loved the Lord of the Rings because it captured the fantastical world of Middle-Earth and sparked the viewers’ imaginations. This is what Tolkein’s novels had done for generations, and the movies were able to do the same for modern audiences. Audiences hated the RoboCop remake because took a film that was fun and satirical and made it dark and depressing.

The Fault In Our Stars is a great illustration, because for most of the movie it does this well, but near the end it starts to slip up in my estimation.

The original novel is about Hazel Grace, a 17-year-old cancer patient who is forced by her parents to go to a cancer support group because she is depressed. At first, she finds the whole thing to be worthless, but one day she meets Augustus Waters, a cool kid who takes a liking to her. Eventually, they fall in love and enjoy a whirlwind romance, only to have tragedy strike them as they are at the peak of their euphoria. Yes, it is a sappy love story, but it is also so much more. The book deals with the harsh, brutal reality of being terminally ill and having to spend half one’s life in hospitals. It also harshly criticizes our society for being unable to face this harsh reality, as we try to avert our eyes and paper over it with lies we tell ourselves.

Many of the early scenes in the novel were cut for time, but it made up for them by inserting new, much shorter scenes that captured the feel, tone, and message of the novel. For example, in one early scene that the movie came up with, Hazel and her mother are talking to her doctor. The doctor refers to Hazel’s struggles with cancer as her “journey”. Hazel gets offended by such a cutesy metaphor being used to describe such a horrible existence. The scene is very quick, but very effective.

Much of the first third of the film is like that, and it isn’t until the relationship between Hazel and Augustus really gets going that the film starts being more faithful to the source material, capturing more scenes in better detail. I’m fine with that, because the movie still delivers on that “emotional core” that made the book so powerful to me.

Then, the film gets to the ending. This is where I disagree with the direction the movie took. It isn’t a bad ending by any means, but it rearranges the order in which the key moments take place. The novel seemed to have a very methodical arrangement to the events in the ending, leaving me pondering the nature of how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. By showing those sames scenes but putting them out-of-order, I felt it took away from that sensation and weakened the story’s final message.

What this demonstrates is that it is okay to make changes, as long as those changes don’t detract from the source material’s emotional core. It’s when changes undermine that emotional core that they become a problem.

More than anything else, make a good movie

Filmmaking image from UC Berkeley

At the end of the day, how a movie will be remembered will be based on its overall quality, not on any one detail. The Fault In Our Stars is a good movie overall; the fact it is a good adaptation is just icing on the cake.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are among the least faithful movies to their source material that I have ever seen. Yet we forgive them because they are great movies in their own right, Batman or no Batman. You could have replaced all the characters from the comics with new characters that Nolan and his scriptwriters made up, and they would still work as great movies.

Meanwhile, movies like Watchmen polarize audiences into “love-it-or-hate-it” camps. Watchmen tried its darnedest to stay as close to the source material as they could given the resources they had, but in doing so they trapped themselves because the original Watchmen comics were incredibly dark and depressing. If you aren’t into dark and depressing movies, Watchmen won’t appeal to you. It’s that simple.

It is good for the filmmakers to be passionate about the movie they are making. It is good for the filmmakers to identify the emotional core of their source material and use that as a guide when they inevitably have to make changes as they write their script. At the end of the day, though, none of this will matter if the movie isn’t any good. Talented directors, actors, writers, film crews, and post-production editors working together with a common vision will always be the recipe for a good movie, no matter what kind of movie it is. We could argue over whether there are too many or too few of any one genre of movie, or whether or not we are currently on adaptation overload. What matters in the end is how good a movie is, not what kind of movie it is.

What does it mean to be American?

Reenactors image from Revolutionary War Reenacting

Yesterday was the annual celebration of the independence of the United States, a patriotic day to celebrate all things American. While I was taking pride in my country, though, I started to think about what it means to be American.

No, I’m not talking about our values or culture or the ideas we were founded on. I’m talking about the literal definition of that word – “American”. What does that word mean? It turns out, it means different things to different people.

Here in the United States, “American” simply means “people and things from the United States”. For example, I am an American, grilled hot dogs are a classic American food, and Washington, D.C. is the American national capital. However, if I were to travel to Argentina, people would be legitimately offended and upset by my using the word “American” that way.

What many people in the United States don’t realize is that people in Central and South America consider themselves “Americans” too. After all, the term “America” (or sometimes “The Americas”) is also a continental term, referring to the giant land mass encompassing everything from Canada to Chile. The United States of America is just one country in North America, and together with South America there are 35 independent countries and 25 territories that could legitimately call themselves “American”.

If somebody from Peru were to travel to the United States and call himself an “American”, we would be confused, because we are just so used to using the word “American” to refer to ourselves pretty much exclusively. Conversely, the fact that we use the words “America” and “American” to refer to the United States alone is seen by many in Latin America as being at best culturally insensitive and at worst a symbol of perceived U.S. imperialism.

How did this situation come about? Why do we have a name that is shared by two continents, and a country on one of those continents? And how did “American” come to be used in the United States as a national term, and by other countries as a regional term?

Let’s start at the very beginning. I’m sure most of you are aware that when Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, he thought he had reached some islands off the coast of Asia. Of course, it wouldn’t be long before other explorers figured out that Columbus was wrong, and that what he had actually discovered was a new continent. The man who finally made that mental connection was fellow Italian sailor Amerigo Vespucci. In 1507, German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller named the new continent “America” in Vespucci’s honor.

The map that started it all, currently housed in the Library of Congress

The map that started it all, currently housed in the Library of Congress

A close-up showing the first ever use of the name "America"

A close-up showing the first ever use of the name “America”

It would be later generations of mapmakers who decided to divide America into a North and a South continent.

Fast-forward to 1776, and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The full title of that open letter explaining the decision to break away from Great Britain was “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America” – coining the name of my home country. However, the context of the document makes it clear that this newly-independent United States was NOT the United States that we understand today. The text reads, “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States”. Note the plural there. States. As in, multiple sovereign and independent countries.

What most people today don’t realize was that the United States of America was originally understood to be an alliance between countries that broke away from Great Britain together. That’s why it was given such an unwieldy name. It was a name of an international alliance that happened to be located in North America – kind of like the “Association of Southeast Asian Nations” or the “European Union”.

In fact, the European Union is a great analogy of how the United States used to function and understand itself. Just like the European Union is legally an international organization but functionally has a federal-government-like structure that has power over its member nations, so too the early United States saw itself in the plural. People said “These United States are…”, and everyday citizens saw themselves as New Yorkers or North Carolinians or Missourians. This is a large part of why the civil war happened.

Well, that and slavery.

Slavery being another, very large part.

After all, if Virginia is a sovereign state that voluntarily chose to join an alliance with Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and other sovereign states like it, why couldn’t it decide to leave this alliance?

The reason we now see ourselves as a single, unified nation (“The United States is…”) has everything to do with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. People forget this, but many in the northern Union states didn’t want to fight the Civil War. Lincoln and his supporters justified the war to the people by promoting a new idea: nationalism. The stars-and-stripes, previously used primarily as a military and naval marker, became a powerful symbol among civilians to show that they supported the Union. Pro-war northern propaganda blended the ideas of Union, God, and the abolition of slavery together as part of a new national identity that should be held in common by all. Union victory guaranteed that this picture of the United States not as an alliance but as a nation would take hold as the dominant legal, political, and social framework we have had ever since.

This brings me back to the peculiarity that when I call myself an “American”, I mean “I am a citizen of the United States”. While our Founding Fathers included territories that were not a part of the United States when they used the word “American”, during and after the Civil War the term became a national identifier. In the English language, “American” came to almost exclusively be used to mean “of or pertaining to the United States of America”. After all, if we are supposed to be one nation, what else are we going to call ourselves? “United Statesian?” Some people have suggested that term, but it just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

On the other hand, this linguistic oddity evolved in the United States but not in Latin America. Latin America was not really affected all that much by our Civil War, and kept right on using “American” in the continental sense, as they still do today.

So, how does a native Spanish-speaker specify someone is from the United States instead of just somebody from anywhere in the Americas? We have no word for that in English, but in Spanish they do have a word that specifically means “from the United States”: estadounidense. This word is simple, precise, and does the job quite nicely. Well, except for the fact that the U.S.A. isn’t the only country that uses “United States” in its name – Mexico’s full name is “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”, or “United Mexican States” in English. Theoretically, estadounidense could also refer to Mexico. Fortunately, unlike the U.S.A., Mexico does have a perfectly acceptable and not-confusing alternate name – Mexico. Spanish speakers simply refer to people from Mexico as “Mexicanos“, Mexicans, reserving estadounidense exclusively for the United States that I live in.

I guess the moral of this story is that when travelling in Latin America, say “estadounidense“, and when travelling in the United States, say “American”. Hopefully, in this way we can avoid any unintended confusion or offense.

Still not sure what to do with Captain America, though...

Still not sure what to do with Captain America, though…