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The Islamic State is a Fever

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By Diane L. Maye
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

In 1938, the historian and political scientist Crane Brinton aptly described the timeline of revolutionary activity through his metaphor of a “fever.”  He described revolution as an abnormality, or societal “fever” that starts with the disaffection from the elite class, or educated population.

In the case of Iraq, you see this disaffection with members of the old regime: Ba’athists, Sunni elites, and tribal leaders. According to Brinton, this disaffection then leads to the growth of opposition movements and radicalized organizations. In Iraq, we’ve seen these groups proliferate exponentially since the fall of the Ba’ath party in 2003. The opposition movements are typically followed with revolutionary organizations that provide services for sectors of society that have been marginalized by the standing government. Generally, the government orders the use of force but this use of force against these groups, but is not used effectively and many times doesn’t work at all. As Brinton would have predicted, in the first few years of his second term, Prime Minister Maliki had quite a bit of trouble maintaining the support of the Iraqi Army and Security Police in those areas.Islamic State Iraq

Now, according to Brinton, political moderates would normally not be revolutionaries—but because they cannot get what they want under the current government, they support the revolution. Extremists are those who under normal circumstances do not have a customary role in society, they typical operate in the fringes (like convicts and criminals). These two unlikely allies unite during a revolution. We see this quite aptly with the united efforts of the Ba’athist-led Jaysh Rijal Tariqah Al-Naqsahbandi (JRTN) and the Islamic State in 2014. After a standing regime falls, the moderates jockey for power to control the government. Likewise, they may find it’s not easy to govern without economic and political ties to foreign powers once the revolution subsides. The extremists that helped to win the revolution start to become critical of moderates and create cleavages within the new regime. Brinton warns us that this can lead to a “reign of terror” whereby there is an intense power vacuum between the moderates trying to rule the country and the extremist forces that helped propel the revolution.

If Iraq’s Sunni moderates are not assisted, and extremist forces gain more ground in the country, Brinton’s model predicts the ominous reign of terror will take root, which is what we are seeing throughout much of the Islamic State’s territory. This particular reign of terror is especially troublesome, given the nature of the extremist and fundamentalist nature of the terrorist organizations involved in this particular fight. It is important to note that extremist forces in Iraq are already very hard at work de-legitimizing the moderate and pragmatic portions of the society and destroying its history.

According to Brinton’s model, the only way to break the fever is to support the moderates, and give them the help they need. We do see some of this today, with policymaker and media pundits speculating on the Iraqi Speaker, Salim Jabouri’s role as a Sunni leader and looking to the Sunni tribes for political support. As 2015 unfolds, the Iraqi government is likely to identify more key Sunni moderates, at both the governmental and tribal levels, that will build partnerships to help contain the Islamic State.

Diane Maye is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at George Mason University and an adjunct faculty member at American Military University.

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