Is ISIS Violence A Sign Of A Permanent Sunni-Shiite Rift?

The conflict in Iraq is rooted in long-running ethnic and religious divisions. Middle East analyst Phebe Marr tells NPR's Scott Simon why political reconciliation appears nearly impossible.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week's events in Iraq have prompted some to consider if the nation might, or event should, break apart into separate Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish nations. The fighting and rapid territorial gains are fanning the political aspirations of groups that have long felt marginalized, and at times, many have been brutally suppressed.

We're joined now by Phebe Marr, the author of "The Modern History Of Iraq." Thanks so much for being with us.

PHEBE MARR: My pleasure.

SIMON: ISIS is so often called extremist and brutal - are they?

MARR: Yes. According to their record, they certainly are. They do beheadings. They are responsible, of course, for car bombs that blow up people in marketplaces. They are conducting assassinations, and they make their strict rules very clear. They also have very strict religious provisions. They've told women they should stay in the house unless there's an emergency. Men are supposed to grow beards. Of course, they enforce strict dress codes - no drinking, smoking. All of these things are, of course, much more restrictive and stricter than most Muslims in Iraq are used to.

SIMON: Does ISIS pose a threat to the U.S. or U.S. interests?

MARR: Yes, it certainly does. How severe that threat is remains to be seen, but any place where there are political spaces, where groups like this can get a foothold, can grow, get a base, so to speak, where they can plot and plan - is a threat not only to the countries they're in - to the neighbors who may be our allies, and in the case of Turkey, a NATO partner. But most significantly now, many of their recruits are coming from Europe and even some from the United States. They're being trained, indoctrinated, and they're going to be sent home to wait orders to conduct operations there.

SIMON: When you say sent home, do you mean Turkey? Do you mean Germany? Do you mean Cleveland?

MARR: Yes, that's right. For example, if you - you've got a Muslim, a hyphenated Muslim, an Iraqi-American, a Somali-American, you know, Pakistani-American, somebody who might be caught up in the propaganda, recruited by these people. He is an American, has an American passport and could be sent back here to be part of a sleeper cell to conduct operations later on. That's the sort of long-term fear and worry that the Europeans and the Americans have with the ingathering of large ISIS groups like this.

SIMON: And do you see this fight between ISIS and the Muslim Shiite government of Iraq as fitting into an all-out battle between Sunni and Shia that spills over several national boundaries?

MARR: Yes, indeed. ISIS is an offshoot of an earlier group, al-Qaida - either in Iraq. You may remember that we and the Iraqis killed its leader, and that is the group that we subdued when we were there. Now this is a new offshoot, which seems to have gotten its start in Syria, right across the border. They are in control of some Syrian towns, especially Rakha, which is in Northeast Syria near the border with Iraq. They have territory there, and they now have a lot of cells across the border in Iraq. And they - since they straddle the boarder now, they're calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham - that's Syria. So they're operating across the Syrian and Iraq border.

SIMON: Historian Phebe Marr serves on the Board of Advisory Editors of the Middle East Journal. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARR: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.