Does the Islamic State have a connection to the First World War?

Essay, 2016

8 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1) Historical context “The past that will not go away”

2) Analysis of the Islamic State

3) Bibliography

Is there a connection between the First World War and the Islamic State?

The 9th June 2014 marks a turning point in the long history of armed, bloody conflicts in the Middle East. On this day Muslims all over the world prepared for their religious day of rest, the jihadist terror organisation “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) under the leadership of Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi started a well-prepared attack against the government troops of Iraq in and around Mosul. Al-Baghdadis predecessor Abu Musab al Zarqawi found the organisation “al-tauhid wa al-jihad” in 1999, before he went into war against the US occupying power that controlled the land of the Tigris and Euphrates.[1] After Zarqawi pledged his loyalty (baia) to Usama Bin Ladin, the leader of Al-Qaida he decided to name his organisation “Al-Qaida in Iraq” (AQI). By choosing the nominal connection to the well-known organisation Al-Qaida Zarqawi followed the aim to lift his reputation under other jihadist groups in the Iraq to achieve supporters. Although, he achieved his goal he became the main adversary of the US-troops that succeeded in killing him in 2006. His first predecessor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (2006-2010), continued this fight and renamed the organisation into “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI).[2] The ISI was militarily weakened since 2008 and therefore its significance severely diminished. After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in April 2011, that required new fighters for the Holy War, the jihad, the ISI translocated the majority of its activities to Syria. At this time Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi renamed the organisation, in accordance with its new territory to “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). Through the unexpected attack against Mosul, the ISIS rose like the phoenix from the ashes and returned to their homeland more powerful than before.[3]

However, to understand the foundation of the Islamic State it is of major importance to analyse the history of the relation between Europe and the Middle East. Since the foundation of the Islamic State (IS) on June 29 in 2014, analysts and historians debate about the origin and aims of it. Therefore, in the second step of this essay I will demonstrate the history of the Middle East by focusing particularly on the First World War as a starting point.

However, to understand the violence and hatred against the western population, it should be clearly in mind to analyse the argumentation and reasons of the Islamic State itself. This will be done as a third step.

1) Historical context “The past that will not go away”

The jihadist terror of the “Islamic State” that threatens the West and Europe today had its beginning in the Iraq. The self-appointed khalif of the “Islamic State” Abu Bakr- al Baghdadi, as well as, his closest military supporters are also rooted from the Iraq. From all 22 states of the Arabic world, the Iraq is the most heterogeneous with particularly regards of ethnic and confession. However, this is also the reason for many confessional and ethnic conflicts since its foundation in 1921. Rightly, the Iraq is today known as a failed state, due to its absence of any statehood and the divergence of the ethnic groups that do not share any common national identity. According to the disintegration of the state structures in 2003, power vacuums arose, as a result of the invasion of the US. These power vacuums offered ideal conditions for radical religious or national groups, like the “Islamic State”, that used these vacuums for their own purposes.[4]

The fruitful lands of the old Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates belong to the oldest cultivated lands of the world. In Mesopotamia the old oriental high cultures and kingdoms of Sumerer, Akkader, and Babylonia distributed; through the invention of the cuneiform writing one of the first Scriptures of humankind was developed. Moreover, the first legal codes and the foundation of mathematic and astronomy emerged from that area.[5] After the era of the Babylonia, the Persian Achaemenids ruled until the conquest of Alexander the Great, which marked the starting point of the Hellenistic era. From the third century Mesopotamia developed to the Sassanid Persian kingdom that perished in the time, as the Muslim Arab, that had conquered other areas of the Middle East and Northern Africa, began their triumphal march after the death of Muhammad.[6] Since the middle of the seventh century the former Mesopotamia developed to one of the core areas of the Islamic kingdom; the southern part was named Iraq. Under the Sunni Abbasiden caliph, Bagdad was raised to a residence in 762. Almost 500 years Bagdad experienced a brilliant epoch as the centre of the Arabic-Islamic world that ended in 1258 with the conquest and destruction of Bagdad through the Mongols. At the height of their power the Ottomans conquered Bagdad in 1534 and integrated Mesopotamia into the Ottoman Empire. The sultans in Istanbul ruled the area that was divided into three provinces Basra, Bagdad and Mosul until the resolution of the Empire in 1918.[7]

During the First World War British troops moved into Mesopotamia and occupied Bagdad in 1917. At this time the Ottoman Empire was already strongly weakened; different Arabic leaders of local or regional national movements claimed independency that resulted into unrest in some provinces. Great Britain’s diplomats and secret agents, especially Thomas Edward Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), as well as, Gertrude Bell, established a connection to the Arabic leaders and promised, by order of London, to support them after their siege over the Ottoman Empire to build an independent Arab state.[8] The only condition was to support the British in the war against the Ottoman. But as Great Britain occupied the Iraq at the end of 1918, the outrage of the nationalist Arabs was enormous. They felt betrayed and revealed. Furthermore, the colonial powers Great Britain and France that were represented through their diplomats Mark Sykes and Charles Francois Picot agreed to a secret agreement, at the expense of the Arabs. According to the Sykes-Picot agreement the territory of the Ottoman Empire between Levante and Mesopotamia was divided into two power zones. France’s zone comprised the bigger part of the region that was called al-Sham by the Arabs, which also included today’s region of Lebanon and Syria, as well as, the area around Mosul. Great Britain’s zone of influence comprised Palestine, todays Jordanian and the Osmania provinces Basra and Bagdad. By violating against the Sykes- Picot agreement London occupied at the end of 1918, the oil-rich province Mosul, to achieve control about the northern Iraqi oil well. After the end of the First World War the League of Nations confirmed in 1920 the artificial borders regardless of any ethnic and cultural continuities. Hence, Great Britain and France became mandate powers over the by them managed territories under the vague requirement to lead them “someday” into independency.[9]

2) Analysis of the Islamic State

In the first issue of Dabiq, that is published by the Islamic State “This is the promise of Allah”, the leaders of the Islamic State present Allah’s promise that is “Succession, establishment and safety”, but only under the condition of worship [An-Nur:55]. Submitting and being obedient to Allah’s command by complying with his rules of lusts, desires and inclinations will lead to the fulfilment of his promises. Then the “ability to build, reform, remove oppression, spread justice, and bring about safety and tranquillity”[10] will come and succession will be there.

Furthermore, the leaders request the Muslims to strive for an own state, in order to return their sovereignty and dignity, that was taken from them, a long time ago. In their issue they claim: “The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people, after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect – the time has come for them to rise. The time has come for the ummah of Muammad […] to wake up from its sleep, remove the garments of dishonour, and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace.”[11]

This quote clearly illustrates the perspective of the Islamic State that sees Muslims have lived in disgrace and humiliation for a long time and they still do. Moreover, it is pointed out that they have been ruled by “the cruellest” people. Considering the history of the Middle East, this points to the betrayal of the Arabs by agreeing to Sykes-Picot, even though the Arabs complied with their conditions. But, then they highlight that now is the time for a change with the ummah of Muhammad, who will remove any dishonour, humiliation and disgrace.

Another important part of this issue is the request to the Muslims to join the Islamic State: “So rush O Muslims and gather around you khalifa, so that you may return as you once were for ages kings of the earth and knights of war. Come so that you may be honoured and esteemed, living as masters with dignity. Know that we fight over a religion that Allah promised to support. We fight for an ummah to which Allah has given honor, esteem, and leadership, promising it with empowerment and strength on the earth. Come O Muslims to your honor, to your victory. By Allah, if you disbelieve in democracy, secularism, nationalism, as well as all the other garbage and ideas from the west, and rush to your religion and creed, then by Allah, you will own the earth, and the east and west will submit to you. This is the promise of Allah to you.”

This passage clearly highlights the promises to the Muslims that join the troops of the Islamic State, they will be honoured kings and humiliation will be overcome. Moreover, the fight is justified through the promise of Allah to support it and who gave honor over the ummah to empower the world. It is also intended to leave the impression that Allah wanted this fight and that he gave leadership to the ummah to besiege the west. Through the alliteration “Rush O Muslims” the urgency it highlighted, as well as, the togetherness of the Muslim world. Furthermore, this passage emphasizes the detestation against the west and its ideas.[12]

In the issue “A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslims ummah. In the month of Ramadan”, that is published on the Alhayat Media centre by Al-Baghdadi and Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi the soldiers of the Islamic State are requested to take revenge: “So raise your ambitions, O soldiers of the Islamic State! For your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades. […]By Allah, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator.”[13] In this passage the responsibility for the brothers all over the world is highlighted. Hence, taking revenge will not only bring honor and esteem, it is also underlined as an obligatory task, since the brothers are waiting to be rescued.

In the next important passage the fall of the caliphate and loss of state is represented:

“Indeed the Muslims were defeated after the fall of their khilāfah (caliphate). Then their state ceased to exist, so the disbelievers were able to weaken and humiliate the Muslims, dominate them in every region, plunder their wealth and resources, and rob them of their rights. They accomplished this by attacking and occupying their lands, placing their treacherous agents in power to rule the Muslims with an iron fist, and spreading dazzling and deceptive slogans such as: civilization, peace, co-existence, freedom, democracy, secularism, baathism, nationalism, and patriotism, among other false slogans.””

In addition, this passage portrays the historic British and French betrayal of the Sykes-Picot agreement during the First World War. The west is not only accused of the humiliation of the Muslims, but also of taking their wealth and rights, and of the distribution of western ideals. Furthermore, as a consequence of the fall of the last caliphate and its loss of a state the Muslim community suffered under humiliation and disempowerment. “The disbelievers” then used this condition in order to establish their rule of agents and western doctrines. Renton states, that the narrative of Al-Baghadid resembles to the disillusioned situation after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and to the following four centuries under the Western Asian government.

The following passage is of particular importance, since it represents that the betrayal is not only a historical element; it emphasizes the perspective of the world division into the east and west. This view of world division goes hand in hand with S. Sayyid, who refers to the importance of the addressing of the Muslim question, in the face of contemporary struggle when it comes to the word Islam. As colonialization separated the world into the West and the non-West, an axis between superiority and inferiority was established at the same time.[14] Moreover, it is stated that the west is still enslaving Muslims, who can either pull away from their religion or follow western laws or he can believe in Allah and refer to terrorism for judgement:

“Those rulers continue striving to enslave the Muslims, pulling them away from their religion with those slogans. So either the Muslim pulls away from his religion, disbelieves in Allah, and disgracefully submits to the manmade shirk (polytheistic) laws of the east and west, living despicably and disgracefully as a follower […]. Terrorism is to refer to Allah’s law for judgment. Terrorism is to worship Allah as He ordered you. Terrorism is to refuse humiliation, subjugation, and subordination [to the kuffār – infidels]. Terrorism is for the Muslim to live as a Muslim, honourably with might and freedom. Terrorism is to insist upon your rights and not give them up. “[15]

Another important aspect in this passage is the seeking of the Islamic State to undo the effects of western impact on the Middle East and to finally get beyond Western control. Renton he points out that there is a connection between the Sykes-Picot agreement and the foundation of the Islamic State. The nomination of Caliph Ibrahim, Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi as a new caliphate aims to free the global Muslim community from its colonial European influence.

All in all, the Sykes-Picot agreement represents Western betrayal and conspiracy to the world of the Middle East. The leadership of the IS aims to undo these impacts of western authority over the Middle East. Hence, “The caliphate is needed, its leadership contends, to end the consequences of European empire, of colonialism. It is an effort to finally break away from the colonial condition; an attempt at a new post-colonial ummah.”[16]

3) Bibliography

- Buchta, Wilfried, “Terror vor Europas Toren: Der Islamische Staat, Iraks Zerfall und Amerikas Ohnmacht (Frankfurt am Main, 2015).

- Renton, James, ‘The post-colonial caliphate: Islamic State and the memory of Sykes-Picot’ , The Conversation, 2016.

- S. Sayyid, ‘The Dynamics of a Postcolonial War‘, Defence Studies, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2013, pp. 277-292).




[1] Buchta, Wilfried, “Terror vor Europas Toren: Der Islamische Staat, Iraks Zerfall und Amerikas Ohnmacht (Frankfurt am Main, 2015), p. 11.

[2] Buchta, p. 12.

[3] Buchta, p.12.

[4] Buchta, Wilfried, “Terror vor Europas Toren: Der Islamische Staat, Iraks Zerfall und Amerikas Ohnmacht (Frankfurt am Main, 2015), p. 73.

[5] Buchta, p. 74.

[6] Buchta, p.74.

[7] Buchta, p. 75.

[8] Buchta, p. 77.

[9] Buchta, p. 78.





[14] S. Sayyid, ‘The Dynamics of a Postcolonial War‘, Defence Studies, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2013, pp. 277-292), S. 2.

[15] Renton, James, ‘The post-colonial caliphate: Islamic State and the memory of Sykes-Picot’ , The Conversation, 2016.

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Does the Islamic State have a connection to the First World War?
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