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By Kevin Ivey Contributing Writer April 7, 2015

The sensational bloodshed and seemingly senseless violence in Iraq and Syria continues. As time marches forward and the level of violence only seems to increase, the carnage perpetuated by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seems senseless to many in the West and elsewhere. While the wanton violence and destruction of precious artifacts seem senseless—and in some cases may be so—they are actually calculated attempts to attract international media attention and create the mythologized, mono-ethnic, mono-religious polity that ISIS wishes to rule over.

At the most basic level, ISIS uses gratuitous violence because the practice raises the profile of the group. While denouncing scenes of beheading and torture, the media—Western and otherwise—has granted ISIS a greater profile than the group would have otherwise achieved. It’s not so much the number of deaths that drives Western concern over the crisis in Syria and Iraq, but the graphic way in which these bodies are stacking up. By filming and distributing videos of gruesome attacks, ISIS ensures that these images will immediately go viral and be spread by the media. Even if the media chooses not to show these acts, the simple descriptions of the videos serve the same effect; they inspire fear in the opponents of ISIS and awe in the eyes of the group’s armchair supporters.

ISIS has also gained notoriety for its treatment of minorities unfortunate enough to find themselves within the group’s reach. This was most noticeable in the treatment of Yazidis during the siege of Mount Sinjar in summer 2014, but also extends to the treatment of other groups, including Shi’a, Kurds, and Christians. This practice includes the recent destruction of cultural relics by ISIS in Mosul. Looking at the issue from the perspective of Western media, there is little in the way of explanation save a religious zeal that forbids anything but the complete subjugation of all non-Sunnis and the destruction of any symbol deemed un-Islamic. While this is certainly true, given the group’s theological orientation, there is more at work here than simple religious hatred.

Acts of violence against non-Sunnis certainly represent the group’s radical interpretation of Islam and serve to bolster the group’s profile among internet supporters. Yet these acts also create the necessary but currently non-existent conditions necessary for ISIS to truly realize its vision: a polity that reflects its radical views. In other situations, such actions would be labeled ethnic cleansing: forcibly removing those who do not identify with the group or forcing them into humiliating submission. Weaponized rape—as reported by Yazidi women living under the group’s appalling rule—is often a critical tool used by organizations that carry out ethnic cleansing. Over and over again, ISIS has also either pushed out non-Sunnis or forced them to accept a lesser status while living in the areas under its control. Despite the fact that both Iraq and Syria are incredibly diverse—a number of different kinds of Muslims, Christians, and non-Arabs live in both countries—ISIS thrives only within a manufactured, mono-ethnoreligious environment.

The destruction of relics and art also serves to undermine the region’s multiethnic culture that stands in opposition to ISIS. The general perception is that such representations are at odds with the group’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. This is certainly true, but again the story is more complex. ISIS is attempting to smash previous concepts of statehood in the areas it controls. While it believes these states to be illegitimate for religious reasons, there are also political and social reasons underlying these grievances, especially in Iraq. ISIS must remove any elements that legitimatize previous civilizations in the region, as well as the current states (Iraq and Syria) that draw on such civilizations to justify or create national identities. Thus, destroying the Babylonian art at the center of Iraq’s multi-ethnic history fulfills not only a religious goal, but a political goal as well. Similarly, destroying shrines important to other faiths and groups in the region serves to further push out other groups while undermining their claims to historic ties to the land.

As Joshua Landis has pointed out, one of the key features of the conflict in Syria is that the areas under rebel control are overwhelmingly Sunni. Despite their majority in Syria, Sunnis have not played a dominant role in the country that their numbers would otherwise predict. While Saddam Hussein empowered Sunnis at the expense of other groups throughout his reign, Shia politicians have dominated the Iraqi political scene since 2003. Both situations reflect how much the region inherits from its colonial past: each outcome is an unfortunate but not wholly unexpected outcome of classic “divide and rule” strategy. As such, ISIS’s efforts, though barbaric, reveal an important motivation in pushing out and subjugating groups that differ with its radical vision. Though ISIS undoubtedly believes in its religious rhetoric, many of its local recruits are motivated by the desire to reclaim power and prestige lost or denied. Landis’s proposal—cutting out the area of Syria that is dominated by ISIS and setting up a moderate Sunni-dominated state there—is unlikely to succeed in the post-Westpahlian world, but does underscore the fact that including Sunnis will be key in any successful outcome that sees support for ISIS fade.

While the actions of the Islamic State continue to grab headlines due to their brutal nature, it is a mistake to dismiss the group as mindlessly violent. Indeed, violent actions of ISIS represent a calculated attempt to enthrall potential supporters through slick online videos and news coverage while forcing out residents who contradict the group’s vision of a state based on a rigid, constructed identity. While the destruction of artifacts serves the group’s religious ends, it also succeeds in undermining previous attempts to create multiethnic states in the region. By focusing on the group’s most sensational actions, current media coverage plays into the hands of a group hated across the world. In depicting the group’s actions as senselessly violent and barbaric, the media ignores the strategic thinking that underlies these actions, oversimplifies the context behind the organization, and provides a platform for ISIS to recruit new members.

Kevin Ivey graduated with an M.A. in International Affairs from the Elliott School in 2014, focusing on security and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Previously, he spent time interning at a Tunisian newspaper.