From Muhammad to ISIS: Iraq’s Full Story

If you’re not sure what Odd Things in Odd Places is and why I’m in Iraq by myself, here’s why.


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On the morning of Saturday, August 2nd, I got in a taxi in Erbil, the regional capital of Kurdish Iraq, and asked the driver to take me to the Khazir refugee camp.

This was a scary-ish thing to do.

The “scary” part is a result of the fact that the Khazir camp is outside of the borders of the somewhat autonomous Kurdish region, one of the only secure parts of the country.

The “ish” part comes from the fact that the Khazir camp, though outside of Kurdish borders, is still in an area currently controlled by the Peshmerga—the Kurdish army.

Iraq has been a scary place for a while now, for a number of reasons, but it’s currently scary in italics because of the terrorist group we’ve all gotten to know about in the past three months—ISIS.

Scary Map

So, the cab driver, myself, and our two constricted assholes headed west towards Khazir.

After about 45 minutes, we crossed the checkpoint that meant we were leaving the Kurdish region, and a few minutes later, right when my phone’s blue dot was starting to get just close enough to Mosul for my liking, I looked out the car’s right window and saw the camp:

Refugee Camp

We pulled in, spent a bunch of time convincing the camp officials and ourselves that I was a journalist, and eventually I was allowed in.

I didn’t have a plan, exactly, so I started walking through the long lines of tents, noting that the 118°F (48°C) temperature I had been suffering through all week must be almost lethal here, where the only escape was in a tent.

Refugee Camp Tents

After a few minutes, I met a man named Kamil who spoke some English, and he invited me into his family’s tent. After talking with him a bit, I learned that it was actually a few families’ tent, and that there were 12 people living in it—five adults and seven children. There was electricity enough for a TV and a fan, and most of the mattresses were stacked on the side.

Refugee Camp Tent

He told me that 12 people to a tent was common at the camp, and mentioned that his tent was actually about to move to 13, gesturing toward one of the women living there who was thoroughly pregnant.

Kamil was from Mosul, like everyone at the camp. Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, only 30 miles west of the camp—and as of June 9th, an ISIS stronghold. After taking over, one of the first orders of business for ISIS was rounding up government workers for execution. Kamil, a police officer, was lucky to get out with his family before they got to him. When I asked him if he thought he’d return to Mosul at some point, he shook his head and said, “Fuck Mosul.”

As soon as he learned that I was going to be writing about my time in Iraq, he led me out of the tent to join him on a special Oh Okay Then I Want to Show You Exactly How Upsetting Everything Here Is So You Can Write About It and Tell Everyone Tour.

He walked me past the communal tap for drinking water, and said people used that water to clean themselves too, having not seen a shower since they arrived.


He showed me multiple babies that had been born at the camp.


We popped into a bunch of different tents, one whose fan had been stolen (remember that it’s 118°), and another that had 15 people living in it. He showed me where the shared toilets drain out into a system that flows openly through the camp. He told me that a lot of the families didn’t have enough food and that people were getting sick more and more often and remaining untreated. And these were all people who two months earlier were living their normal lives in their normal homes. Remember the time I complained about anything? That was dumb.

When Kamil introduced me to a man whose two brothers had been executed by ISIS, I assumed that had to be the tour’s horrifying grand finale, but he wasn’t done yet. He brought me into another tent where he introduced me to a woman living there, explaining to her that I was his new writer friend. Without missing a beat, she handed me these:


Whatever I was holding, it was something bad, and I didn’t want to ask what it was. I asked. He pointed across the tent to a little boy and explained that I was holding part of his skull.

The boy was an eight-year-old named Mohammad. Their family’s house had been bombed in the middle of the night during the first days of the ISIS takeover and subsequent Iraqi government airstrikes. I never learned why or if they were specifically targeted. But the end result was that this healthy little eight-year-old—


—was now this brain-damaged, partially deaf, blind in one eye eight-year-old with digestive difficulties:

After Injury

The goal of this post will be to understand why this sickening thing happened to this little boy—to really understand what’s going on in that country—better than you do now.

And if we really want to wrap our head around things, we have to start way, way back—in 570 AD.


Ingredient 1: An Ancient Schism

In 570, a long-named baby was born to a prominent family in Mecca, a city on the west coast of what is currently Saudi Arabia—Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim. Today he’s just known as Muhammad.1 ← click this

Muhammad never had a father—his father died six months before his birth—and his mother died when he was six years old.2 ← again again

After the death of his mother, Muhammad lived with his grandfather, and when he died two years later, Muhammad was transferred to his uncle, a merchant. With his uncle as his mentor, Muhammad became a merchant himself. Not too much is known about Muhammad’s young adult years, but one thing we’re pretty sure of is that he married a 40-year-old widow named Khadijah when he was 25 (he’d have multiple more wives later in his life). They would go on to have four daughters and two sons, only one of whom survived into full adulthood—his daughter Fatimah.

It wasn’t until Muhammad was 40 that his life started getting strange. He had gotten into the habit of going up to a mountain every year for a couple weeks to be alone, meditate, and pray. It was on one of these solo retreats in 610 AD that Muhammad was for the first time visited by the angel Gabriel.3 As the story goes, Gabriel recited messages to Muhammad that were directly from God, which Muhammad memorized. Over the years, Gabriel would continue to visit Muhammad with messages, Muhammad continued to commit them to memory, and later, he would recite the memories to his followers, who would then write them down, and that became the Quran.

Three years after the first visit from Gabriel, in 613, Muhammad began preaching the messages to the public, in his hometown of Mecca. This did not go well. At the time, Mecca was largely made up of polytheistic tribes who worshipped nature-related gods and goddesses, and one of Muhammad’s main messages was that there was one god and any idols to other gods should be destroyed, which was awkward for everybody. People started reacting violently to Muhammad’s growing influence, killing some of his followers, and they may have killed Muhammad too had he not belonged to a fancy family. But in 622, when Muhammad learned of an assassination plot against him, he and his followers decided to bail on Mecca and head to the nearby city of Medina. This journey is called the Hijra in Muslim tradition and it’s celebrated on the first day of the Muslim year.

Muhammad and his followers would spend the next eight years fighting off attempts to destroy them from Mecca and other places, and often being ruthless themselves with those who posed a threat to Islam or refused to convert. The thing a lot of people don’t know is that in addition to being a spiritual leader, Muhammad was, in essence, the general of an army of followers and a tremendously effective strategist in growing and holding on to his leadership position in the face of lots of hostile competition.

Things came to a head in 625 when the Meccans, who were increasingly losing prestige and support as Muhammad’s following continued to grow, launched an attack on Medina and defeated the Muslims. But five years later, Muhammad and a 10,000 man army marched into Mecca and conquered it for good. By the time Muhammad died in 632, Islam had spread through the whole Arabian Peninsula.

The Muslim World Splits

The new Muslim world enjoyed 20 years of internal unity until Muhammad died, and then that was the end of that, forever.

The problem is that Muhammad didn’t appoint a successor before he died, or if he did, he didn’t get the word out to everyone. And because he had no living sons, there was no obvious answer. Here’s what happened:

Group A thought that Muhammad wanted the elite members of the Muslim community to choose a fitting leader, or caliph, and whenever that caliph died, the elite would choose the next leader, and so on. And Group A decided a great first caliph to succeed Muhammad would be the father of one of Muhammad’s wives, Abu Bakr (we’ll call him Abu).

Group B disagreed. They thought Muhammad would have told them that only God can choose the successor to lead the Muslim world, and that could only happen by keeping things in the family. To them, all signs pointed to Muhammad’s cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatimah, Ali ibn Abi Talib (Ali).

Group A was bigger and it won.

So father-in-law Abu took over as Caliph, while son-in-law Ali watched from the sidelines and Group B seethed.

When Abu died of illness two years after taking over, another friend of Muhammad’s, Umar, took over, having been appointed by Abu before his death. Umar ruled for ten years before he was assassinated by the Persians he had just conquered. Abu had also appointed Umar’s successor, Uthman, who ruled for 12 years before he was assassinated. All the while, Group B is helpless and frustrated.

But then, the elite decided the next and fourth caliph should be Ali—Group B’s original guy—and for two seconds, everyone was happy.

Five years later, Ali was assassinated, and when his eldest son Hassan became the fifth caliph, he was quickly overpowered by an aggressive rebel force led by Muawiyah, who coerced Hassan out of power and became the sixth caliph—and Group A and Group B would never reconcile again. While Muawiyah was the first of a long dynasty of caliphs, Group B tells a different story. To them, the leaders are more special than merely elected caliphs—they’re divinely chosen imams, and the way they see it, after an annoying three-caliph delay, their first imam was finally in power when Ali got the job. His eldest son Hassan was their second imam, and when Muawiyah kicked him out, Group B threw their support behind Ali’s younger son, Husayn—their third imam.

Husayn, Group B’s third imam, ended up being beheaded by Yazid, Group A’s seventh caliph (Muawiyah’s successor), and so Group B moved onto Husayn’s son as their fourth imam, while Group A continued to ignore Group B and support their caliphs.

This was over 1300 years ago, and yet today’s Muslim world is still completely divided over it, and so much of today’s Middle East strife is centered around this ancient split.

Group A are Sunnis and Group B are Shias.

Today’s Sunni-Shia tensions are about a lot of things, but at their very core is what happened in the 7th century. Sunni Muslims believe in their line of caliphs, and don’t believe them to be chosen by God, and Shia Muslims reject the first three caliphs and instead believe in the line of divinely-chosen imams starting with Ali, revering in particular Ali4 and his son and the third imam, Husayn. Both sects agree that Muhammad is the final prophet, both follow the Five Pillars of Islam, and both view the Quran as the holy book—but Shia are less unquestionably accepting of the Quran in its entirety, because they believe certain parts were recounted by people other than the imams.

Here’s a chart to help clear up all of this confusion:

caliphs and imams

None of this stopped the early caliphs from conquering an insane amount of the world—by 750, just 140 years after Muhammad’s first revelation, the Muslim world had expanded its reach to a large portion of where it exists today.56

Early Expansion of Islam

But as Islam swept the Earth, this early schism only deepened—it was here to stay.

Ingredient 2: Straight Lines

The land of Iraq has the coolest nickname of any land anywhere—The Cradle of Civilization—and for good reason. Ancient Iraqi history is as impressive as it gets. In particular, the fertile strip of Iraq in between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers known as Mesopotamia is often credited with the birth of writing (cuneiform), the invention of the wheel, some of the earliest sailboats, calendars, maps, schools, and the origin of the 60-minute hour and 60-second minute.7 3,000 years later, when Alexander the Great conquered half the world, he chose that land to be his capital, selecting Babylon in particular for its treasures and its critical location between Europe and Asia. 1,000 years after that, the head of the great Abbasid Muslim dynasty built Baghdad on the same land to be the capital of the vast Muslim world, and for the next 500 years (until the Mongols stomped on it), Baghdad reigned as a world hub of learning and commerce and for a time, was the world’s largest city. There may be nowhere in the world with a history as rich as the land of Iraq.

The nation of Iraq, on the other hand, was created by two dicks with a pencil and ruler, and its history is mostly unpleasant.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the land of Iraq had been part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years.8 There were several ethnic and religious groups on the land, left mostly free to keep to themselves and separate from the others. But when Germany and Co. took on France, Britain, and Russia in World War I, the Ottoman Empire elected to be part of the “and Co.”, which left them ultimately on the losing side. Bye bye Ottoman Empire.

During the war, Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France got together with a pencil, a ruler, and a bottle of whiskey, and took to the map, carving the Ottoman Empire into nations and determining where their two nations and Russia would get to have spheres of influence after the war if they won.9

Regarding the whole “several ethnic and religious groups” thing and the natural boundaries of separation that had developed between them over centuries, George-Picot famously remarked, “Whatevs,” and with pencil in hand, Sykes is quoted as saying, “I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk.”10 Here’s what they came up with:11

Picot-Sykes Agreement


The thing about creating borders using a map, pencil, and ruler, is that it’s a terrible way to create borders. If you look at organically-created borders around the world—those that were formed over time by the local populations, based usually on ethnic and religious divisions, and often demarcated by mountains, rivers, or other natural barriers—they’re squiggly and messy. What’s a clear and satisfying straight-line-on-a-map border for imperial powers trying to keep things clean and simple for themselves is a complete disaster on the ground across the world where the actual place is.

When borders are drawn this way, two bad things happen: 1) Single ethnic or religious groups are sliced apart into separate countries, and 2) Different and often unfriendly groups are shoved into a nation together and told to share resources, get along, and bond together over national pride for a just-made-up nation—which inevitably leads to one group taking power and oppressing the others, resulting in bloody rebellions, coups, and sectarian violence. This isn’t that complicated.12

But since it wasn’t really their problem, Sykes and George-Picot just went ahead with it, and over the next few years, precise new borders were drawn, giving birth to modern day Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Here was Iraq’s new situation:

border problem

Can’t see why there’d be any issue here.

A Tight Lid

For any of you readers considering creating a new, tense nation of ethnic and religious groups who don’t like each other, I’ve been researching this shit all month and I have advice for you:

Your new nation is like a bubbling soup inside a pressure cooker and it’s gonna spew itself all over the kitchen unless you have one critical thing that can keep things in order: a tight lid.

The nation version of a tight lid can be either a strong western occupying power or an iron fist dictator with a scary military machine at his whim—without one of these, your nation will fall apart.13 Email me if you have any questions.14

The new nation of Iraq combined Ingredient 1 (Sunni and Shia Arabs living in the same area) with Ingredient 2 (a border that forces them into a nation together, along with a large group of Kurds) to create a tense pressure cooker.

Things were hot from the beginning, when the new Iraqis revolted against the British occupation in 1920. The British acted as a lid and crushed the revolt. After Iraq achieved independence and the British lid left, a series of military commanders took over the lid duties, stomping a number of revolts and killing each other in coups from time to time. In 1968, the Sunni Ba’ath Party took over, under the leadership of new president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and his ambitious vice president and general, Saddam Hussein.

By 1979, Saddam’s influence had grown to the point where he was kind of running the show, and finally he went to al-Bakr and was like, “You know what two cool things are? Murder and retirement. Ya know? I thought maybe you’d want one of those? And you could choose?” and al-Bakr stepped down, bringing Saddam Hussein, the tightest lid of them all, to power.

A lot of things sucked about the 24 year rule of Saddam. He started off in typical dictator fashion, calling together all the senior ranking members of government, and then reading out the names of those who were thought to be disloyal, 22 of whom were later taken out back and shot. He all but legalized “honor killings”—i.e. the tradition sometimes found in places run by Sharia Law whereby a man may kill a female relative if she dishonors her family, often without facing criminal charges. And he gave the world Uday Hussein.15

But Saddam’s worst crimes happened during the wars he started and their aftermath.

Worried that the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran would inspire rebellion in Iraq’s large Shia majority, Saddam launched into the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, which killed over 100,000 Iraqis.16 Iraq’s Kurds, who have never wanted to be a part of Iraq, seized the opportunity in the chaos to try to form their own autonomous country, at times receiving support from the Iranians. The attempt failed, and toward the end of the war, Saddam embarked on the al-Anfal Campaign, a systematic genocide of the Kurdish north. One of the worst moments came in 1988, just as the war was winding down, when residents of the city Halabja were overcome by the smell of sweet apples after war planes flew by overhead, and then people and animals started dropping dead all over the city from gas poisoning. The gassing caused more deaths than 9/11. The entire al-Anfal campaign killed between 50,000 and 180,000 Kurds.

While we’re here, let’s pause for a second and talk about the Kurds.

The Iraqi Kurdistan Blue Box

This whole post was supposed to be about Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish region in northeastern Iraq. But when I decided to go another direction, Kurdistan got left out. As a consolation, Kurdistan is being featured in Wait But Why’s first ever blue “aside” box (if you don’t see a blue box, try clearing your cache). Here are some things about Kurdistan:

  • Let’s start by clearing one thing up: The Kurds are an ethnic group, like the Arabs. Kurds are a number of religions, but most of them are Sunni Muslims. So when people talk about Iraq’s groups and they say “Sunni, Shia, and Kurds,” what they mean is “Arab Sunni, Arab Shia, and Kurdish Sunni.”
  • Kurds speak Kurdish, though many also speak Arabic as a second language.
  • Almost no ethnic group is a bigger victim of imperial ruler-pencil border drawing than the Kurds. Check out this map of the Kurdish population (in red) and how horribly it’s been cut apart by borders:

Kurdistan Cut Apart

  • The end result of the artificial borders is that despite being the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East (after Arabs, Persians, and Turks), Kurds are now minority populations in four countries, making up roughly 20% of Turkey and Iraq, 15% of Syria, and 10% of Iran.17 Kurds are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a state.
  • Iraqi Kurds were granted semi-autonomy in 1970, and today, Kurdistan has its own government, army (the Peshmerga), and (highly disputed) borders. But it also plays a role in the Iraq government and is part of Iraq. It’s confusing.
  • If Iraqi Kurdistan were its own nation, it would be about the size of Switzerland.
  • Kurdistan is on the liberal, moderate side of the Islamic world and is generally pro-West.
  • Kurdistan is normally totally safe to visit (right now might be an exception), and its tourism industry was on the rise—in the first half of 2014 alone, they received over one million tourists—but the industry has seen a sharp decline of late, for obvious reasons.

Some notes from my visit:

  • The people are outlandishly nice and sweet and friendly. One example: On no fewer than five occasions, I went up to a street stand or store to buy something small like a bottle of water, and the person working there would see I was a foreigner and ask me where I was from and how I liked Kurdistan. After we talked, I’d take my money out to buy the thing I came for, and they would adamantly refuse to accept it and tell me it was their gift, even after protests from me.
  • This wasn’t a surprise. Iraq is the 14th Muslim country I’ve been to,18 and I’ve gotten used to a very specific kind of Muslim hospitality and generosity in those countries that I haven’t experienced as consistently in other places.
  • There are a lot of serious-looking men sipping on tiny glasses of tea, which I enjoyed.
  • They have cool candy.
  • Erbil, the capital, is pretty modern—I would sometimes be in a fancy mall or a German-run bar and I’d have to remind myself, “I’m in Iraq right now.”
  • I talked to a lot of people there, and something that everyone badly wants is an independent Kurdistan. They’ve wanted this for a century, and it seems like it could really happen sometime not that far away.
  • The people I spoke to were generally pro-US, but they’re not thrilled with Obama. This is mainly because the US in general has not been supportive of Kurdish independence—I’ve read about why, and it seems to be a combination of a few geopolitical reasons, one of which is that an Iraq without the Kurdish part is much more likely to become a Shia-dominated Iranian ally and pawn.

Anyway, back to Saddam, who barely had time to take a shit after the Iran-Iraq War before starting the Persian Gulf War by invading Kuwait for its delicious oil reserves. This, as I learned from my third grade teacher, did not go well for Saddam, and again, Iraq’s oppressed groups, the Shia and the Kurds, tried to take advantage of the situation by attempting to overthrow Saddam. Saddam responded by tightening the lid and crushing the uprisings, killing 80,000 – 230,000 people in the process.19

Saddam was a brutal ruler, but for the most part, under his iron fist, Iraq was a stable country. We all know what happens next.

2003: Off Comes the Lid

Say what you want about the Bush Administration and their decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam, but one thing is for sure: They were very, very wrong when they thought it would be a quick and easy war.

They knew they were removing a lid, but they seemed to think it was off a tupperware container of cookies, not a pressure cooker. And their plan to replace the wrought iron lid with a fresh sheet of democracy cellophane would have worked fine if it were a tupperware container of cookies. Just not if it were a pressure cooker.

So there’s the US, suddenly mired in hell and chaos for eight years, trying to fix a situation they weren’t prepared to fix, and which would ultimately be the Iraqi people’s problem, not theirs. Speaking of the Iraqi people, it’s time for another blue box.

The Life in Baghdad Blue Box

The people I got to know the best during my time in Kurdistan were three brothers from Baghdad who were visiting Kurdistan. They were born and raised in Baghdad, had lived there through the whole war, and spoke near-perfect English. I was ecstatic to find them, and spent two consecutive nights talking to them and asking them questions. Here are some things I learned:

  • Living under Saddam was, unsurprisingly, horrible. You never dared say anything bad about Saddam or the government, even in private. You were careful who you crossed—if you insulted a kid in class who turned out to have parents in the Ba’ath party, your parents could end up in jail, or worse. “Voting” meant “vote for Saddam or die.” No one could travel. It sounds a lot like modern day North Korea.
  • So it makes sense that they told me everyone was happy when the US invaded and ousted the Husseins. People mock the Bush Administration’s claim that they’d be greeted as liberators, but it seems that that was the case, at least for everyone these guys knew.
  • They continued to be happy about the war until about 2006, the peak of the violent civil war, when they said it had been unbearably scary to live there. These days, things are almost as terrible, and when I asked them if they wished that Saddam had never been overthrown, they couldn’t really answer. Two awful options. They don’t feel at all optimistic that things will improve in the future.
  • That said, outsiders imagine that living in Baghdad was a sea of constant death over the last ten years, while in fact, none of the three of them knew anyone who had died. It was a horrific decade to be there, but most people there have lived their lives unharmed.
  • Living in Baghdad, they hear a bomb go off almost every day—it’s gotten so common that when one goes off, people don’t even break in their conversation. They said the bombs are Sunni extremists bombing Shia people, or the other way around, and it’s a constant cycle of action and retaliation. Even though it’s unlikely that they’ll get caught in the line of fire, they never know if a bomb will strike where they are.
  • They’re required to carry around their ID card, which has a bunch of personal information on it, including the name of their religion and the name of their father and grandfather.
  • One thing that’s gotten more extreme since the Saddam era is a prevailing conservative ideology. Homosexuality is often punished by death by stoning, and police, they said, will turn their heads the other way when this happens. People have even been stoned to death for having emo clothes or haircuts. This wasn’t as bad during the Saddam era, they said, and is now a result of the empowerment of ultra-conservative Shia militia.
  • Oddly, given the above point, I noticed a lot of pairs of men holding hands or being cuddly together. Same story in Nigeria, where homosexuality is punishable by 14 years in prison. The reverse of American culture on both sides of things.
  • Here’s how dating works in Iraq: You meet a girl you like, you wait a bunch of years, and then you tell her you love her one day. She will evaluate and either decide to marry you or not. Once you’re married you can be alone together for the first time. Unslutty.
  • I asked about nightlife, and it sounds pretty grim. There are nightclubs, they said, but no one normal can enter them. You have to “know someone,” they said—and apparently, a lot of the people inside are bad men discussing violent plots.
  • For all the hardships in their lives, a lot of things are normal. They have smartphones, fast internet, cars, and they’re all in university or already graduated.
  • A lot of people they know have emigrated to Michigan, which apparently has a sizable Iraqi population. Random.
  • These three brothers, along with a few others, have started something called World Peace Day in Iraq with celebrations every September 21st. They were the first in the country to have the guts to do this (their celebrations are a target), but it’s caught on, and now the annual gatherings, which include people of many faiths and ethnicities, happen in five Iraqi cities and involve hundreds of people. Brave dudes.

Anyway, as unfortunate as the bloody years of US occupation were for everyone involved, by being there, the US was acting as a lid of some kind. While the US was there, nothing really bad could happen. Then, in 2011, the US left.

A Perfect Storm

Instability is the fertile soil that bad, scary things grow out of, and when the US left, Iraq had a new prime minister, a new government, a new and unfamiliar constitution, and an amateur, recently-trained army—not a stable situation.

The power pendulum had also just swung for the first time in decades. Iraq’s population is 55% Arab Shia, 18% Arab Sunni, and 21% Kurd (with others making up 6%). And despite being the smallest group of the three, Iraq’s Arab Sunnis have been in power over the other groups for almost the country’s whole history. For any living Iraqis, a Sunni government and suppressed Shia majority is all they know. Suddenly, in 2006, Iraq had a new government, led by a hard-line Shia, Nouri al-Maliki. A logical observer of history would probably suggest that it would be a wise move for al-Maliki to be inclusive of Sunnis, regardless of the past, since, as noted above, the country was not in a stable situation. Al-Maliki did just the opposite, arresting Sunni leaders, discriminating against Sunni civilians, and targeting Sunnis disproportionately for torture and violence. All of this exacerbated the instability by making the government less unified and competent, creating rage in the Sunni populous,20 and weakening the loyalty of a military, part of which hates its own government. The anti-al-Maliki feelings are so strong that many normally-peaceful Sunnis find themselves sympathizing or even supporting violent anti-government terrorists.

The power switch from Sunni to Shia has broader implications. If you look at the whole world of Islam, it’s clear that Sunni Islam is the vast majority (around 90%) and Shia Islam (around 10%) is just a small side branch:

Sunni-Shia - Uyan Map

But when you look at the heart of the Middle East more closely, you can see why things are so complicated.

Here’s what the Middle East looked like when Saddam was in power versus when al-Maliki took over:21

Shia Axis

Suddenly, Shias are in charge of countries all the way from Iran to the Mediterranean, creating a kind of Shia Axis. This is a great thing for the world’s largest Shia nation, Iran, and it scares the shit out of the region’s most powerful Sunni nation, Saudi Arabia. And what’s been happening is Saudi Arabia and Iran engaging in what is essentially a Cold War, vying for broader power, with conflicts like the Syrian Civil War and the current mess in Iraq serving as proxy wars that can tip the balance in the larger struggle. This is why Iran wants ISIS (a Sunni group) to disappear and why you keep hearing that the US and Iran might actually agree on something (though for different reasons). This is also why the Saudis have been rumored to have funded Sunni resistance movements in both Syria and Iraq, even possibly directing funds to groups like ISIS.22

Yet another factor playing into the trouble is the simultaneous instability of adjacent Iraq and Syria—this creates an unstable border, as well as a situation where the terrorist-fighting front is disjointed and without a shared national narrative to fight for. It also allows a terrorist group to hide in one country from trouble in the other.

Finally, western powers often provide a lid from afar when things erupt somewhere—but in this case, those powers have been gun shy since they just got out of a hideous war in the area and really really want to avoid getting involved. Up until Obama’s Mid-September speech, the US has done everything possible to avoid getting involved.

When you add this all together—an unstable and divided new government with an amateur, questionably-loyal army and an angry minority population who feels sympathy for anyone who will resist the government; the interests of a giant neighbor, Saudi Arabia, aligned with a government overthrow; a civil war next door; and a group of western powers who have been determined to stay out—you have the perfect storm for the fiercest of terrorist groups to emerge from the fringe and conquer.


The beginnings of ISIS23—a Sunni jihadist group—can be traced back to 1999, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist, started the group because he was pissed off about a lot of things. After Zarqawi swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, this evolved into what became known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” and was one of those shadowy insurgent groups you kept reading about the US fighting during the war. When insurgent activity died down after the US troop surge in 2007, ISIS seemed on the decline and disappeared from relevance for a bit.



In 2010, after ISIS’s second leader was assassinated, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—a former scholar of Islamic studies24 and a US war prisoner back in 200425—took over and got the group back on track. He replenished their partially-killed-off leadership with dozens of Saddam’s old Ba’athist military personnel, who brought key experience to the group. Then in 2011, when the Syrian Civil War broke out, ISIS joined in as a rebel force26—which helped to train and battle-harden the group. ISIS’s behavior in Syria was so brutal and severe that they even started creeping out the other bad guy groups, including al-Qaeda, who finally had a tantrum in early 2014 and cut all ties with ISIS.

Up until early June 2014, only those who were carefully following the news knew about ISIS. But that’s when everything changed.

On June 5th, just hours after I purchased my non-refundable flight to Iraq, ISIS stormed into the country, taking control of the border, and started systematically conquering towns in the western part of the nation. And suddenly, everyone had heard of ISIS.

Two things were especially shocking about ISIS’s advance into Iraq. First, the horrifying, Genghis Khan-style way they conducted business—i.e. immediately round up and execute all men of authority, in this case anyone who was ever on the government payroll, and then execute anyone else who resisted their takeover.27 Second, the fact that in city after city ISIS attacked, the Iraqi military would flee the scene. This was partially because they were horrified of ISIS and partially because, as mentioned above, the Sunni members of the army weren’t that into fighting against a Sunni group to defend a government they hated. So western Iraq was folding quickly to ISIS, and by June 9th, they had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city.

The area of Syria and Iraq they had conquered (and are still in control of) is the size of Belgium. Al-Qaeda never conquered anything—they just killed people. So how did ISIS do it? In addition to the perfect storm of factors discussed above, including far more tacit support from masses of civilians than al-Qaeda ever had, ISIS has three qualities that make them so effective:

1) They’re brutal. No regard for human life is a helpful quality when trying to conquer a nation. This Amnesty International report details real accounts of ISIS brutality so scary it doesn’t seem real. An example of an excerpt in the report:

A witness to one such mass killing in Solagh, a village south-east of Sinjar city, told Amnesty International that on the morning of 3 August, as he was trying to flee towards Mount Sinjar, he saw vehicles with IS fighters in them approaching, and managed to conceal himself. From his hiding place he saw them take some civilians from a house in the western outskirts of Solagh:

“A white Toyota pick-up stopped by the house of my neighbour, Salah Mrad Noura, who raised a white flag to indicate they were peaceful civilians. The pick-up had some 14 IS men on the back. They took out some 30 people from my neighbour’s house: men, women and children. They put the women and children, some 20 of them, on the back of another vehicle which had come, a large white Kia, and marched the men, about nine of them, to the nearby wadi [dry river bed]. There they made them kneel and shot them in the back. They were all killed; I watched from my hiding place for a long time and none of them moved. I know two of those killed: my neighbour Salah Mrad Noura, who was about 80 years old, and his son Kheiro, aged about 45 or 50.”

ISIS has officially been the deadliest terrorist group in history. In a tool that maps out the activity of the world’s most prominent terrorist groups, when you filter by “Most Victims,” ISIS comes up first, despite being around for less than a decade (their death count is more than double al-Qaeda’s lifetime total). The below screenshot of the tool shows terrorist groups ranked from most total killings (on the top left) to least (on the bottom right). Each mini-chart shows activity over time, with the red and yellow bars representing deaths and wounded, respectively:

Terrorism Activity Graphs

2) They’re sophisticated. ISIS functions like a well-run company—it knows how to recruit (ISIS forces are supposedly up to 50,000 in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq), it knows how to fundraise, and it’s incredibly organized. ISIS produces a thorough and professional annual report that details its killings and conquests in the same way a company would report on its revenue and gross margin. Here’s a chilling graphic from their 2013 report breaking down their various methods for the year’s 7,681 attacks:

ISIS report 2013

They’re also pros at social media. Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadis at the Washington Institute, said that when it comes to social media, ISIS is “probably more sophisticated than most US companies.”

3) They’re incredibly rich. According to Iraqi intelligence, ISIS has assets worth $2 billion, making it by far the richest terrorist group in the world. Most of this money was seized after the capture of Mosul, including hundreds of millions of US dollars from Mosul’s central bank. On top of that, they’ve taken oil fields and are reportedly making $3 million per day selling oil on the black market, with even more money coming in through donations, extortions, and ransom. ISIS has also gotten ahold of an upsetting amount of high-caliber, US-made weapons and tanks that were for the use of the Iraqi army but left behind when the army fled. They’ve even gotten their hands on nuclear material that they found at Mosul University.

On June 29th, ISIS just fully went for it and proclaimed itself a caliphate—i.e. a global Islamic state—and commanded all the world’s Muslims to obey Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the grand caliph. Those living in ISIS-captured cities are getting a taste of what life in the new caliphate is like:

  • Women have about as many rights as a goldfish, barely allowed to leave the house and forbidden from showing their faces in public.
  • No smoking ever, and also no tampering with or disabling the smoke detector in the airplane lavatory.
  • If they’re not just rounded up and executed on the spot, Christians and other non-Muslims are forced to convert to Islam, pay a hefty non-Muslim tax, become a refugee, or die. The doors of Christian houses are marked with a ن, a symbol that signifies that they’re Christian. Nazi-esque.
  • Some reports say a fatwa (an Islamic law ruling by an authority) was issued declaring that all women between the ages of 11 and 46 would undergo genital mutilation, a tradition meant to suppress a woman’s sexual desire in order to discourage “immoral behavior.”28

As for future goals, the short term goal is to establish an Islamic nation in the areas it currently controls, with some expansion of the boundaries. In the medium term, al-Baghdadi has declared that “this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes–Picot conspiracy”—i.e. until those pencil and ruler lines drawn after WWI are gone and all the nations are part of the new caliphate. In the long run, ISIS wants to expand its caliphate to the reaches of the first Muslim dynasty in 750 AD, and beyond:

ISIS 5-Year Goal

Some people have argued that this map wasn’t made by ISIS, but rather by their supporters. Even if that’s so, al-Baghdadi’s ambitions certainly seem to match, and exceed, those on that map. In July, al-Baghdadi put out a message to Muslims that assured them that ISIS “will conquer Rome and own the world.”

Over the past three months, as ISIS has marched through Iraq, 1.2 million Iraqis have become refugees. 700,000 of them are hiding under the protection of Kurdistan’s Peshmerga army. One of those 700,000 refugees is eight-year-old and now badly-damaged Mohammad, who was living a normal life in Mosul when ISIS attacked.


Five days after my visit to Khazir refugee camp, ISIS made an aggressive push forward into the scary-ish territory and captured the Khazir camp. The Peshmerga army retreated, instantly converting the area into scary-in-italics territory. That night, a black ISIS flag rose up over the camp where the Kurdish flag had been. Luckily, this happened after a few days of ISIS-Peshmerga fighting, and the refugees had time to run before ISIS arrived. But now, where do they go? People like Kamil, a police officer, cannot go back to Mosul—his name was on the government payroll, and he would be executed upon arrival. But without significant money, many refugees are not allowed into Kurdistan either. Some simply camped out on the road in the searing heat.

A few days later, with the help of US airstrikes, the Kurds recaptured the Khazir camp and a number of other areas ISIS had taken from them.

Since my visit, two new developments offer some hope that things could possibly turn around. The first is that the polarizing Nouri al-Maliki is no longer the Prime Minister. He has been forced out and replaced by another Shia leader, Haider al-Abadi. We’ll see if al-Abadi can cool off some of the Sunni rage al-Maliki’s administration ignited.

The second development happened on September 10th, when President Obama announced that the US would engage in a new campaign of airstrikes, both in Syria and Iraq, to try to defeat ISIS. Airstrikes are sure to slow ISIS down, but to take down and dismantle a group as shadowy, relentless, and fearless as ISIS, I doubt airstrikes will suffice. It’s going to be a lot harder than that.


If you’re into Wait But Why, sign up for the Wait But Why email list and we’ll send you the new posts right when they come out. Better than having to check the site!

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Buy the PDF

More where this came from:

This post is one of five in a travel series I wrote during the summer of 2014. The other four posts:

Russia: What You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know

Japan, and How I Failed to Figure it Out

19 Things I Learned in Nigeria

But What About Greenland?

And the wrap-up video, where I asked people in all five countries what they’d wish for if they had a genie.

If you’re in a really crazy mood, here’s a post from the summer of 2013: 20 Things I learned in North Korea


William Montgomery Watt – Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman
William Montgomery Watt – Muhammad at Mecca
William Montgomery Watt – Muhammad at Medina
Majid Ali Khan – Muhammad, the Final Messenger
Bernard Lewis – Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East
Muhammad Husayn Haykal – The Life of Muhammad
Richard C. Martin – Encyclopedia of Islam & the Muslim World
NPR – Chronology of the Shiite-Sunni Split
Pew Research – The Future of the Global Muslim Population
The Christian Science Monitor – Cause of Iraq’s Chaos: Bad Borders
The Guardian – First world war: 15 legacies still with us today
CIA World Factbook – Iraq
The World Bank – GINI Index
Time – The Sum of Two Evils
Sons of Saddam
Liam Anderson; Gareth Stansfield – The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy, Or Division?
Al Jazeera – Islamic State ‘has 50,000 fighters in Syria’
Wall Street Journal – Refugee Numbers Grow as Civilians Flock to Iraqi Camps – A World of Terror
Amnesty International – Ethnic Cleansing on a Historic Scale: Islamic State’s Systematic Targeting of Minorities in Northern Iraq
New York Times – Sunni Extremists in Iraq Seize 3 Towns From Kurds and Threaten Major Dam

  1. Welcome to the new note system. When I research, I come across a ton of facts, most of which don’t make the cut for the post. These notes will give me a place to sprinkle in fun extras I learned about, and sometimes just to expound on a point in the post without breaking up the flow. And since the posts are long, those who don’t want to spend that long here can skip the notes, while those who want to dig in should check them out. Anyway, this note actually had a boring source-related purpose so let’s get to it: Any historical account from 1400 years ago will likely have hazy parts of the story or areas where historians disagree—and even more so when the story involves religion. My main source for this post are three books written by widely respected Islam scholar, William Montgomery Watt, with some additional information taken from the writings of Bernard Lewis, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Martin Lings, Majid Ali Khan, and Richard C. Martin—links to the sources at the bottom of the post.

  2. Sorry, I’m in the honeymoon phase with the new note system and wanted to come hang out here again. Let’s just quickly discuss how crazy it is that Muhammad’s parents never knew that their son was important. Like, his mother fell ill and before she died she thought, “I hope my little six-year-old makes something of his life” and she has no idea what happened. Imagine what she’d think if someone could have shown her the world in 2014, 1400 years in the future, and told her that 1.6 billion people revered her son. I know I make this point a lot about different people, and I’m going to continue to make it when I come across it because it’s crazy. Note, by the way, that you’re scrolling inside of a footnote. Cool right?

  3. Or, depending on what you believe, it was the first time he started making up stories of being visited by an angel.

  4. The word Shia derives from “Shiatu Ali” which means “followers of Ali.” While we’re here, I’m as confused as you are about Shia/Shi’a/Shiite—I read a bunch of things and it didn’t become clearer when to use which. I’m just gonna stick with Shia.

  5. You’ll notice Spain included in the 8th century Muslim world. It would stay that way for almost 800 years until the land would be reconquered by Christians in 1491, who would then spend the next 250 years systematically purging the land of its Islamic tradition. If you look hard, you can still find remnants of Islam in Spain—one example is the word “Ojala,” which means “I hope” or “Let’s hope,” but its actual definition is “May God will it” and is derived from “O Allah.”

  6. Speaking of where Islam exists today, here’s a cool “weighted” map that shows each country’s Muslim population.

  7. And if you’re into the Bible, both the site of the Garden of Eden and Ur, the hometown of Abraham, are within the borders of modern day Iraq

  8. Here’s a gif that shows the Ottoman Empire expansion timeline, if you’re interested.

  9. Here’s a map that shows what the Middle East looked like in 1914, right before WWI. As you can see, most of it was already under the influence of European imperial powers, with the waning Ottoman Empire as the exception—so that was what was left to be carved up by Sykes and George-Picot after the war.

  10. Surprisingly, one of those two quotes is actually real. Source: A Line in the Sand, James Barr, p.12

  11. Here’s a photo of the original map they drew on.

  12. Of course, the same principle is behind most of the African civil wars—remember the history chart in the Nigeria post? Another striking example is the creation of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in 1893 by another aloof British guy—this line (called the Durand Line) sliced through the middle of the ethnic Pashtun population, creating a huge amount of ethnic strife and ultimately turning the Durand line into a Taliban hotbed. Over a century later, this is still causing massive trouble. Great map showing this here.

  13. A quintessential example of the Tight Lid Principle is Yugoslavia, a nation also formed in the wake of WWI, which consisted of modern day Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. The tight lid in Yugoslavia’s case was dictator Josip Broz Tito. When Tito died in 1980, the repressed tensions all boiled to the surface, and the country broke up soon after, with a bunch of blood shed in the process.

  14. Don’t actually.

  15. Welcome to the Uday Hussein footnote! Today, in this footnote, we’ll make a bullet list about Uday, literally the worst person who has ever lived:

    • Uday was the older of Saddam’s two sons, and as such, expected to take over for his father one day
    • When Uday was young, Saddam would take him and his brother Qusay to watch prisoners be tortured or executed. Uday in particular relished the experience
    • Picture the obnoxious, mean, super-rich kid in high school, but now picture that he has the power to have his bodyguards beat you to a bloody pulp, or kill you, or kill you and your whole family, with the snap of his finger
    • In college, Uday would from time to time notice an exceptionally pretty girl, tell his bodyguards to bring her to his room, where he’d rape her and sometimes then have his bodyguards kill her
    • He would sometimes walk into a club and if he saw a really attractive girl dancing with a man, and it made him feel jealous, he’d have the man killed
    • He killed a man for refusing to let Uday dance with his wife
    • He would stand on his balcony with binoculars, and when he’d spot a pretty girl he’d have his men retrieve her for him. Once he did this with a man’s 12 and 14-year-old daughters, and the man had no choice but to accept or they’d all be killed
    • He was obsessed with torture and loved to experiment with different forms, including using an iron maiden he owned and putting someone alone in a room with his hungry pet tiger
    • He killed his father’s friend/bodyguard because Uday suspected that he was setting his father up with prostitutes
    • He once killed a man who didn’t salute him
    • Even Saddam was creeped out by how cruel and reckless Uday was, so much so that he appointed younger brother Qusay to be his successor instead of Uday
    • This made Uday incredibly jealous, and he would do things like hear about a girl Qusay slept with and have her brought to him to be raped and permanently branded with a U
    • To give him something to do, Saddam appointed Uday as the head of the Olympic committee. Uday would have athletes who performed poorly tortured, sometimes locking them in iron chests in the sun for three days
    • Uday was notorious throughout Iraq and universally loathed by everybody
    • Uday and Qusay were both killed in a fire fight with US troops in 2003
    • No one was sad

    I hope you enjoyed the Uday Hussein footnote! All of these nuggets were gathered from two sources: this documentary and this article.

  16. Some counts put the toll as high as 500,000

  17. Imagine if some powerful faraway country decided to draw new borders in Europe which cut France in three pieces, making the French population an oppressed minority group in Spain, Italy, and Germany with no country of their own. The Kurds’ situation is shitty.

  18. brag

  19. Many suggest that the George H.W. Bush Administration misled the Kurds and Shias to believe that the US was behind their uprisings and would protect them if necessary.

  20. This map comparison shows the religious makeup of Baghdad’s neighborhoods in 2005 vs 2007, illustrating just how tense the sectarian animosity has become since al-Maliki took over. Source.

  21. Lebanon’s Shia population represents the majority of Muslims in Lebanon, but not the majority of the population (there is a significant Christian population). Lebanon’s government is not totally Shia run either—they have a minority of seats in the Parliament—but again, they carry more power in government than do Lebanon’s Sunni population, and Hezbollah has a large amount of popular support and more power than their seat number would suggest.

  22. Saudi Arabia denies this.

  23. ISIS has a lot of names. First of all, ISIS doesn’t even stand for what people think it does (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), it stands for Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham refers to the Levant, the region that encompasses Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestine. So the second common name of the group, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is a synonym for the first. Before either of those was ISI (Islamic State of Iraq), and as of June, the group has renamed itself IS (Islamic State). Some leaders within Islam reject the name Islamic State and call it the less-glamorous QSIS (al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria). I’m going to stick with ISIS.

  24. According to this pro-ISIS biography, which may or may not be accurate

  25. Supposedly, as al-Baghdadi was leaving the prison after his release, he said to one of the guards, “I’ll see you in New York.”

  26. This makes sense, since the Syrian government is Shia and the exact kind of entity ISIS wants to bring down

  27. ISIS has a habit of videotaping their executions and putting them online. Kind of a weird thing to link to here, so I won’t, but you can find these videos on if you want to give yourself nightmares.

  28. This practice has affected 125 million women worldwide, according to the WHO, most of them in Africa. Apparently 91% of Egyptian women undergo genital mutilation.

  • Alex Po.

    I waited so long for youuuu!! I’m sure all those agonizing days of wait is worth it. Reading now. LOVEHEARTS

    • Anonymous

      me too

  • S.O.

    Very well researched, and VERY BRAVE OF YOU. I would like to see a bit more blame put on the US, however. I think you are going to easy on Bush, Cheney, and the Neocons.

    • Anonymous

      The intelligence of the Bush administration was there so please stop trying to BLAME the Bush administration.

    • Anonymous

      You want to blame the Bush Administration for everything just like the Obama Administration does. You have the luxury of setting in your chair and posting your opinion because you have never had to serve in a leadership capacity. The only leadership you have probably ever served has been to lead yourself to the toilet and back to the chair you set in. You listen to what you call “The Facts” from a news report on some local or cable network station, but you have no idea what goes on in a decision briefing. Accessments, both casualty and property…and in America, it is the job of the President of the United States to make those difficult decisions…Each and every day, a new alert or conflict arises and the course of action the President takes is the best one he feels is correct. That is a LEADER…An individual that will take all the information provided and make a decision.. I can say without a doubt POTUS Bush never flinched when he make his decision… On the contrast, POTUS Obama make decision and leads just like you, from the “rear”.

  • Pingback: From Muhammad to Isis: Iraq's Full Story | الحرب الطائفية في المملكة()

  • James T

    Sorry. I’m still reading this post, and I like it so far, but I just read note 12. I don’t know about Pakistan, but the Pashtun people are most assuredly NOT an “oppressed minority” in Afghanistan. Instead, they are by far the dominant ethnic group, to the point that you could ALMOST identify Pashto as the “Afghan language”.

    Actually, a quick wiki search has informed me that the language is also called Afghani. Lol.

    Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun. Most of the Afghan government and the Afghan people, the Taliban included, are Pashtun. The real oppressed ethnic minority, among others, is probably the Hazara. They are said to descend from Mongolians, who in days of yore had a read field day in the Middle East, as you alluded to.

    Anyway, still reading, but I had to clear that up real quick.

  • LS

    So worth the wait! Thanks for all your hard work and research – makes this information super accessible and easy to understand. I’m glad that I now have some grasp on this situation, and thanks for some insight into the lives of amazing and resilient people.

  • SC

    Fascinated. Intrigued. Scared. In equal parts. Thanks for yet another great read. I have become a big fan of how you collate and finally present such complicated histories and difficult topics.

    A small note – the term ‘Hijra’ in many parts of the world (and esp. South-East Asia), first and foremost refers to a eunuch/transgender/transsexual. I can see that a quick reference to Wikipedia refers to the journey the Prophet made, but if we dig a little deeper, article upon article points to the other definition. To avoid any confusion – it might be better to use ‘Hijrah’ or ‘Hegirah’.

    • SC

      To avoid any confusion – it might be better to use ‘Hijrah’ or ‘Hegirah’… As well as to avoid any unintentional offence!

  • Ant

    Great post, very well researched, as always! That’s a great series! You seem to always speak your mind though, and that’s why I’d like to see at least a hint of an opinion on “why the US invaded Iraq”.

  • Kshitij

    This is perhaps the best way to put the point across on a topic tomes can be written on. For a post of this lucid elaboration I am all praise. I have liked most of your posts before but this surpasses them all. Lot of emotions flow out while reading this. A brilliant brilliant effort.

    Towards the end, the map that shows ISIS’ plans for future expansion seems to involve all of India, but none of Italy while they say they want Rome as a prized possession signifying world domination but have little to say on Delhi. This is disappointing to a Delhi lad like me. Bastards.

    • bob

      I imagine you need to refer to the struggle between byzantium (the eastern _roman_ empire) and the arabs in the 7th-11th centuries to interpret this sentence.
      in short, rome = the christian world

  • figura4

    I learned more in the 20 minutes it took me to read this article than in 30 years of printed press and news broadcasts. Great job, thank you.

    • Erik

      I totally agree with your comment!

      • David


    • Angel

      great job!

  • gionni78

    Pedantic remark (here in Rome we are learning the traditions of our future lords): Hijrah marks the first year of Islamic calendar (so that 2014 AD corresponds to 1435 AH) but I think the actual day of the Hijrah is celebrated later on in the year, not on New Year’s day.

    • SH

      Muslims follow a lunar not a solar calendar, hence the difference.

      • jm

        yes, so new year’s day on the islamic calendar is the 1st of Muharram, the first month of the year.

  • Anubhav Tyagi

    spent the first half of my day at office on this post and subsequent posts from the links and sources, no regrets! looking forward to more of these travelogues even after Greenland is done!

  • Excellent!

    Really enjoyed reading this.. Enlightened some things for me.

    As for the parts where you mention how kind Kurdish people are – I experienced this first hand here in the Netherlands, where a co-worker of mine is Kurdish and had fled the country. He was extremely friendly and with a lot of hospitality.. Totally recognize what you wrote there 🙂

  • R.B.

    I am spechless…thanks for your hard work and bravery to let us have an insight what’s going on in the world.

  • DM

    Well done – great research and highly informative and in the main impartial.

  • Wow

    Great post, very brave of you to go there. Thank you for all the info you shared (and the risk you took). I’m glad you made it back. I look forward to a more relaxing Greenland post.

    If Muhammad wanted to unite the world in peace he totally failed. It’s crazy how that war is spanning thousands of years over a religion created by a schizophrenic man who slept with a nine years old girl. Female genital mutilation and stoning to death for homosexuals is evil. I’m surprised to see how many people are still in that religion.

    • Mustafa

      Hi Brother,
      i appreciate ur comment… but the Islam THAT IS present currently in the world (ISIS AND AL-QAEDA) etc. is not the ISLAM as propagated by Mohammad (pbuh). We should not spread hate in the world.. I am a muslim and can assure u that whatever ISIS does is ABSOLUTELY ANTI-ISLAMIC…

      and as far as ur allegations on our Prophet are concerned, u can do a bit of research on the culture of Saudi Arabia at the time of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh)… u will understand that the marriage was a highly successful bond between 2 families and his wife Ayesha (R.A.) turned out to be one of the greatest scholars of Islam..(unlike a victim of paedophilia, who generally have low morals and have a nightmairsh existence..)

      also u forgot to mention, that our Prophet (pbuh) married many widows which was considered a taboo at that time.. so as to set an example for people to respect the widowed women and which also opened an opportunity for widows of that time to hope for a respectable life..

      but my friend u wish to defame a man without knowing him or the circumstances under which those decisions were made…

      • Mike

        But the fact that THEY think they ARE Islam is ultimately the problem. You are doing the same exact thing that had a part in starting these wars and groups. But no, the religion is the way YOU see it, NOT theirs. The problem is organized religion, end of story. If you don’t want it to be a problem, your people are just going to have to be inclusive of the different sects of the religion and live in harmony. Obviously, terrorist groups are bad. Murder is bad. But their view on the religion? It’s just a religion. There is no right or wrong view. Everyone has their own vision of what it should be. This may be overly simplistic of me, but it’s what I believe to be the most logically truthful.

        • Sorry

          The problem is not organized religion. I find it offensive that you are putting all of the Muslims in one group and calling them “your people”. What does that even mean? YOU are doing the exact same thing that had a part in starting wars too. The “your people” bit. I’m not Muslim but I do agree with Mustafa (though I refuse to agree with his views on pedophilia victims). Islam was started with certain principles in mind. Christianity began out of a certain belief with certain principles. Buddhism has certain principles, Judaism definitely has certain principles. Each religion is open to ideas and has followers with many differing views, but extremists and those who use religion to benefit evil is the result of the HUMAN CONDITION, NOT religion. There are bad people with bad ideas everywhere, whether religious or not (ie. Adolf Hitler who was sort of brought up Catholic but had nothing to do with faith in later life. Hitler hated Jews because he was evil and the human race has been known to produce evil people from time to time, not because he was an active member of the institution of Christianity). I’m pretty sure that the world would have just as many wars and senseless evil even if there were no such thing as religion.

      • Tille

        Horrible slander on victims of pedophilia. “Low morals.” Good grief.

      • James

        Mustafa, unfortunately, while you may be quite peaceful, Muhammad was not, and ISIS IS true Islam. Muhammad led the murder of thousands of individuals who chose not to convert to his religion. While you may trumpet some shared ideology, Muhammad brilliantly took parts of Judeo-Christian culture in order to pacify those he chose to tax (jizya). The fact remains, in an Islamic society, including under Muhammad, non-Muslims are second class citizens and will always be at the mercy of the Islamic state. Muahmmad forced his son to divorce his wife so he could marry her. He forced leaders to accept him as a prophet, or face death. He never wrote anything down so that he could change his message whenever it suited him. He married a fricken 6 year old! Allowed his follow to marry four wives but received a “divine” message which allowed him to take more wives. Captive women were permitted to be raped. The Quran also states: “I will cast terror in the hearts of those who disbelieve, so strike off their heads and strike from them every fingertips.” Quran 8:12. “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.” “And fight them [non-Muslims] until there is no fitnah and until the religion, all of it, is for Allah. Quran 8:39.

        SO, while YOU may believe Muhammad was peaceful, he clearly was not. He invaded caravans, cities and towns, seeking treasures, slaves, converts and women. He was no different than the Mongols and Ghangis Khan. He declared war against all the land and expanded his territory through war, conversion and death. Islam did not peacefully conquer all of North Africa, the Middle East, Spain and half of France. Muhammad was a brilliant General, that is for sure. But he is nothing more than that.

        • Arshiya

          You should reevaluate your own facts before calling out on someone. You have the freedom to say whatever you want but at least don’t make up Quranic verses, please check your sources. You might not know how you are influencing other readers but keep in mind that words have power.

        • Ahmed

          What is the source of your information because, as a Muslim, it is clear that those are made-ups of anti-slamic scholars. The veruses you have mentioned are cutted from their context to show that islam is an aggressive religion!

          If ISIS represented Islam, what do you think 1.7 billion muslim are doing right now? You are saying that 99.9% does not represent Islam because they are peacful but the 0.1% represent Islam because they are murderers! That how you want it to be understood?

          Just to let you know that Muslims, specially the Shia sector, believe (and it is part of the main believes in Shia) that one day will come that our prophet decendent will appear and bring peace and fairness to the whole world.

          This is just to let you know that Fairness and Pease and one of he main characterstics of real Islam. You will not be classified as Shia if they don’t believe in this day.

  • Sasha from Russia

    Thanks, Tim! It was a great post, loved the notes.

  • Rob

    Fantastic stuff, Tim. What you say of Baghdad, and the brothers, certainly reflects what I am told by my wife (from Baghdad) and her brothers. Even though I’m an Iraqi resident, what you have written here will help me to appear less dumb whilst I’m there. Thanks.

    I might have been at the German bar when you were there, by the way.

  • LM

    Fantastic post. You have really managed to bring everything into clear focus in a way that was interesting and so very easy to understand. In fact, my original feelings that the US should stay as far away from this business as possible is being swayed. What it seems we have here is another Nazi regime on the march, and something is going to have to be done sooner rather than later. Stay safe in your travels!

  • Adam

    Fantastic account, Tim. Probably a more thorough explanation of the issues than any news network.

  • wobster109

    There’s something going on with the note system. The last line disappears into the fading bottom of the note, making it hard to read. Also any links in the bottom line are impossible to click.

    • cavemom3

      On my ipad I swept my finger up the notebox, scrolling down to read. Not sure how that happens on a computer; maybe put the cursor on the notebox, and roll the scrolling knob of the mouse?

    • Anonymous

      Try scrolling down on the notes

      • BloodGain

        No, I’m scrolling all the way down, and I have the same issue. The bottom line gets cut off a bit, and the links are often not accessible.

        Of course, my office is still using an old Firefox V17 ESR, despite the fact that the support for that ESR version ended a year ago.

        • Kilgore Trout

          The problem appears in the latest version of Firefox too (32.0.1).

  • wobster109

    Excellent article. The whole region makes much more sense now.

  • Anonymous

    Tim, this obviously took a ton of research and writing time, but know that you are doing a great public service by synthesizing and presenting important material in a comprehensible and entertaining way. Wait But Why is the absolute best site on the internet, with really fantastic content compared with most of the crap that’s out there. Keep it up, and thanks!

  • Fatimah

    Great research. Amazed that you actually went there.
    Just one tiny problem though, the Shias do not believe that the Quran is missing chapters or that someone wrote certain verses. Just throwing that out there for people to know.

    • Cihan

      Great article, though I was also hoping Tim would have added a side note about the ‘hadith’ which I’m sure also share a large responsibility for all the mayhem we see today. These are books compiled separate to the Quran written many years after the Prophet’s death and contain crazy weird outlandish contradictory stuff that many Muslims steadfastly believe.

  • Jen O

    Loved the article. Love the new note systems. Love your writing. Can’t wait for Greenland (bet you’re looking forward to this epic, cross-continent adventure to be over)

  • Faith

    i love how you make very complex information very easy to understand. i’ve always wanted to learn more about this topic– thanks for doing the research condensing this for your readers. you’re a very talented writer, and i can really feel how you pour out your heart for your work. really appreciate the effort you put into this. —your fan

    • Faith

      *for doing the research and condensing this

  • SPO

    Great post. Really enjoy your work. Thank you.

  • Manu

    Very well written and explained. Keep writing great stuff!

  • Bill

    May i suggest reading Michael Totten over at world Affairs. He has spent a lot of time in the Middle East. Also Michael Yon !!!!!

  • Marissa

    First, I love every word you write and which I’d gone to Nigeria with you!

    Now I don’t want to whinge, but a side note for the future..Shia is blue, Sunni is green on one of the images. Then in the images immediately after, they are reversed colours. I stared at that longer than I will admit before I understood that was why I was confused. But then maybe you did that on purpose??

    • Marissa

      *wish….stupid autocorrect

  • Tatiana

    Great research! as someone already mentioned, learned more by reading the article than reading news for the past years! Would have been even greater if there were more personal experiences with iraqi people, as in the article with Nigeria! How long did you stay in Iraq?

  • Verdun

    A post worth the wait! Holy crap. Good job. Thank you for delivering comprehensible facts while painting an image of nuance and complication–the qualities which tend to define real life. Excited for Greenland!

  • Nogoodnms

    Worth the wait.

  • Jim

    This filled in so many gaps in my knowledge. Thanks for your hard work. Every American should read this, instead of the sensationalized shit on 24-hour news programs.

  • Wendy

    I have been trying to grasp the basic story of the region for so long and it eluded me. I am now informed. That was an EXCELLENT article. I look forward to reading it the second time. I am so glad you are home. I can relax now.

  • Jamie

    Wonderful post, which was both factual and also as close as possible to being fair. The strangest thing about this situation for me is at what point does it stop being referred to as a terrorist group and actually become recognised as a state – I mean it has a significant population and is the size of Belgium – it may not be a pleasant state with huge scary expansionist plans but it does seem to constitute more than just a small terrorist organisation at this stage.

  • Tess

    Just love your work!

  • Marie

    First comment on this blog, but seriously it’s worth it. I love what you’re doing, and this article is truly excellent. Thank you!

  • d

    So glad you are alive and loving the footnote-rich new posting style. Islam is very confusing world now, perhaps like when Christianity started splitting off and then there were all those Crusades and witch hunts and whathaveyous. Anyway, your note 13 completely freaked me out causing one of those ‘ eek they’ve changed the Matrix again’ moments. I could have sworn that JBT died in 1984, but all the online sources say 1980. Even so, the civil war didn’t start until 1991 and even up to 1989 things were pretty decent for everyday people. It wouldn’t surprise me if in 500 years there was a religion based on teachings of Marshall Tito..

  • Kam

    I waited so long for your post; I checked everyday!! Worth the wait every time though. 🙂 Thank you for this. You have such a great way of explaining things that make it so entertaining. Always looking forward to your posts! Glad you are SAFE and back home!! @_@

  • Sooty Mangabey

    Thanks for laying it out in a way that makes understanding the insanity of what’s happening a remote possibility. It definitely provided much needed context to this intractable problem occurring in a world far, far away from mine. I’m also appreciative I didn’t have to be there with a super contracted anal sphincter to learn about life on the ground, and what a close shave for you!

  • Jerico

    Wow….. just wow. I’m kinda speechless by how great this article was. I never share anything on social media, but I’ll make an exception here.

  • Kate

    So appreciate the wonderful overview you have given to the madness that is unfolding. The big picture you have painted is both insightful, very informative and entertaining, fairly neutral and yet speaks to the murderous possibilities of any ‘pissed off, power grabbing’ group of (dare I say!) oppressive men!

  • Steffani

    I tend to steer away fro news articles that have anything to do with the Middle East because everything is SO confusing and I never really understand anything, so a huge THANK YOU for putting everything into an easy to read and understand article. I’ve been following along for a few months now and am so happy to have read this part of your trip!

    • Wait But Why

      Exactly. The thing about ongoing news stories is that if you don’t have a foundation of knowledge about them, new news about them is “icky” to you because you don’t fully get it and it goes in one ear and out the other when you hear it or read a headline. But once you have a foundation, those same headlines become fascinating and the knowledge sticks when you read it because it has a foundation to stick to. Glad if this can help provide a foundation of knowledge on this crisis to make future headlines more sticky. And thank you to all the really nice comments!

  • homegrownhero

    I’m still reading the whole thing, but a word of advice from the view of a product designer who spends his days making presentations for clients to understand:
    between link item 19 and 20 (somewhere midway) the post and pre 2003 Sunni-Shia power axis, Sunni is depicted in Blue and Shia in green, where the previous grahps shows the other way around. Good idea to keep things consistent. Decide all the factions you are going to include before hand and assign them a permanent color/icon/identified which stays that way for the entire article.
    You’re probably aware of this, but yeah I’m just pointing out minor inconsistencies, but a good read nonetheless.

    • Wait But Why

      Hideous. I can’t believe I did that. Working on a fix.

  • Will

    Read this and then went back and read it all over again. This is what all journalism should be like: rich, comprehensive and set out in witty – sometimes straight-up hilarious – layman’s terms.

    • Tricia

      ^^ This. And what most of the above people said. So glad I found this site! Sharing!

  • MeMe

    Exceptional work Tim. This post was a really good breakdown of the history and issues that have plagued these Middle Eastern nations. So much insight and I’ve truly been enlightened. I applaud you for being brave enough to enter the country in such distressful times. I liked the random tidbits. I think Americans could learn a thing or two from Iraqi dating and Kurdish hospitality. It’s really heart wrenching to know that this had to happen to Mohammad and his family. Will keep them in prayer. I also hope things go well for the men who started world peace day in Iraq.

  • SA

    Could you please moon light as advicer to governments, Tim?! Your style is outstanding- but what’s more important is you have been so objective about this and laid it out so well for all of us ignoramus out here….

  • Jon

    Dude such an inspiring read! thank you for your information and sharing your knowledge I’m sure to follow up on your trips and hopefully we can meet up sometime in one of these countries.

    God Bless

  • Anon

    To be fair you could write something similar about the papacy

    Aldous Huxley summed it up pretty well:- “Tantum religio portuit saudere malorum… – turning to God without turning away from self – the formula is absurdly simple; and yet, simple as it is, it explains all the follies and iniquities committed in the name of religion” (p243 The Perennial Philosophy, First Perennial Classics Edition,2004)

  • Elvis

    Thank You! You have a done a tremendous job!

  • Arabic viewer

    As an Arabic viewer l highly admire the effort done here,
    but i hoped you had the courage to write a little bit about creating state of Israel in this regain and what led to all the chaos later

    • Wait But Why

      That’s its own (8,000-word) piece. Will take it on sometime soon.

      • 8000 Word Article

        Are you suggesting that this article is an 8k word piece? Because a copy and paste into MS Word reveals that its supposedly only 7504 words mister!
        Just kidding, love your work mate, come visit Australia one time!

        • Did you include the footnotes in your word count? 😉

  • Hoi-Ying

    Thank you for this long awaited post Tim. I’m gladly educated by you.

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  • miriam

    great job breaking down such a complex topic. and the new notes system is amazing!

  • Brooke

    Uday Hussein = Joffrey Barathean

    • Nihal

      My thoughts exactly 😛

    • Anonymous

      LOL I was thinking the same thing

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  • Nihal

    Highly informative topic explained clearly in a very practical way. It was very long, but never boring as it was presented with apt humor. I can’t help but admire your passion in actually visiting the places before writing about it. Keep up the great posts. Always keep it real (I know you will).

  • Shoush

    Incredible amount of data collection / information gathering. Just one tiny thing: Iraqi who fled are internally displaced, not refugees. To be a refugee you have to cross into another country.

  • cher432

    As someone who is confused by the war in the Middle East and the conflicting reports that are produced, I would like to say that this is the most informative and simple article I have ever read on the matter. I was particularly happy about the way the article presented the big picture(the whole history behind it), what was most amazing was the fact that it was done in such a short article! I have tried reading different accounts/books on the matter but they have never been as clear and concise.

    Incredible research skills, as a student I envy Tim’s ability to condense so much information into a simple and easily understandable piece. Kudos to you and I look forward to more articles from you!!

  • Christian

    Holy fuck…just, Wow, fuck fuck

  • Kamil

    Spectacular post. Guess it’s off to Gaza and Jerusalem for your next vacation!

  • JJ

    so glad you returned safely! I’ve been struggling to understand this whole situation with ISIS, Sunni vs Shia, and as usual, you’ve managed to put a very complex issue into a very informative and enlightening read. Thank you for this! There’s so much material in this that it deserves multiple readings.


    Thank you…. Very informative

  • Prateek

    Man … You must have nuts made of adamantium…. to actually go to Iraq when all this chaos is reigning there… You could have always said “screw the non-refundable ticket”…. This is one of the best posts i’ve ever read… Thanks a ton for the insights and the knowledge… I can’t even imagine (even with the photographs in this post) what hell must be ensuing there…

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  • Anonymous

    Question: Did anyone else get the feeling that the wars in the Middle East (and even Africa as Tim points out) will not find a sustainable solution until boarders are more appropriately assigned around ethnic or religious groups?

    Comment: you literally risked your life for this post Tim. Thank you. It is fantastic am some everyone, especially those with positions of political influence regarding the Middle East, should be required to read.

  • Aaron

    What is the Iraqi answer to the question you said you would ask of the people you visited? “If you had a magical Aladdin genie who granted you any three wishes, what would you wish for? “

  • c. in CLE

    i kinda loved the new footnote thing… until I suddenly went from #2 to #7 & had to go back and read from #3… talk about disrupting the flow! the way i see it, i read your ramblings b/c i like all of what you have to say… on the rare occasion that i get bored, i exercise the Power of the Reader & i scan forward til i get interested again. i vote that you ditch the new footnote style & just include notes where you feel pertinent – Power of the Author. keep rocking it. -c.

  • Blackhat2005

    Despite what Obama recently said, it sounds like the IS is very much Islamic and religiously incited. The way I see it since a Shia Muslim won’t consider a Suni (thus ISIS) a “real” Muslim, and vise – versa where a Suni won’t consider a Shia “real”. I feel logically forced to say either none or both are Muslim. I’m more inclined to say the latter, thus leading me to the highly controversial opinion of Islam being at fault. Before I get flack for saying that, hear me out. By taking the logical opinion of it being the common denominator and what they (both sides) claim to be, I avoid putting myself on a metaphorical moral pedestal based on subjective facts and opinions that revolve around one side being right or wrong that stand on nothing but different interpretations and understandings of essentially the same thing, the Quran.

    • Marz

      “It is simply false to try to trace an infinite number of different experiences back to something called ‘Islam’, no matter how vociferously polemical Orientalists insist that Islam regulates Islamic societies from top to bottom, that dar al-Islam is a single, coherent entity, that church and state are really one in Islam, and so forth.

      My contention is that this is an unacceptable generalization of the most irresponsible sort… what we expect from the serious study of Western societies, with its complex theories, enormously variegated analyses of social structures, histories, cultural formations and sophisticated languages of investigation, we should also expect from the study and discussion of Islamic societies in the west.’ -Said, ‘Covering Islam’, 1997

  • Amazing

    I am so grateful that I found your blog months ago. I feel like I know so much more about Iraq and what’s going on there (then and now). It was well worth the wait and I can really sense how much effort you put into this. Thank you so much for creating such an informative post, knowledge is power and you’re helping humanity with this post lol

  • Wow!

    Your article is awesome in the fact it brings a complicated situation and puts it in simpler terms for the average person to not just understand what’s happening on ground but the history behind it. Would you mind doing one of these on Palestine? 🙂

    • K

      Yeh, an Israel-Palestine one like this would be great!

  • Jaxe

    ISIS didn’t order Fatwa in Iraq, it was based on a outdated document in Syria. Not that it makes them any better.
    Great notes system. love it.

  • Adam

    I’m sad there is no video collage like the previous two stops. I understand they may not be as – shall we say fun? as the previous visits, but did you shoot no video? I just really like the visual addition to the article.

    Cant believe you were there 5 days before the fighting! Part of me wondered if the choice made by the audience when you asked where to go was to send you to a not fun place, but you had a blast in Nigeria … Iraq clearly wasn’t quite as fun. Im very happy you didnt have a ‘blast’ in Iraq. 5 days is too close for comfort.

    God, that poor kid. All those poor people. *sigh* great work on the article, once again though.

  • Emily

    So excited whenever I see you post a new article, and you never disappoint. Thank you so much for this insight.

    Please stay safe!

  • Bryan

    Before reading this article I didn’t know Shia from shinola. Thanks.

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  • Phil Raven

    Congratulations for the most amazing article I’ve read in months! I’m new to, but I’ll surely come back for more.

  • Fan for Life

    I have learned so much from your extensive posts. I can’t imagine the hours you put into each one. Is there a way to support you for your time and efforts?

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  • Darima the Siberian girl

    Hey Tim, I’ve been reading your blog since the “how to be insufferable” and “Gen Y” posts and was so happy to discover the numerous insights that you have to offer! It’s impressive how courageous you are and that you went all the way to Japan and Siberia (not many people do that)! You give an amazing perspective on local people’s lives and don’t behave as a spoiled Western tourist (sadly I met such people many times). I saw readers commented about it already but the way you summarize loads of data and put it in a funny-sometimes-ironic-but-not-offensive manner makes your blog outstanding! Additional round of applause for illustrations and scrollable footnotes. The post about Iraq is GREAT. Safe travels

  • Greg

    Impressive article that distiller a complex world into something we can all understand! Thank you!

  • Xuxu

    thx, it’s a shame no public TV is able to explain things properly like you did… they would need to be an independant media for that… too bad xD lol

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  • bay

    Wow, just wow… I learned a lot reading this. Now, I am also sad…

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  • B

    This one tops the list. Your posts just keep getting better.

  • Sofi Berro

    The new footnotes are brilliant, I love them.
    Thanks so much for this post. I was really in italics ignorant about this topic, except for some non-sense the news shows to avoid talking about my countries problems, I definitely needed to read this. I will share this, because I believe everybody must understand this. Thank you.

  • Jei

    Thank you so very much for writing this post in an objective, (primarily) professional manner. It answered a lot of my questions and gives me a reason to pray for my Christian family that lives under ISIS.

    God bless!

  • T

    I have to say, this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read regarding information everyone “hears” about but no one “knows” about. Many people hear of this terrible threat going on but not sure how process through all the big words being used through the media and little known about that culture in regards to religion and government. (I didn’t know any of this) Your words & maps are just amazing. Safe travels in your future.

  • nobody

    “Ingredient 1: An Ancient Schism”

    Yes and no. This was a nice summary of the “Islamic” Schism, but the real schism is between true and false religion. This most volatile schism in the middle east goes back to Cain and Abel, but more appropriately it can be traced back to Issac and Ishmael.

    There’s a race of people that come from the legitimate child and a race that comes from the illegitimate child. The race that comes from the illegitimate child has been jealous of the rightful heir for several millennia and will never cease to get over it.

    • anker

      shut up

  • Anonymous

    i wolud be really scared if they came to AMERICA ? ARE THEY ALREADY HERE ? FIGURE THAT OUT .

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  • marc

    this is one hell of a piec of content. great research very interesting
    greetings from germany,

  • Melissa

    Such a good read. Thank you so much for putting this together! I learned a lot and I think more people need to read this to really understand what is going on in Iraq.

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  • Mimi

    Great article but I just wanted to point out that it is a bit misleading when you said:

    “honor killings”—i.e. the part of Sharia Law that allows a man to kill a female relative if she dishonors her family in any way.”

    Granted, there is not one “shariah law”, it is a bit ridiculous to claim that anyone has the right to kill a female for any reason whatsoever under the pretexts of Islam. While honor killings do occur, we should by no means associate them with any Islamic principles, as it is a small percentage of distorted individuals (like IS) who commit barbaric acts in the name of a religion which they understand very poorly. Anyway, I would omit that honor killings are a “part of Sharia law”, I think it reinforces the misconception that many people have in general with Shariah law and where it fits into Islam. Other than that, I really enjoyed the read!

  • Shuaib

    Sorry to nitpick, but the Prophets four daughters all survived into adulthood.

    Nonetheless, a good article.

    • Jones

      That’s not nitpicking, that’s actually pretty important. If a writer gets such an easy point wrong you have to wonder about the credibility of the rest of his assertions.

      Don’t believe everything you read on the internet I guess.

      • Raj

        Actually the author is correct. He said only one survived till “full adulthood” and that’s true. The two sons died in infancy, and of the four daughters, three survived until young adulthood but two of them died young, so young they never had children. Only Fatimah reached an age old enough to have kids. That’s why it says full adulthood and not just adulthood. I think the author could have been more explicit but I don’t think the statement is inaccurate.

  • JP

    I don’t know who the hell you are, Tim Urban, or what you’re doing with your life. But thank you for this!

  • Amy

    A great read. I was about to sit down and write a similar history, having lived in and studied Iraq quite a lot in recent years, but this covers most of it! However I would like to present a slightly alternative version of the ‘Sykes-Picot was responsible for all current evils in the Middle East’ theory. It works for most of the Middle East (and similar travesties in Africa) but in the case of Iraq, the conflicts and borders were problems for far longer. Will try to put together the academic research on this into something close to your excellent summaries.
    A very minor point about your graphic on ISIS operations. It’s not a report about how they kill people, but on the number and nature of operations. For example the one with handcuffs is about how many operations to free prisoners they’ve conducted. It also, interestingly, notes in the middle that 1434 of the 7000+ operations noted were conducted in Iraq, which just shows how long and efficiently they were cracking on with their brutality in Syria before we took notice of them.

  • Chris

    By far the best summary of the situation in Iraq I’ve read. Also living proof that the sky doesn’t collapse if you make the occasional funny in an article on something as serious as Isis. In fact, it only improves the quality.

  • Jes

    Thank you so much for describing the situation in a way it is understandable. Eventhough I read a lot about the situation I feel for the first that I get it. Great writing style. Awesome article.

  • Openmind

    Sorry about posting this using a pseudo name. I am 49 years old, well educated, worked in 3 different countries including the US and I have not learnt as much about Islam in my life thus far, as I have learnt from this article. Kudos to the author! This article reinforces some of my beliefs that Islam the way it is practiced by its followers will lead the world to a great catastrophe perhaps another world war causing more grief to the world. And it is not likely that the followers of the religion will learn anything new from the history now (conflicts and violence between Shias and Sunnis and then between Islam and other religions) what they haven’t learnt in 1400 years. This implies that strife, struggles and conflicts will continue and that is not a good news for the world!

  • Miss Fish

    This is superb. This is better than superb. Thank you.

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  • Mollyanne Meyn

    I enjoy every post you make. You make the absurd relevant, and you do so with heart, humor and brilliance. Thanks for approaching your investigations and whims so courageously, and in particular, this one…I’ve learned so much.

  • Talib Husain

    Firstly, This is an incredibly awesome article.. thoroughly enjoyed reading this..

    Secondly, as an Indian muslim, I just wish that people understand that most of the problems of the muslim world are geo-political and a power-struggle to occupy the void created post second world war. It has little to do with islam or muslims. This is very similar to the world wars, cold war and all the other other territorial struggles the world has been witnessing for over a thousands of years.

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  • aqsa tariq

    islam is the religion of peace, and those terrorists calling themselves sunnis they are not even muslims. u have missed to mention that Umar Farooq and his family were non Muslims and he was about to kill his siter and his brother inlaw while they were reciting the verses of Quran in his absence and he heard it from the window he came to her with a sword in his hand and she hided Quran from him, he asked his sister what was she reciting she replied that i know if i wud tell u the truth you will kill me.. he insisted and her sister told him that these are the verses of Quran.. Umar Farooq asked her to recite it for him and she started the recitation of Holly Quran from that time he converted to Islam and became a very strict follower and the right hand of the Prophet Muhammad( S.A.W) he was famous for his bravery.. and a very great Caliph of Islam. he is well known for Islamic Democracy.. During his Calaphate no one slept hungry at night whether muslim or non muslim..

  • klajs, Sweden

    Wow. Just, wow! Such an enlightening post. You have awonderful way of putting words together, and I think you would be able to make the most complicated subject interesting and comprehensive. I LOVE this site!

  • Majd J. Saffo

    Thanks tim for sharing the story of Iraq, hope u visit us again on the 21st of september the next year and come over to Baghdad city of peace carnival.. i’ll make sure u get all u need about this year’s carnival. Peace

  • A fan, to say the least

    If I believed in exactly such a thing as the archangel Gabriel, I think you might be the 21st century reincarnation. Never has this situation been so clearly communicated. I feel like inception horns are going off in my head.

  • Mukesh

    I loved all of your posts and this is one of the best. Very informative,very nicely written with little humor included. I learned many new things today. Adding note system is great idea.
    Keep on writing nice articles.

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  • evolved human

    great article, one small note, you misread the chart about calling the ISIS cowards the deadliest terrorist group in history… I believe that title should go to the “Shining Path.” In fact, ISIS isn’t even in the top three, and they never will be.

  • Nigeriana

    Worth the time spent.

  • Salman Mohammadi

    Hi, good and briefly. I spend some years to bring nonviolent action methods to Persia via translating works from Gene Sharp! But finally disappointedly went on climbing. I’m searching for a far far away country to take my little girl from this endless religious wars! Would any one help me and my family to leave this erea for ever!

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  • Pablo Pinés

    I usually like a lot your articles, but Note 5 has some remarkable mistakes. First of all, the Reconquista finished in 1492, exactly the same year Cristobal Colón discovered the new world, a nice coincidence. Then, the muslims stayed in Spain for 800 years, but it was 800 years of intermitent war, some parts where always christian, and by the XIII century most of it was already Christian. And last, it is not true that after 1492 it took 250 years to “purge the land”. Rather, by 1613 all those who didn’t convert were expelled

  • Manish

    Good But It’s Freakin’ Long Bro…… Time wasting article by the way…….

  • Ahmed Saleem

    After reading the above post, I thought of furnishing the contents of the last sermon of the Prophet Muhammad. Had his message been understood and adhered by us today, there would have been less man-made problems which is affecting the humanity today.

    Last Sermon of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)

    This sermon was delivered on the 9th Day of Dul Hijjah 10 AH (632 CE) in the Uranah valley of Mount Arafat (in Makkah)

    After praising and thanking Allah, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

    “O People, lend me an attentive ear, for I know not whether after this year, I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore listen to what I am saying to you very carefully and take these words to those who could not be present here today.

    “O People, just as you regard this month, this day, this city as Sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust. Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners. Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you. Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord, and that He will indeed reckon your deeds.

    “Allah has forbidden you to take usury (interest), therefore all interest obligation shall henceforth be waived. Your capital, however, is yours to keep. You will neither inflict nor suffer any inequity. Allah has judged that there shall be no interest and that all the interest due to Abbas ibn Abdal Muttalib (Prophet’s uncle) shall henceforth be waived…

    “Beware of Satan for the safety of your religion. He has lost all hope that he will ever be able to lead you astray in big things, so beware of following him in small things.

    “O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under Allah’s trust and with His permission. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers. And it is your right that they do not make friends with any one of whom you do not approve, as well as never to be unchaste.

    “O People, listen to me in earnest, worship Allah, say your five daily prayers (Salah), fast during the month of Ramadan, and give your wealth in Zakat. Perform Haj if you can afford to.

    “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.

    “Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.

    “Remember, one day you will appear before Allah and answer your deeds. So beware, do not stray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.

    “O People, no prophet or apostle will come after me and no new faith will be born. Reason well, therefore, O People, and understand words which I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the Qur’an and my example, the Sunnah and if you follow these you will never go astray.

    “All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me directly. Be my witness, O Allah, that I have conveyed your message to your people.”

  • Shahu

    This makes me sad. Because I like being a muslim.

    • Nirvan Sengupta

      You can still be a Muslim and it’s cool, dude.
      You’re not accountable for shitty things other people do.
      Be a cool, ass Muslim, my friend.

  • wallflower

    that post was awesome, no doubt, but i think you should have included the event of Gadir-e-Khumm when explaining the difference between the shi’a and the sunni although i do understand you might have wanted to keep it simple. this event is actually quite crucial in muslim history and looking closely at this event you’ll realise that these two branches were formed just because of the different interpretations of the word “mawla” which can mean: friend, leader and tons of other things. i have also been studying muslim history for quite sometime now and i don’t think that Muhammed and his troops forced people to convert to Islam, this might have happened during the later caliphates. there are multiple interpretations of the Quran it is important that we understand that everyone interprets the Quran differently. And this might come as a shock but Prophet Muhammed’s direct descendant is still alive and is the leader of a small shi’a community who call themselves Ismailis. He is Prince Karim Aga Khan and he runs the AKDN and shares a close connection with the Canadian government. here’s the link to the AKDN website:
    do read his speeches, they will blow your mind. especially the one made in the Canadian Parliament.

  • chris

    What you forget to mention is that the US Ambassador to Iraq heavily influenced the selection of Maliki after Jafari. The same ambassador who previously put Karzai in power in Afghanistan… Seeing a trend here? The US didn’t just leave with Maliki all of a sudden becoming the new prime minister…it would be naive for us to think that we didn’t have a hand in any of this….

  • Tarek

    Hey, great article. I really enjoyed reading it. Just one thing though, from what I know, Lebanon is neither a Shia majority nor is it run by Shias. Shias do hold a proportional amount of power though, so I do see the point you are making.

  • Anonymous

    Islamic is devils

    • Kite

      Not all…

      • Imran Saifi

        So one decision of US to attack on Saddam made this ISIS and made life hell of civilian. First US killed them in dron attack and now ISIS is killing. if both of them are killing civilians what is difference in US and ISIS. Even if ISIS is using US made arms.

        • Ryumancer

          Main difference would be this. American Government is corrupt, but a lot of the people that work within it are not. ISIS is just as (if not more) corrupt as/than the American Government, but EVERYONE running or politically/publically supporting them is just as bad as the organization itself.
          American officials are merely greedy and stupid. ISIS officials are cunning and soulless animals. That’s the main difference.

  • Skeptic

    Nice pop-history, except that it barely mentions the US’ record of involvement in the Middle East at all. Understanding ISIS requires discussing the effects of the criminal invasion of Iraq on the region and the alliance between the US and the most radically extremist religious state on Earth: Saudi Arabia.

    To this day, Saudi Arabia is still indoctrinating, arming and financing the most extreme religious fanatics on this planet while the US continues to finance, arm and protect the House of Saud. Consider the absurdity that the only foreign US Coast Guard unit is stationed off the coast of Saudi Arabia, duly protecting its shipping lanes. Goes to show just how much of an extension the Saudi peninsula is to our own continent. Not to mention that last month, something like 19 people were beheaded there.

    You also ignore the effect of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, a sovereign country, without international authorization and on false pretenses, and let Paul Bremer summarily dismantle its institutions and normalize political persecution.

    You also ignore that the US supplied and trained Maliki’s security forces as they and Shia militias cleansed Baghdad of Sunnis, pushing Sunnis into an alliance with jihadis and militants fighting against the government. Or that the radicalization of these communities produced the fighters that have torn apart Syria and supplied ISIS with its manpower.

    You do mention the US air campaign against ISIS, launched without Congressional authorization and without any debate about potential alternative options, but you don’t mention the fact that the US is holding back from supporting the Kurdish forces under siege in Kobani, since Turkey, whose favor the US is courting, is hostile to the Kurdish forces fighting there. Hence, Kobani will fall and the Kurd forces will be slaughtered so that the US and Turkey won’t have to worry about pesky Kurdish agitators and their demands for greater autonomy in their homelands.

    Yet, instead of questioning the wisdom of an assault on ISIS amid a region of diverse actors with unclear motives and hidden agendas, you slyly imply that we’ll have to escalate and put boots on the ground: “I doubt airstrikes will suffice. It’s going to be a lot harder than that.” Your unstated premise is that we ought to be doing airstrikes in the first place, but you’ll have to justify the airstrikes first before advocating a commitment to send more people to die in this conflict.

    Presumably your argument is that current airstrikes are justified by the horror that ISIS is inflicting on the region. But how reasonable is that when Israel just subjected a trapped population of 1.5 million to the onslaught of high-tech US weaponry, destroying civilian infrastructure, countless lives and sniping people as they picked up the body parts of their family members? What about the horror when the war in Gaza reached its bloodiest peak and civilians in Shujayya were being blown to bits by missiles and a ground assault, as the Pentagon green-lighted an arms request by Israel to replenish its ammunition and artillery in order to continue leveling Gaza and decapitating women and children with precision weaponry. If horror is a justification for military action, then Palestinians and their allies would be justified in launching airstrikes against the US and Israel with the deadliest weapons of our day.

    Weird how such details get little notice when we discuss ISIS or the Middle East in general.

    • Kite

      You do have a valid point.

    • neroden

      The US backing of Saudi Arabia, which has led to *endless* evils, is worthy of a full-length study in itself, like this one only more in depth.

      The area will only start straightening itself out when the US stops backing Saudi Arabia.

  • Rohit

    Thanks for sharing… You have shared the same info as 100 pages book carries…Keep updating.
    Moral of the story is Its an AMERICAN EMPIRE.

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  • ovieimoni

    How convenient that your map leaves Palestine (AKA Israel) unpainted, just in time for Europeans (AKA Jews) to arrive with a writ from God and claim the land. 🙂

  • Mohammad Shad Mustafa

    Just recently stumbled onto your blog and I have to admit, I began to read this particular article with a lot of skepticism. But what seems like a long time from then, I am now at the end of the article, feeling much more informed and as a muslim, not the least bit offended.

    Appreciate your open mindedness greatly even though I feel you glossed over America’s atrocities in the war. I’m hoping that its totally unintentional that your article seems to sometimes drop hints of why America’s invasive tours into the mid-east is totally justified and no one seems to have a problem with it.

    Just as how you criticize Sykes and Picot, I wonder if someday in the future someone will write an article criticizing the mid east fiasco that’s been going on for the past few decades. Though admittedly mistakes are always easier to spot in retrospect.

    • dianegordon

      Atrocities? Can you spell A-S-S-A-D? Give me a break!

  • techangelist

    Just discovered this site. Best writing on the subject have ever come across. Learned a lot. I believe all this history was know to the iraq experts whose reports Rumsfeld threw in the trash as he embarked on Iraq 2.0. Along those lines, to be fair you could have added a blue box briefly describing the extensive american contribution to the mess in the same vein that you described the picot-sykes story.
    Though I guess that would hit a tad close to home and might make the article less palatable to the some of your readers. Remarkable effort nonetheless. Thanks.

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  • Haans

    Can’t believe you went to Iraq and Nigeria during these times. You’re gonna be the coolest grandpa one day

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  • Sam

    May I get your source documentation for “being ruthless themselves with those who … refused to convert”?

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  • Dani

    This is actually really accurate, my parents are both Iraqi and I’ve been there so I especially liked how true the life in Baghdad part was (my parents told me about the time where they never saw a girl again because she spoke ill of Saddam). Also my uncle lives in Michigan, I don’t know why either…UK and Sweden were also pretty popular choices for Iraqis to go to. I also like how you stressed just how awful Saddam Hussein was, I feel like lately a lot of people have been saying “he was not that bad”. I agree that Iraq is worse at this minute but let’s not act like it was perfect before.

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  • Goran Mihajlović

    I understand that the context of this article is to talk about the schism in Islam and how it affects Iraq today, but I really cannot stand that these things completely leave out that there remains a large number of Iraq’s original inhabitants: Assyrians, and another group, the Turkmen. The Turkmen make up probably 2 million people, and there’s about 500000 (twice as many in 2003) Assyrians that haven’t yet fled from Iraq, or been slaughtered yet. They are almost universally persecuted by both Arabs and Kurds in Iraq. It tells how easy it is for the persecuted to become persecutors themselves, or in the case of the Kurds, how persecutors (they happily assisted the Ottomons in committing genocide against Armenians and Assyrians during WW1) can also be persecuted, and it doesn’t change the wrongs that they have done, and continue to do.

    I do like that its mentioned that there are multiple Kurdish factions. There’s Sunni and Shi’a Kurds, and even oens that support ISIS. There’s three main factions. Two constantly vie for dominance, and the third would be the PKK.

    As for Saddam being bad, yeah, he was bad. But let’s not go around thinking of Saddam in a clean “bad” vacuum. Over 2 million Iraqis are dead since 1991 as a result of American intervention and the aftermath, and a couple million more as refugees, and a nation is destroyed culturally, and economically. Its once vibrant middle class is gutted. It doesn’t matter how artificial it was. Iraq actually had good living standards and was relatively liberal by Middle Eastern standards even immediately after the Iran-Iraq war, goaded on by the US that went on to be responsible for the destruction of a nation. But hey, Iraq has “democracy” now. Yay! Tots worth it! The alternative: lettings Iraqis eventually depose of Saddam and his successors on their own would have ended up better for basically everybody, and who knows what Iraq would be like today with 20 years of growth behind it, as opposed to 20 year of destruction.

    • Ryumancer

      Yeah, Saddam seemed like a much lesser evil when compared to ISIS. His government kept most of the power-hungry extremist groups in check. When the U.S. dethroned him, that screwed everything up.

  • kkk1986bomb

    I support Isis and I’m going to get plenty of artillery and do my thing so watch out ppl

  • Waleed Abu-elqassem

    prophet ‘s Muhammed name at birth was only Mohammed, Al qassem his son was born in the last decade of prophet Mohammed’s life (between 54 :64) so he did not become abou al-qassem (father of Al-qassem) till the birth of his son.
    three of Mohammed’s daughters gave birth (زينب-فاطمة -رقية)
    , so they must lived till there womanhood ,while all of his children(except for Fatemah) deceased at Mohammed ‘s life, Fatemah is only one to die after her father.

  • imw101

    Superb analysis. If only Dubya had been made to read it in 2002 none of this sh*t would have happened.

    • foobar

      I think you mean *could* read.

  • Oh well – This well written piece came up again in a discussion and a Friend wanted to know why I had not commented on it.

    I told her:

    I didn’t comment because I liked his analysis; I liked his 1st person perspective; I liked his history and historical footnotes and…. I think that he, like everyone else who is studying the problem from his angle, is wrong. Dead wrong.

    I don’t have the will to document my research against his in order to prove my point , mainly because nobody ever listens to my particular take nor do they care.

    My bottom line is – EVERYBODY knows about Shia Islam vs. Sunni Islam.

    Many people, but not everybody, knows about Saudi Wahhabism and how it differs from normative Sunni Islam.

    And, very few people know about Shia Iranian Vilayat al Fiqh and how that differs from normative Shia Islam.

    My very simplistic explanation and disagreement with the author of this piece is that the Shia Sunni split doesn’t mean all that much.

    Internecine Islamic killings, warfare and out and out murder, is ALL Tribal.

    Each little faction is striving for tribal/clan/ factional dominance and will happily kill or overthrow the “other” tribe or clan or faction even if it belongs to their own Shia or Sunni group.

    Saudi Wahhabism is a NEW Sunni heresy which has REPLACED normative Sunni Islam. ALL of the “Sunni” terror (from Pakistani ISI to the Muslim Brotherhood to Boko Haram and everything in between) groups come from this philosophy, which was considered a gross heresy 300 years ago.

    Iranian Vilayat al Fiqh; Rule of the Jurist, is a NEW Shia heresy which the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini invented.

    Other Shia, such as Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the leading Shia cleric in Iraq, do not accept this heresy and will NOT follow the Iranian RELIGIOUS lead. They will, as does Hezbollah; Sunni Hamas; Allawite Syria; and now Houthi Yemenis, among others, follow the Iranian political lead in terms of being supplied with arms by Iran in order to mainly kill other Muslims of some other faction (or to attack Israel. However, attacking Israel and murdering Jews is not an end in itself. It is mainly “street cred” and “coup points” for one faction or tribe to claim dominance over other factions or tribes in order to control or kill other Arabs and Muslims. The more a faction “counts coup” on Israel or Jews or “the West,” the more street cred that faction has to gain adherents.).

    (The current “Islamic State” is just another Wahhabi offshoot which has simply taken the harsh Wahhabist philosophy to its logical extremes.

    When the tribe of al Saud conquered the Arabian Peninsula, they used the same terror tactics of today’s “Islamic State.” After the Saudis sacked; looted; and took Mecca, killing and driving out the Hashemite rulers of Mecca, their own shock troops, the fanatic Ikhwan, refused to surrender Mecca to the Saud tribe as the Ikhwan considered them NOT dedicated or fanatic enough to be proper Wahhabi rulers.

    The Saudis had to raise another army to slaughter their own Ikhwan zealots before they could establish their State where beheading, stoning, and whipping are considered ordinary, religiously doctrinaire punishments. )

    In other words – it’s not nearly as simple as this author and others appear to believe.

    Without Sykes-Picot; without the British establishment of the various Muslim tribal “kingdoms;” without the American invasion of Iraq; and without outside intervention of any kind – Muslims and Arabs would still be massively murdering each other, as they are doing now, today…

    In Syria – without outside intervention.

    As did the Taliban in Afghanistan – without outside intervention.

    As Pakistan was and is doing to itself since its inception – without outside intervention.

    As nearly every Muslim country from Indonesia to Sudan to Egypt to Nigeria has done, and is doing, to themselves- without outside intervention.

    This author appears to side with the majority of people viewing this Great Arab Muslim Sectarian Civil War that has been ongoing for the last 100 years – who all seem to believe that “everyone would have just all get along” – “IF only” – there weren’t the Shia Sunni split or if only outside powers hadn’t intervened.

    In the fictional movie, “Lawrence of Arabia,” made in 1962; describing events in 1916; the money quote is:

    ” So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are.”

    They have never ceased fighting tribe against tribe and the violence increases daily, almost exponentially.

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  • DC

    I thought this article was really good, though really scary. And then I happened upon this:

    It’s even scarier…..

    • Highlyamused

      That was a great article in the Atlantic.

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  • wally12

    Great article. I learned a lot about Shia vs Sunni vs Isis. It is really complicated. One thing sticks in my mind is that if the US does not get involved, the Isis may increase their power since they have shown success to date and the violence shown by Isis must not be allowed to continue. It would be something if all the borders could be redefined to include each faction to be able to solidify. I realize that is wishful thinking since their centuries of conflict is not open to negotiation. It only solidifies my opinion that to negotiate with Iran on nuclear weapons must be to prevent nuclear capability to Iran and a shut down of their centrifuges. The only viable action at this point is to place more restricted sanctions against Iran. To allow Iran to negotiate some agreement that permits the continued enrichment will only result in failure and an ultimate nuclear Iran since any negotiation without have complete access for inspections will be violated. If Iran gets nuclear capability will lead to proliferation by the rest of the Middle East. That scenario is not something to be taken lightly and really scary.

  • Daniel Jones

    Perhaps someone else has mentioned it, but I find it surprising that no one seems to identify Iran as the root cause ISIS success in northern Iraq. I believe that Nouri al-Maliki’s behavior, which resulted in kicking American troops out due to the demand for Iraqi jurisprudence over foreign forces, was essentially orchestrated by Iran. That was then followed by a campaign to hollow out the Iraqi army and replace commanders with incompetent political appointments from Baghdad. Then Iran has the not entirely unexpected gall to blame the collapse on America. Believe me I am not happy that we went into Irag in the first place and that certainly started the dominoes falling, heh, but Iran really screwed up big time. Unless, they are so clever that they are counting on the complete destruction of Irag where they can collect the pieces.

  • Sean

    Superb article, phenomenally detailed, love it all and will revisit soon but first I must ask – how and what is that elaborate note system you used? I love it! Can you shed some light on that?

  • marie sissi

    the article is a pop geopolitical one, pertinent for those who know nothing about the situation & extremly shallow for those who are familiar with , still nice try

    • Jess

      Perhaps you could write your own very detailed one, then?! I think this article is an excellent stepping stone and sheds some light on a very heavy subject.

      • marie sissi

        i have the infos but i don’t have the article writing skills,we can talk about it if u want,the article sheds some light indeed,but misses many important key points 🙂

  • Hell is waiting

    God don’t know these people,you all have the devil in you with no soul.

  • idk

    i feel really sorry for these people especislly the little 8 year old boy, i hope isis stops terrorising these poor people

  • cotpoe

    I generally love your articles. Your observations of human psychology, mathematics, existence/sentience and what not are quite refreshing and a lot of the views are quite similar to my own. On the topic of geopolitics however, you have a very innocent and naive view of the nature of Statecraft – and I say this in the sincerest, most positive manner. The confluence of history,geopolitics,realpolitik and Statecraft is a murky,deep and tragically sad one exposing the worst elements of human nature. Nothing in politics is accidental and power by its very nature flows seamlessly between political,economic,military,intelligence and financial spheres. History is the most important subject you will learn, as long as you can use the same principles of objective analysis,detached observation, understanding of human psychology ( esp. the psychology of control ) and to always be aware that history is written by the victors. Those who control the past control the future. Those who control the present control the past. Equally paradoxically history taught in the shallow textbooks is naive and illusionary. The occurance of events is objective ( though true objectivity is limited to direct observation – further removed you are from the location/time of event – greater the susceptibility to distorted framing by the media sources you use to gain that information. The Cause of events however are varied and complex. A better understanding of history will be accomplished if you study some things such as Firstly Monetary History – by its very nature – money has been the great source of power and ownership of it has been the predominant source of power – as is self-evident in the oligarch-eque character of power visible in present. The same was true a 100, 500 and 1000 years back. Everybody knows the East India Company, but do you know who the shareholders of the East India Company were. Politics may be the trigger but Finance is the gun. Secondly Read seminal works such as Machiavelli’s Prince or works such as those of Edward Bernays ( father of modern PR,marketing) to get a glimpse into the mindset of power. Finally read some of the declassified sources and realpolitik sources from 50 years,100 years back to understand things like Statecraft, Great Power Games etc. The times and technology employed moves forward but the essential game and human psychology does not change. This will give you a greater perspective on history. It can be a bit sad and showcase the worst of human nature but as you have mentioned earlier to rise to Level 2 requires proper context.

    The quality of writing in this article,within the surface world-view is excellently done. And believe me I am not criticizing you. Just trying to reciprocate for the wonderful depth of insight and analysis you have shared in your articles. Keep writing.

    • PhilosopherPhysician

      Thanks for sharing your insights. I see that you have quite a fund of Knowledge from which to create your ideas and that is refreshing.. True enlightenment is to seek only information that will benefit the lives of others less fortunate. I like that you understand the history and circulation of money in the world, not as currency but as a reinforcer for the sacrifice of TIME doing something valued by those who control it.. BF Skinner provides much detail into the underpinnings of behavior, as he developed the field of science and proved it with his gift of time in a human body so that others could learn from it and improve the world even more 🙂 I’d like to have a DRlogue (dialogue) with you. Pls reach me @DrRayofLight

  • Antoni L.

    “Shia/Shi’a/Shiite” is the same Arabic word transliteraed in different ways. The reason there are different transliterations is that one of the letters in the middle of that Arabic word (the letter ع) has a sound that doesn’t exist in English (or any European language as far as I know). It’s a guttural sound that comes from a deep part of the throat, and you probably produce it when you start throwing up (actually if you pronounce that sound with insistence you may feel like throwing up).

    • H Fetahi

      Another reason for the various transliterations is the final letter ة (called ta marbuta) in the word Shia شيعة and its role in the grammatical structure.

      In Arabic, possession (except when pronouns are involved) is indicated by a construction called idaafa, where essentially “Tim’s girlfriend”=”girlfriend of Tim.” So the idaafa would look like this: صديقة تيم, where صديقة is girlfriend and تيم is Tim; the “of” is implied in the structure of the idaafa.

      Back to the ta marbuta (ة). Although it is a modified version of the Arabic “t” sound (like the first letter of تيم), it is almost always pronounced as an “a” sound (except in the most formal/Quranic Arabic) because it serves a special grammatical function having to do with word gender and other stuff. However, the ta marbuta is actually pronounced as a “t” in idaafa in order to indicate to the listener that the speaker is using an idaafa. Since there is actually no word for “of” in the idaafa (refer to the example of Tim’s girlfriend above), pronouncing the ta marbuta as a “t” makes it easier to pick up on the idaafa.

      So when the word Shia was shortened from its original “Shiatu Ali” شيعة علي to Shia شيعة (refer to Blue Circle #4) and transliterated, some transliterations kept the “t” sound that the ة has when it is part of an idaafa–which it is in شيعة علي “followers of Ali”–and ended up with “Shiite,” and some transliterations just took the word شيعة “followers” independently (no idaafa). Remember, when it is not part of an idaafa, the ة has an “a” sound.

      This probably could have been explained in a more concise manner, but I tried!

      Tim, your dedication to knowledge and your ability to break down the most complex subjects into easily digestible articles are beyond impressive and make me a little envious of you. Keep up the amazing work for us simple folk.

      • Antoni L.

        Totally agreed! I shouldn’t have missed that.

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  • Doug Nguyen

    What should have happened after we disposed Saddam is to divide Iraq into 3 separate regions (Kurds, Sunni and Shia)?

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  • mckillio

    Great article but you really need to list when articles are written at the top near the author’s name, this is about 10 months old given the comments. An update to this story might be needed soon as well. Keep up the good work!

    • blobface

      It’s definitely a fair point, a way to tell when WBW’s stuff is posted is if you look at the URL, this seem to suggest September of 2014.

  • Luisa Plancher

    Thank you so much for this wonderful Article. We need more Writers and Journalists like you!
    After the Jewish People killed Jesus, Muhammad came along cursing them. This is because Muhammad indicated that we should respect Prophets, not kill them. And repentance is the First step toward Salvation. Guess what? The Jewish People will soon Repent! There is a Jewish Revival going on! Starting this year of 2015 we will see a public Spiritual awakening in Israel and around the world. Therefore no more curse! And no more need for Islam! And, like the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, all the Arab People and all the Jewish People will be prompted to accept Jesus and his Doctrine to Love one another. Yes, Jesus may be regarded as an illegitimate child by many. But Jesus (Yeshua) never killed anyone. He helped and healed… He had compassion for the poor. And he respected the 10 Commandments, validating them, and being obedient to God into Death!
    Amazingly, Jewish People and Arab People belong to the Family of Abraham. And ultimately this Family, like a Royal Family, will reunite under Jesus to be a Blessing to the World. And this Royal Family will start building the 3rd Temple for Jehovah in Jerusalem, the Capital of the Kingdom of God. Alleluia!
    All of us, let’s pray for this Royal Family. That they may achieve their full potential according to the wish of our Creator. And may Peace come on Earth. Thank you.

    • Lon Jemaa

      What in the actual fuck?

      • NT

        well that took a turn!

    • Colin

      As I get older it seems like the more ignorant you are, the more religious you are.

  • ZygmuntZ

    The primary reason for the fucked-up situation in the middle East now is that Bush’ administration invaded Iraq. There, contemplate it. “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.”

    As bad as Saddam Hussein might have been (and his never-found mighty weapons of mass destruction), it’s worse now and the region became so unstable that the US had to make a deal with Iran to buy what little stability was left to be bought.

    My opinion is that the limited (get in and pull out) first Gulf war of Bush senior made the US hawks forget the lessons of Vietnam and the lessons the Soviets got in Afghanistan. They wanted to believe that they could win and “live happily ever after”. Well, surprise, surprise!

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