Graduation Year


Document Type

Open Access Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Politics and International Relations

Reader 1

David Andrews

Reader 2

Gaston Espinosa

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© 2020 Alexandra L Hansen


The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made waves in the international community, stoking global terror, influencing political discourse, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in security response and reconstruction efforts. More importantly, it has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, whether it be from direct combat or attacks, or from the massive refugee crises it sparked. One wonders, how did a small extremist group make such a massive and disastrous impact? Most research done on ISIS and terrorism studies tend to focus on the political, economic, and social factors that lead to the creation and successes of religious extremist groups. Fewer focus on the religious factor, and the ones that do typically argue that religion is used as an excuse for violence, rather than playing an independent role as a core reason for why extremist groups like ISIS form and function. This thesis explores religion as an overriding factor in explaining the rise of ISIS and its unprecedented establishment of a Caliphate. The analysis shows that the ideological division between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia, beginning with the Prophet Mohammed’s death, manifested itself as a vicious sectarian cycle in Iraq’s modern history and ultimately led to the rise of ISIS. This study also shows that ISIS is a fundamentally religiously ideological extremist group, rather than simply a criminal gang parading behind a false veil of religious labeling.