Powell’s key example is the Irish Republican Army, which was a Catholic organization insofar as it used Catholic identity for political ends, cultivating a sense of Irish Catholic nationalism to fight for the ejection of the British from Northern Ireland and for political union with their Catholic brethren to the south. But the IRA was not trying to conquer the whole of the British Isles for Catholicism, nor to hasten the return of the Christian messiah and the end of the world. Powell, who was the chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland when the Good Friday Accords helped bring an end to decades of violence in the country, notes that “when we sat down with the Republicans ... we found that there were a series of legitimate subjects they wanted to discuss—from power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants to the protection of human rights.”
ISIS, by contrast, is not fundamentally nationalist in this way, as Powell implies in his emphasis on the group’s appeals to Sunni identity, whether in Syria or Iraq. Rather, even while individual paths to joining ISIS may vary tremendously, and no doubt do in some cases rest on nationalist Sunni grievances, the leadership of the group has been quite clear about its genuinely held aims, which include the complete domination of Syria, Iraq, and locations far beyond.
It’s not the presence of religious identity as such that makes ISIS different. As Powell points out, there have been a number of militant groups in history that have used religion for political goals and were still susceptible to negotiated peace. The Irish Republican Army was one such example, as were various Muslim groups, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, which Powell points to as proving that governments have “made peace with Islamic [sic] guerrillas before ... so it is not impossible to do.” Religion, or even strong ideology, as in the case of the FMLN in El Salvador, does not make negotiation impossible. Indeed, many, if not most, of the rebel groups currently fighting Bashar al-Assad’s repugnant and brutal regime in Syria are motivated by religious precepts, and instrumentalize religion for political ends. Those groups can and should be negotiated with, and in some cases empowered against Assad and ISIS, even while their interlocutors must continuously interrogate any faults, flaws, or failings they may have.
But these other groups, from Ireland to the Philippines to Syria, fought or are fighting for limited political goals, within a defined geographic space—whether those goals were Catholic rights in Northern Ireland, Moro autonomy in the Philippines, or the reformation or end of the Assad regime in Syria. ISIS, however, is not primarily a Sunni Arab uprising aimed at protecting the civil or political rights of Sunni Muslims in Syria or Iraq. ISIS is an outgrowth of a broader uprising. But it is more than that.