Superpowers. Of all the possible superpowers in this best of all possible worlds, which one would you most like to possess? We sought the counsel of a four-year old girl. Without hesitation she replied that she wished she could ‘make everything pink’.

Most news coverage of ISIS oscillates between the extremes of overconfident predictions of the organisation’s imminent demise and exaggerated depictions of its prowess, reflecting the difficulties which the rise of this ‘state’ has caused the global powers and their local allies. I believe that the rise of ISIS needs to be understood as a partial expression of the group’s leaders’ ability to build a political and military organisation aided by the interaction of three interrelated historical processes.

Conventional wisdom tells us that Muslims who commit acts of violence are acting on their own impulses and for their own complex and misguided reasons. Yet I don’t think this is the whole story. What is missing from the complete picture is the inconvenient truth that by waging jihad and murdering civilians, as occurred in the attacks in Paris and on the beaches of  Tunisia, these individuals are not actually operating outside the boundaries of Islamic tradition.

In established industrialised societies, where most of the important debates about the overall general direction of society have been resolved, the debates around the purpose of higher education usually centre around the contests between utilitarianism (vocational and professional skills and employability) and some relatively more lofty ideas, such as ‘self-fulfilment’, ‘nourishing the soul’ and sustaining values, social cohesion, and even social justice.

It is not easy being a Muslim in the West today. The year 2014, which roughly corresponds to 1436 in the Islamic calendar, will go down as an especially difficult time.

In his engaging and perceptive book The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation, the former Iraqi minister Ali Allawi tells a story that goes to the heart of the problematic relationship between the idea of Islam, as manifested historically, and the modern state.

When it comes to interpreting Syria, a strong tension exists between outside and inside perspectives, between journalistic storylines and anecdotal accounts. This is a tension I’ve felt deeply through my own experiences, which often seem to stand in stark contrast to traditional narratives about Syria in Western media and academia.

For many observers in the West, the Syrian revolution has been defined by the threat of imperialism; that is, by the notion that the Western imperialist powers would co-opt the popular struggle against the Assad regime for their own ends.