The Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL)

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has become one of the most feared terrorist organizations in the world due to their violence and rapid land conquest in Iraq and Syria in 2014.  Learning Life presents the following five facts to give a brief sense of ISIL’s size, origins, beliefs and violent impact, plus the international response to ISIL and its cost thus far.

1) 2004

The year the United States government first recognized ISIL (alternately known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) as a terrorist organization. The group originated in 1999 as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and calls for the establishment of an Islamic state or “caliphate” that follows early Islamic beliefs and rejects more recent and moderate ones (as well as those who don’t follow Islam), from Hamas to the Saudi Arabian state.


2) 12,000 fighters from over 50 countries

The estimated number of sympathizers that have traveled from other countries to join ISIL in Iraq and Syria thus far. This includes approximately 100 U.S. citizens.

ISIL has at times joined forces with al-Qaeda and Sunni factions in Iraq, though these groups have also sometimes opposed each other.


3) Over 9,000 dead, and 17,000 wounded

The estimated number of civilian and military casualties from fighting between ISIL and its opponents thus far in 2014, according to the United Nations.


4) Over 60 Countries

The number of countries formally in coalition against ISIL.  Among the members of the coalition are the USA, Australia, France, Germany, Ukraine, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.  Coalition partners are providing troops and/or weapons to fight ISIL, making it harder for foreign fighters to join ISIL, blocking funding to ISIL, providing humanitarian aid, and/or “exposing ISIL’s true nature.”


5) $8 million per day/$776 million total

The cost of “Operation Inherent Resolve” against ISIL in Syria and Iraq from the start of the Operation on August 8, 2014 through November 12, 2014.



Educational Partner Spotlight: Ziad Munson, Ph.D.

Learning Life occasionally spotlights experts who contribute to the educational content we spread, whether by writing a quiz based on their research, answering a Big Question of public interest that we pose to relevant experts, or else. Dr. Ziad Munson, a sociologist, contributed to Learning Life’s Big Questions on terrorism based on his research investigating the dynamics of terrorism. This profile offers a glimpse of his life and work.    

Special thanks to Learning Life intern, Dimitra Rallis, for helping to draft Ziad’s profile.

Ziad Munson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he spends much of his time exploring the realms of political sociology, social movements and the sociology of religion through a combination of personal interviews, archival research, and analysis of quantitative data. Ziad is currently researching the organizational dynamics of terrorist organizations and how the abortion issue has realigned partisan politics in the United States.

Ziad MunsonZiad graduated from the University of Chicago in 1993 with a B.A. in Sociology with honors, and went on to earn his Ph.D. in Sociology in 2002 from Harvard University, completing a thesis on activism in the American pro-life movement. While at Harvard, Ziad served as a Teaching Fellow, Instructor and Lecturer, receiving an award for Distinction in Teaching. He has taught at Lehigh University since 2003, leading a variety of courses stemming from his research interests, such as Religion & Society, The Social Origins of Terrorism, and The Christian Right in America.

In his career thus far, Ziad has published a volume of work on international political violence, including research on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. His expertise contributed to Learning Life’s “Big Questions” on terrorism. Our Big Questions series presents experts’ short, provocative answers to important public questions, like “What are the underlying causes of terrorism?” and “How big a threat is terrorism?

To understand terrorism, Ziad has taken a different path. Rather than focus on what makes terrorist organizations different, he starts by looking at the similarities terrorist organizations share with other types of organizations, like established political parties and advocacy groups. By taking this approach, he has been able to distill the dynamics of terrorist groups into more understandable patterns. His most surprising findings on terrorism thus far have been that: (a) “ideology is relatively unimportant in understanding the dynamics of most terrorist groups,” and (b) “many of the most lethal groups today did not start out committed to violence at all.”

Beyond his work on terrorism, Ziad has also produced considerable research on the American “pro-life” or anti-abortion movement, including the qualities of its activists and its influence on political parties. In 2009, he authored the book, The Making of Pro-Life Activists, a study of U.S. pro-life organizations that sheds light on pro-life activism as well as how people more broadly mobilize for causes they care about. Ziad is currently working on a second book, tentatively titled Understanding Abortion Politics (to be published by Polity Press), that examines how the issue of abortion has been molded by shifting political forces in the United States over the last fifty years

Aside from research and teaching, Ziad serves as an elected school board member in his local public school district.  As he explains, “I am convinced that a robust public education system is critical to both our local communities and our larger democracy. Serving as an advocate for public schools, and helping to guide their direction, is thus very rewarding for me.” In the same vein, Ziad also volunteers as a trustee of his local public library system.

Ziad’s commitment to public learning make us proud to call him a friend of Learning Life.

Five Facts on the Ebola Virus

In August 2014, the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced a case of Ebola. Since then, the outbreak has spread in West Africa, especially in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with concerns that it may affect other parts of the world. To help inform the public of this deadly disease, Learning Life offers the following five facts.


1) Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1976

The places and year the Ebola Virus were first discovered in a simultaneous outbreak, with the virus taking its name from the Ebola River in the Congo. Ebola has five identified virus species, with four being fatal to humans and the fifth (the Reston virus) only affecting non-human primates.  Although the origin of the Ebola virus remains unknown, researchers believe it is animal-borne and that bats are the most likely culprit for its genesis. Since the discovery of the first Ebola virus in 1976, there have been sporadic outbreaks mostly contained to Africa.  This current outbreak is the largest in recorded human history.



2) Fever, headache, muscle pain, unexplained bleeding, vomiting, stomach ache, and diarrhea

The common symptoms of Ebola. The average rate of appearance of these symptoms is between eight to ten days, but can occur anywhere between two and 21 days. An infected person will first develop a fever greater than 101.5 degrees fahrenheit, headache, sore throat, and muscle pains. Vomiting, bleeding, and diarrhea follow. While there are no vaccines available as a cure yet, treatments such as intravenous fluids and maintaining oxygen and blood pressure can help the recovery process. Once a person is recovered from Ebola, they develop antibodies that can last ten years or more, although it is not currently known if these antibodies protect from all species of Ebola or only the one recovered from.



3) Malaria and Typhoid Fever

These ailments share many of the same symptoms as Ebola, making Ebola diagnosis more difficult.  However, if Ebola is suspected, there is an array of tests that can be given to a patient to confirm Ebola infection.  These tests include antigen-capture enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) testing, antigen-capture detection tests, electron microscopy, virus isolation via cell culture, and others.



4) Direct bodily contact

The only way Ebola is spread.  Ebola does not spread via air, water, or food.  However, Ebola can spread on the surfaces of objects such as bedsheets and clothing, which is why it is important to take extreme precaution when around someone who is sick or any of other belongings.  It is also possible to spread the virus once recovered from its effects, especially in men. The Ebola virus can, for instance, stay active in semen for up to three months after recovery.



5) Good hygiene and avoidance

These are two of the ways to prevent the Ebola virus from spreading. Washing your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer and avoiding contact with any bodily fluids from another person will drastically reduce the chances of transmission of Ebola (and other viruses). Avoiding bodily fluids may include not directly handling any items that have come into contact with a sick person (e.g., counters, door handles, car steering wheels).  It is also advisable to avoid contact with bats or non-human primates, including food prepared using them.



For much more information, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s website devoted to Ebola:

Trivia vs. Signia: A New Word for the English Language

We live in what has come to be called the “Information Age.” Often though, we don’t stop to think about the purpose and quality of the information that surrounds us in abundance. Not all information is equal though, and it’s time for the English language to have a word that can help elevate significant information.

Information has always been important to human understanding, action and progress. But we now live in an Information Age in part because the long trajectory of human history charts the growing importance of information as societies become more complex, requiring more accumulated knowledge to sustain them. Imagine, for example, the accumulated knowledge early human hunter-gatherers might have depended on to gather enough food to live versus that required to operate modern, international food systems moving massive amounts of food safely and efficiently from farm to factory to table.

Information ageWe also live in an Information Age because of the advent of the computer and internet, and the movement these technologies have helped spur toward jobs that involve the production and processing of information and symbols. Journalists, writers, scientists, artists, software developers, engineers, consultants, marketers, producers, lawyers and professors are among those who form part of this growing class of what observers like Robert Reich (1992) and Richard Florida (2003) call the “symbolic-analyst” or “creative” class.

Observers of this “creative class” don’t typically parse the information this class produces, but it ranges widely from research on cancer or international relations, to gossip about who is dating whom in Hollywood. Moreover, the creative class is pumping out more and more information as it grows and as consumers and critics implicitly or explicitly demand that they be prolific and always current. This state of affairs has created what sociologist Todd Gitlin has aptly called a “media torrent” (2007), an ever growing quantity and diversity of information that is hard to absorb, let alone digest properly.

Most consumers are not in the habit of parsing trivial from significant information in the torrent, but at least some readily recognize that a lot of the information produced is relatively trivial, whether it is about what celebrities are wearing or who they are dating, the latest entertainment releases or plot developments in popular TV shows, the twists and turns of sport seasons, or else.

Of course, more significant knowledge is always available in the Information Age – via news articles and TV shows that report on economic and political developments local to global, radio shows and infographics that help make sense of current issues, science magazines that explore nature, books that nourish our imagination or illuminate human behavior, TV history documentaries that help us better understand our past, present and future, etc. Some of these occasionally garner significant public attention, but they generally do not compete with the glitter and glitz of more trivial, fast-moving entertainment.

I love entertainment. Given two TV screens, one showing who is dating whom in Hollywood, the other showing experts discussing the state of the economy or a world disease pandemic, my eyes will gravitate to the former. Anyone in the business of making money knows this about me and most other human beings. That is why the preponderance of information in the Information Age is more trivial than significant, and why people often know more about the former than the latter. Entertaining information will always attract people and thus thrive as long as there are people and there are businesses that make money from entertainment. But the balance of trivial vs. significant information in our environments and in our minds need not be so lop-sided. We can have an Information Age that nurtures more informed citizenship and less distracted consumerism.

The first step is to recognize the difference between trivial and significant information. Curiously, but perhaps understandably, the English language has the word “trivia” to denote insignificant information, but no contrasting word for significant information. In developing Learning Life I mean to introduce not just a new approach to public education, but also a new word to the English language. “Signia” means significant information, and it purposefully plays on the look and sound of the word “trivia.”

In introducing signia I am not arguing that all information is either trivial or “signial,” but rather that there exists a continuum from the most trivial to the most signial information. What is more or less trivial or signial information is indeed up for debate, and I introduce signia in no small part in order to encourage such debate. Nonetheless, I think most people can agree that there is a difference between knowing about who is dating whom in Hollywood versus knowing about the state of our economy, government or environment, or about who’s winning or losing in sports versus where and how disease is transmitted. Modern democratic societies have a present and long-term interest in recognizing and elevating signia over trivia to nurture more informed and engaged citizens.

The second step toward a signial Information Age is to think and talk about how we can promote signia, making it a larger part of more people’s lives. Learning Life offers one approach – spreading signia on everyday surfaces, like napkins, placemats, cup sleeves and posters, and connecting those surfaces to further learning online – but it’s by no means the only approach. So I invite everyone, not just the “creative class” but all citizens of the world who care about making our world a better place, to ponder and pursue these two questions:

What do you consider trivial, and signial? And, how can we innovate to spread signia more widely?

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life



Florida, Richard. 2003. The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.

Gitlin, Todd. 2007. Media Unlimited, rev. ed. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Reich, Robert. 1992. The Work of Nations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.