On ISIS and The Question of Sovereignty

For a few weeks now my focus has shifted away from reading and writing about strict political theory, and returned to my academic focus of International Theory – which does of course go hand in hand with Political Theory (via the discipline of IPT) but requires occasional breaks from theoretical discourse in order to read those works concerning current international affairs. This is what has been occupying my time in much of late January. So, what have I been reading about?

For many years now, I have had an interest in the relationship between violent non-state global actors that transcend, or rather operate without a second thought to, the boundaries and borders of nation-states. Whilst studying for my undergraduate degree (2013-2016), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [al-Sham] (ISIS)[1] established its quasi-totalitarian Salafist rule over northern Iraq and Syria, whilst equally orchestrating a number of attacks across the globe. ISIS is symptomatic of the foundational ambiguity that our contemporary global politics has become defined by, operating in the narrow yet deep crevasses between the political categories that we had become accustomed to employing.

Take something as simple as state sovereignty. State sovereignty can be understood, debated and conceptualised in a myriad of ways. Nonetheless, Max Weber’s grasp of ‘The State’ is still helpful, as a given territory in which a single faction holds a monopoly of legitimate force and, with this, erects an administrative and bureaucratic edifice. In the wake of: the 2003 Iraq war, the removal of Saddam Hussein, the process of de-Baathification, the subsequent re-establishment of sectarian divisions, the inability of Nouri al-Maliki’s government to provide public goods, services and security for all, the region-wide effects of The Arab Spring, and the Syrian Civil war, the fertile conditions were fostered to allow for the violent seizure of territory by a vast array of jihadist militant groups.[2] Here, we saw both the sovereign territories of Iraq and Syria undermined in border territories such as Ninawa or Dayr Al-Zawr, where ISIS seized the monopoly of the legitimate use of force and, subsequently, erected a state edifice that operated under strict Salafi-Wahhabist Sharia law – where public administration and civic life were directed through literalist interpretations of scripture with a reformist zealousness to return to seventh-century Islamic life.[3]

Yet, amongst this, ISIS equally operated as an international militia, drawing recruits, citizens and support from across the globe - from those who often sought after social cohesion [asabiyyah]. Thus, whilst operating as a statist entity - performing and fulfilling the functions of holding sovereignty over a territory – ISIS was also totally de-localised and de-territorial – performing and operating as a global non-state entity or militia. So, which was it? Which is it? A non-state entity that operates across borders? Or an aspiring statist group that seeks to create borders? The answer is both, and this is different practically and theoretically in comparison to the structures, mechanics and operations of other revolutionary actors in the past.  

I suppose the question is whether or not this status as an in-between, as operating permanently in the realm of contingency, as neither grounded by nor disconnected from statist norms, is epitomal of the wider cultural and social conflicts we have been experiencing in the twenty-first century so far – i.e., the ‘glocalisation’ of revolutionary politics; that is both characteristically fluid and rigid. This permits us an insight into how globalisation has not only changed the manner in which ‘high politics’ is conducted, but equally the manner in which revolutionary groups function. ISIS is the first, but there may be more non-state/sovereign entities like this in the future that make us question and reflect upon our own analytical categories and concepts, reminding us of the contemporary post-foundational character defining all of our politics.

[1] There is a lot of discussion concerning how to name this political entity (E.g., ISIL, ISIS, IS, Islamic State, DAESH, Da’esh, etc.). I have chosen ISIS for no particular reason beyond that of habit, but I am aware of the problems with this terminology. For an excellent discussion of this politico-linguistic problem, see: Graeme Wood (2016) The Way of The Strangers: Encounters with Islamic State, London: Allen Lane, pp. xi-xvi.

[2] Simon Mabon and Stephen Royle (2017) The Origins of ISIS: The Collapse of Nations and Revolution in The Middle East, London: I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd., pp. 14-28.

[3] For a good description of the administrative system that ISIS operated their territory under, see: Charles Lister (2015) The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction, Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution. For an excellent discussion of the manner in which ISIS contests sovereign territory in theoretical and practical terms, see: Mohamed-Ali Adraoui (2017) 'Borders and Sovereignty in Islamist and Jihadist Thought: Past and Present', International Affairs, 93 (4), pp. 917-935; Emil Archambault and Yannick Veilleux-Lepage (2020) 'Drone imagery in Islamic State propaganda: flying like a state', International Affairs, 96 (4), pp. 955–973.