This post is a continuation of a series on strategic communications, narrative, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant titled, Fighting the Narrative.
The radical Islamic movement “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” or “ISIL,” is the synthesis of al Qaeda’s ideology and the remnants of resistance movements spawned by the American occupation of Iraq. In its early form, “al Qaeda in Iraq” was nearly destroyed by a Sunni awakening and was disowned by its more patient al Qaeda parent. Its leader, al Baghdadi, resuscitated the organization in the power vacuum of a crumbling Syrian state and emerged with a well-armed, well-postured, and well-led organization rebranded as “ISIL.” Before the international community could wrap its collective consciousness around the idea of something more virulent than al Qaeda, ISIL burst forth from Syria and surged into Iraq.
What’s in a Name?
One of the goals of ISIL is to finish the work of al Qaeda in Iraq by establishing an Islamic Caliphate. If the goal is a Caliphate, why isn’t the organization out to establish it under the moniker the “Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and the Levant?” The answer is simple. ISIL named itself the “Islamic State” because its leadership is well aware that in the 21st century, states — not Caliphates — have power, authority, and legitimacy in the existing international system. ISIL’s self-branding of statehood is anything but coincidental. The words “Islamic State,” immediately create an image that is easier for recruits to grasp than a difficult phrasing like “al Qaeda,” which translates to “the base.” Its name is part of the organization’s well thought out narrative, which places the international community in the uncomfortable position of doing what al Qaeda has stated all along: it puts the West at war with Islam, manifested in this instance by a “state.”
We should call ISIL what it is: a religious-based militia which desires to create a state by destroying several others.
Names are important. Consider how some countries responded to the coup in Burma and the junta’s renaming of the country as “Myanmar.” The United Kingdom and the United States (US) do not recognize the junta as a legitimate government and for more than twenty years have referred to the country as “Burma.” ISIL is most certainly not a state and the international community would do well to quit calling it one. States have defined borders, representative governments, public officials, and reciprocal diplomatic missions. States are signatories to treaties and trade agreements. States represent their citizens–for better or worse — by organizing governing systems, collecting taxes, and providing services. Somalia is a state, North Korea is a state, Venezuela is a state; ISIL is not. We should call ISIL what it is: a religious-based militia which desires to create a state by destroying several others.
The Trappings of Statehood
The Taliban’s attempt at governance through the establishment of an “Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan serves as an example of an effort to challenge the international system. By 2001, the Taliban had nearly succeeded in militarily controlling the population and geography of the entire country before being ousted by the US and the remnants of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban effectively declared itself a government in exile and set out to wrap itself in the trappings of modern statehood. It confirmed Mullah Omar as its leader, opened a political office in Qatar, sent delegations to interact with representatives of other states, established an official webpage, and identified sanctioned spokesmen to spread its message by interacting with traditional media outlets as well as social media platforms. By draping itself in the trappings of statehood the Taliban sought legitimacy, recognition, and parity in the international system. ISIL’s presence on social media is nothing more than a page out of the Taliban playbook. Although ISIL has played the social media card in a much more sophisticated and subsequently effective way than anything the Taliban has ever attempted, a savvy social media presence does not make ISIL a state.
Ask any international relations undergrad what a state is and he or she will quickly tell you “a state is the entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force over a specified area.” This is not ISIL. States are dealt with in the international community. Non-state actors such as al Qaeda and the Taliban who seek to establish states based on radical religious ideologies are, by and large, kept outside of the realm of the modern international system. There are two primary reasons for this. First, their concepts of rights of citizens and protections of minorities are at odds with international norms. Secondly, their aspirations of statehood and power are incompatible with the international system as it exists today, in no small part because they seek to overthrow it or at a minimum challenge the status quo by creating a parallel, Islamic-based governing system. While the international system has been challenged and reconstructed, to date no non-state actor has led that effort and this unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
ISIL does not draw its authority from the contracts or institutions of man; rather it validates its actions through an interpretation of the Quran shared by no other recognized entity. A political system in which state identity, governance, and international legitimacy are monolithic and driven by religion is what ISIL seeks to achieve. The vast majority of states recognized in the existing international order as legitimate entities have extracted themselves from this volatile mix of identities in the 250 years that followed the 30 Years War and the Peace of Westphalia.
The absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates are notable caveats in the Middle East. These monarchies are still viewed by the international community as legitimate state powers in part because they have acquiesced to participation in a globalized system that both respects their domestic religious identity and deals with them in the areligious realm of international politics. The globalized and interconnected world ISIL rejects is, in many ways, the result of states — even ones who identify themselves religiously — choosing to set aside religion as the fundamental basis for their legitimacy in the international order. ISIL seeks to reorder the international community into a pre-Westphalian construct where a single religious identity is not only tied to statehood, but required for legitimacy.
The international community must acknowledge that radical Islam will always exist and set out to dismantle the organizations that perpetuate it as a political solution to grievances.
The words “Islamic State” have been uttered by leaders at all levels of government across the international community; yet no such entity actually exists. By publicly referring to ISIL as a “state” the international community is perpetuating the idea of the possibility of an Islamic Caliphate and assigning a level of legitimacy to ISIL which it has not earned and does not deserve. An “Islamic State” unbounded by the existing norms and values of legitimacy in the international order cannot co-exist with the sovereign states of Iraq and Syria. The world must now decide how to combat ISIL’s rapidly spreading narrative and violent pursuit of statehood.
Ideas Cannot be Bombed
The Global War on Terrorism was doomed to fail the moment the phrase was first uttered. If the last thirteen years have taught the West anything, it should be that an idea cannot be bombed away. Radical Islam has not gone away, and functioning, legitimate, democratic states have not been created in the wake of American-led, internationally-backed interventionism. One needs look no further than Iraq, Libya, and a tottering Afghanistan to confirm that reality. For more than a decade, the West has responded to the threats posed by non-state actors as if they were states by violating the sovereignty of nations, toppling governments, and destroying whole armies in the name of fighting an idea.
Ideas cannot be defeated; states that perpetuate them can. The industrial and military states of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Communist Soviet Union were defeated. Nazism, Fascism and Communism still exist, but they are marginalized as ideas and do not pose a threat to the international world order. The same logic must apply to any response to ISIL. The international community must acknowledge that radical Islam will always exist and set out to dismantle the organizations that perpetuate it as a political solution to grievances.
States can — with varying levels of success — be deterred or compelled to act. An “Islamic State” cannot be chanted into existence nor can it be bombed into oblivion. This is the fundamental problem that modern states face when dealing with non-state actors. War is not the answer; strong states are.
This is not to say the international community should take no action against ISIL; it most certainly should. However, it must do so with the clear realization that when dealing with ISIL there is nothing to sanction, no leaders to bargain with, no ambassadors to pressure and no industrial base to bomb. There is nothing the international community can hold at risk to manipulate ISIL’s behavior or modify its goals. ISIL cannot be deterred because unlike a state, it owns nothing. States can — with varying levels of success — be deterred or compelled to act. An “Islamic State” cannot be chanted into existence nor can it be bombed into oblivion. This is the fundamental problem that modern states face when dealing with non-state actors. War is not the answer; strong states are.
Before the physical battle to defeat ISIL begins, the narrative surrounding that fight must be clearly delineated and thoughtfully parsed. The first step in defeating ISIL is to deny it statehood. The second step in defeating ISIL is to ensure that the states of Iraq and Syria have strong, legitimate, and sovereign governments — whether we like them or not.
Tyrell Mayfield is a U.S. Air Force Political Affairs Strategist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the USAF, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.
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