The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) recently renamed itself merely the Islamic State and declared its government a “caliphate”. All other considerations aside, just how much of a “state” is this Islamic State anyway? What state attributes does it have and which does it lack?
The first and most important attribute of statehood that the Islamic State shares is its determination to be a state and conviction that it is a state.
The American comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen reportedly once said that showing up is 90 per cent of anything. It’s also a frequent adage among the devout that one should act as if one had religious belief, in order for that belief to grow organically.
This public and private insistence that it is a state and behaviour commensurate with a state distinguishes the Islamic State from other highly successful – indeed, perhaps more successful – non-state groups in the Arab world.
Hizbollah, for example, does not claim to be a state. However, it almost always acts in the name of Lebanon and the Lebanese state. As a practical matter, in the areas under its control it practices some of the key attributes of sovereignty, particularly having a private military and the ability to work independently of the rest of the country. But, rhetorically at least, Hizbollah does not claim to be a state.
On the contrary, when it does exercise direct governance in those parts of Lebanon it dominates, Hizbollah frequently does so in coordination with the Lebanese authorities, and sometimes even pretends subordination to them. It’s all a complete act, of course.
In reality, Hizbollah does what it likes. Trying to dominate Lebanon is part of that. Denying and attempting to obliterate Lebanon is not.
States are typically held to require a permanent population, a fixed geographical area of control or sovereignty, a single government and the ability to enter into relationships with other states.
The Islamic State can certainly claim to have a permanent population, although its attitude towards that population is almost as dismissive as its disregard for Iraq and Syria as countries worth preserving. The Islamic State insists that the areas it controls are no longer part of Syria or Iraq, and it says that Muslims from around the world have a religious duty to come and settle there and contribute to the development of this totalitarian entity. Under the Islamic State, foreign fighters typically have the most important jobs and roles.
The areas under complete and total Islamic State control in northern Syria and western Iraq creep like a spider’s web across the landscape. But if you add in the areas in between that are largely dominated by the Islamic State, the area becomes far larger. Millions find themselves living under its rule in some of the most important towns and cities in the areas, including Mosul.
It is in Raqqa, Syria, that the governing style of the Islamic State has been most clearly illustrated. Raqqa is the regional capital of the group and is by far its most advanced experiment in direct control.
And there, the Islamic State is definitely trying to behave like a state. It is the model for what is likely to be eventually attempted in Mosul and other newly acquired areas.
The single government practices a thoroughgoing totalitarianism. It imposes strict religious law, including through courts and a special “religious police”, its own extensive religious outreach programme, and other extreme measures designed to impose order on what had been a chaotic situation and to terrorise any critics into silence. The Islamic State is also trying to brainwash its first generation of citizens through intensive indoctrination and “Islamic” education that focuses almost entirely on literalistic fundamentalism to the exclusion of all other subjects.
The Islamic State has proven adept at making populations dependent through social services, including subsidised bakeries, but has had less luck with more complicated service-orientated activities. It has continued to struggle to deal with water and electricity services, although it has been operating a thermal power plant near Aleppo that requires significant organisation and expertise.
Perhaps the area in which it is most lacking is the ability to enter into relationships with other states. This implies strongly that states exist because of, and through, the recognition of other states. But the Islamic State doesn’t want relations with any other government – especially not in the Islamic world – because it sees itself as the radical alternative to all of them. It shows neither any interest nor ability to enter into such arrangements.
There also real questions about how stable its rule is in the areas now under its control, and it has suffered military setbacks as well as military expansions in recent months. Therefore, the precise area under its control remains ever-changing.
However, clearly the Islamic State sees itself as, and is behaving as, a state. In this sense, it has already won half of the battle. This is an organisation, after all, committed to the idea that narratives create self-defining realities, especially among its supporters, and the unfortunate populations that fall under its control.
Is the Islamic State a state? Not really and not yet. But it is much closer to being one than most people would guess, or that anyone should be comfortable with.