A Damn Good “State Mimicry”: Exploring Daesh’s Mode of Governance

The following article presents Dr. Miriam M. Müller’s current research project in blog format.

The ‘Islamic State’ has claimed many things: To be a godsend with the holy mission to avenge centuries of injustice that have befallen the ummah, the global Muslim community; to rule their “Caliphate” as a this-worldly utopia, the only place, where “proper Muslims” may live in peace and accordance with Allah’s wishes; to command an army of the most pious and ferocious jihadī fighters who will prevail in the final battles of the apocalypse. What the group has never claimed, though, is to be a nation state.

What “We” Say: The ‘Islamic State’ Is Not a State

Daesh’s ‘Islamic State’ is not in the UN, its “passports” won’t get you any visas and there is no IS-embassies in any capital of the world. Obviously, the international community of states, does not consider the “caliphate” a state, either – and has expressed its aversion towards the project in any way possible, be it through joint statements, the support of the group’s immediate adversaries with weapons and equipment, or direct military attacks. Still, Daesh has seized control over a territory considerably bigger than that of many recognized nation states and in some areas has successfully upheld social and territorial control for over two years. Naturally, there is no room within the international system of states for a political entity challenging its very inner core: With the successive expansion of its controlled territory, disregarding even an interstate border, Daesh violated the territorial integrity, internal sovereignty and political independence of two members of the international community of states.

Why call the „Islamic State“ Daesh?

The “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” is the self-chosen name of an extremely violent and considerably successful militant jihadī-Salafist group. For analytical clarity and to make a political statement, I prefer to call the group by its Arabic acronym, Daesh, which translates befittingly as “destroyer”.

What “They” Want: The ‘Islamic State’ as a Utopian Empire

No doubt, the feeling of dislike is mutual. The demonization and othering of the “West” in general, the “Crusaders” and the “home of Zion” in particular, is an integral part of Daesh’s belief system and propaganda and the outright rejection of international and humanitarian law a sine qua non for Daesh’s war against the enemies of “Islam”, or rather the enemies of jihadī-Salafism. So why call yourself a state then, if your major goal is to destroy the system of nation states?

The name ‘Islamic State’ simply is not a reference to that system in the first place. With this label Daesh arrogates the realization of the long-term goal of jihadī-Salafism: to establish a caliphate where the concept of the “Islamic State” (al-dawla al-islāmīya), a specific political and religious community, including divine rule (ḥākimīya), is put into practice.

What is jihadī-Salafism? 

Jihadī-Salafism is a global social-revolutionary movement comprised of militant groups and individuals with a wide range of ideological profiles who share the common goal to replace the current political order and realize a socio-political system according to a politicized Salafist reading of Islam through violence.

What is an “Islamic State”?

The idea of an Islamic Revolution to (re-)establish an ideal social polity for all Muslims has been around since the period of Mongol occupation of Muslim lands in the 13th century. According to Medieval scholar of Muslim jurisprudence Ibn Tamīyya, any social practice, including the character of the political community, is supposed to emulate the life of the Prophet Muḥammad and his companions, the pious predecessors, or al-salāf al-ṣāliḥ in Arabic. But it took the thinkers and activists of the 19th and 20th century, like Pakistanī journalist Maudūdī and the leader and ideologue of the Iḥwān Al-Muslimīn, Ḥassan Banna and Sayyīd Qutb, to transfer this idea of an “invention of tradition” (Hobspawm, 1983) to the modern context. As a form of opposition towards colonial oppression, their writings reconsidered Ibn Tamīyya’s call for resistance and purification of the ummah and infused their highly political agenda with the longing for the imagined utopian past of the first ummah.

What “They” do and what “We” See: A Damn good “State Mimicry”

However, from what I have learned about Daesh’s caliphate project so far, and regardless of all the valid arguments against any “stateness” of the “Islamic State”, we must not simply dismiss the tools and theories connected with the notion of the modern nation state from our analysis – not, if we aim to further our understanding of Daesh’s ultimate goal and its strategies to attain it. Even though the group officially rejects what they consider the “Western” model of the nation state, their efforts to establish and consolidate their rule undeniably bear all characteristics of a strategic state- and nation-building project: The group partly cleared the Syrian-Iraqi border, introduced a border regime and regulations for citizenship and established itself as a centralized and unchallenged military power. And with the declaration of its “Caliphate” at the very latest, Daesh was getting serious with ruling its civilian population: From providing basic public services and establishing functional state institutions, to crafting an alternative collective identity to integrate the civilian population as a political community, Daesh has been building up internal and unchallenged sovereignty on its claimed territory and convincingly has performed what I call a damn good “state mimicry”.

What “We” can’t See: The Characteristics of Daesh’s Mode of Governance

What I want to be able to see and make visible is what lies behind this “state mimicry”: By looking closely at the group’s attempts to realize their interpretation of the concept of the “Islamic State”. What are the blueprints for Daesh’s project and the strategy for its completion? How did the group prepare the socio-political space in Iraq and Syria before it began to institutionalize its governing structures? How do these institutions look like, and how are they supposed to work?

But how to study the “Islamic State”? Simply applying with Daesh for a permit as a visiting scholar over these past years would have been perfect for participatory observation, but clearly was not an option. Now, in early 2017, more and more areas formerly governed by Daesh become accessible. However, interviews and reports will remain incomplete without a centralized effort to secure documents and paperwork in the liberated cities. The few primary sources on Daesh’s institutionalization, policy-making, and administrative efforts that have become available won’t deliver a full picture of how this polity has manifested over these past two years. Due to this restricted access to reliable primary sources, my methodology steers clear from classical policy analysis. Rather, I will focus on case studies of governance representations: In first step of analysis, written and oral reports of spatially and temporally defined situations will be analyzed as case studies of governmental practices.

What have people seen, heard, endured while forced to attend public trails and punishments for “sinful” behavior on the market places in Mosul, Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor? What were the experiences of aspiring fighters crossing the border as a space in between the realm of shared international rules and Daesh’s governed territory? How different was the experience on their way out? Who describes practices of surveillance and denunciation in what way and what did these experiences do to the communities’ social fabric, the families and neighborhoods? Were there people feeling “safer” than others with regard to arbitrary punishments and why? What practices can be identified to foster fundamental change of society and individuals?

By then in a second step contextualizing these case studies of practices with the little we know about the social and political system Daesh intends to establish, I hope to further the understanding of the features of Daesh’s mode of governance.

How does Daesh represent its “borders” in symbols, signs, forms and personnel? How did the group make use of existing state structures and institutions and how did Daesh appropriate them, make them “their own”? What services, what policies were established to cater to people’s basic needs (and which had been neglected before) to present Daesh’s mode of governance as an actual local, regional and global alternative? How do the answers to these questions tie it with Daesh’s international strategy of mobilization and recruitment?

Daesh’s “Caliphate” is presented as a utopian resurrection of the ummah of Medina. Combined with the intent to realize a political “Islamic State” and the group’s agenda of permanent violent expansion, Daesh skillfully has offered a home for the international community of jihadī-fighters as it has been active since the Afghan-Soviet War, the politized Salafists at the extreme fringes of today’s political Islam, and the vague hopes and fears of a disenfranchised and alienated generation in the Middle East and the European “exile”. To better understand the attraction of Daesh and the strategy behind its actions, we may not ignore the appeal of Daesh’s religious promises of salvation in this world and the next, nor will it suffice to simply follow Daesh’s tale of the revival of the Prophet’s ummah. Daesh’s alternative mode of governance has to be taken seriously for what it is: An alternative for a few, but a threat for many.

This Blog article has been presented at the Center for Global Studies Symposium at the University of Victoria on 5 May 2017. 

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