The Islamic State: A Symptom of a World in Transition

The rise of the Islamic State bears a striking resemblance to the formation of various nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries. With its rapid territorial expansion since June, the militant group has focused its efforts on controlling geographic territory while unifying its people around a common culture, including a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Framed within a larger debate over globalization, however, the Islamic State highlights important tensions in today’s world, where increasing interconnectivity has threatened the preeminence of nation-states. The globalization debate is perhaps best conceived by visualizing what David Held and Anthony McGrew describe as a continuum between two ideal types. “Globalists” contend that increased political and financial interdependence has weakened the sovereignty of nation-states in favor of supranational organizations and multinational corporations — and in the process, created a global community marked by unprecedented levels of cultural homogeneity or, as some conversely argue, a source of new, hybrid cultures. “Skeptics” argue that although the world has become more connected, with regional economies and cultural bonds having formed across nation-states, sovereignty remains grounded in the nation-state. In other words, they believe that states continue to serve as the locus of political power and unify ethnically and culturally diverse people into singular, sovereign “nations.”

Placing the Islamic State within this discourse can lend valuable insights into the Islamic State’s significance in today’s globalizing world. Although the Islamic State appears to reinforce skeptics’ claims by embodying a nation-state ethos of state sovereignty, its ascension has relied on a combination of nation-state ideals and 21st century global realities. In fact, the Islamic State should be seen as symptomatic of a larger global transition in which violence reflects diminishing national sovereignty and increasing globalization intensifies nationalistic claims.

At the center of this discourse lies the notion of sovereignty. The skeptics’ view of sovereignty reflects the territorial and cultural domination of nation-states. As its name makes clear, the Islamic State has attempted to situate itself as its own political entity, a sovereign state with a specific territory. The Islamic State’s previous name, ISIL, refers to its territorial claim, which, as NPR reports, has historically included “modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories and even the island of Cyprus.” Through interviews with the Islamic state conducted for VICE News, Medyan Dairieh explains that this obsession with territory reflects the group’s bitterness over the Sykes-Picot Agreement following World War I and the division of what it considers to be land belonging to the Islamic caliphate. When the Islamic State declared the region a caliphate in June, they asserted their right to govern the region under Islamic law.

President Barack Obama, however, has made a point of rejecting the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed status of statehood, calling the group a “terrorist organization.” Denying the Islamic State’s sovereignty is key to Western attempts to delegitimize its territorial claims, but classifying the group as “terrorists” risks obscuring their significance by using loaded political language. It is important to note that the Islamic State has not focused its rhetoric on assaulting the West until only recently and that the group has functioned more like a government entity and “metrics-driven military network” than a decentralized terrorist group similar to Al Qaeda. Nevertheless, their use of violence closely resembles the U.S. State Department’s definition of “international terrorism.” Instead of thinking of the Islamic State simply as a “terrorist group” though, it may be more helpful to regard them as a symptom of a changing international order.

The Islamic State’s use of public crucifixions and displays of beheaded enemies are striking examples of what Mark Juergensmeyer refers to as a religious group’s attempt to “break the state’s monopoly on morally sanctioned killing” through their own use of force. Violence, then, becomes a “claim to power” against the state’s hold on the legitimate use of force, regardless of whether or not other states recognize the group’s right to use force. Juergensmeyer links the rise of religious violence to an increasingly globalized world that has threatened the idea of a state whose members are ethnically and culturally alike. When states possess multiple cultural identities within their borders, it becomes difficult to define a state’s specific national identity. Globalization, Juergensmeyer contends, has thus brought about the “decay of the nation-state” and in the process, destabilized previous conceptions of national identity, creating gaps that religious groups have attempted to fill. In Iraq, the Islamic State manipulated a sense of marginalization among the northern Sunni population and attempted to establish its own territorial space and national identity while asserting a right to sovereignty. Philip Bobbitt refers to these identity questions and issues of territorial sovereignty in The Shield of Achilles as the “achilles’ heel” of the nation-state that has undermined its legitimacy as a dominant constitutional order. The issues of self-determination, Bobbitt reasons, have exposed the faults of a nation-state ethos and will give rise to a new type of state and international order.

By focusing on the group’s territorial acquisition without explicitly recognizing its place in globalization discourses, analysts risk thinking of the Islamic State in terms of Held and McGrew’s “skeptic” archetype. Bobbitt’s and Juergensmeyer’s analyses, however, represent more of the “globalist” perspective and offer the observer a view of the Islamic State as a product of globalization, an indication of tensions within the current world order or perhaps even a symptom of a systematic restructuring of national sovereignty. The debate serves as a useful framework for not only understanding the significance of the Islamic State but also the future of international conflict and state-formation.

In conjunction with Juergensmeyer’s thesis that the need for local identities has become progressively more important amid cultural connectivity, John Tomlinson argues that an increasingly globalized world has lead to the proliferation, not suppression, of nationalist claims. The Islamic State is a prime example: It has rallied its “citizens” around a common cultural understanding of Islamic law and in some cases, has strictly enforced this law within its territory. What is interesting about the case of the Islamic State is that instead of building off a pre-existing cultural ethos, the group actively recruits from around the world in an attempt to construct a state from a common belief.

That is not to say that implementations of Islamic law lack historical precedent, but that the regions where the Islamic State have imposed the law do not necessarily identify with the same strict interpretation of Islam, as evidenced by the Kurdish resistance in northern Iraq. This idea of social construction closely follows Benedict Anderson’s renowned thesis in Imagined Communities — namely, that communities construct their existence and “imagine” national unity. The Islamic State constructs its identity by actively utilizing Western social media to spread and legitimize its message and recruit followers — it attempts to broaden its appeal globally in order to solidify its territorial claim locally. Recruits ceremoniously destroy their passports in a gesture symbolic of both their rejection of their Western identity and their adoption of an Islamic State identity.

The issue with the Islamic State’s model of nationalization, however, lies in its ability to remain stable. Tomlinson notes that the forces of an increasingly interconnected world threaten to destabilize claims of national identity. Likewise, in Theory, Culture and Society, Anthony D. Smith argues that in order to create stability, nations form from common cultural identities predating any conception of nationhood — “more salient, pervasive and enduring [community ethno-histories]” create more secure foundations for nationalistic claims. The Islamic State, however, attempts to draw recruits from a variety of cultural backgrounds through an appeal to a particular understanding of Islam — one that involves militant rule. This model of construction more closely resembles decentralized terror networks than centralized, territorial states, a reality that undermines its attempt to establish a centralized state under Islamic law.

Without a stronger cultural foundation in its “caliphate” — and with its contradictory use of social media, a product of an interconnected world effective in proliferating Western culture — the Islamic State risks losing local significance when its appeal decreases worldwide. Although this process does not appear likely in the near future given the current size of the Islamic State, Western military responses are threatening the Islamic State’s ability to sustain recruits. Their continued use of violence to pursue their goals, moreover, will likely heighten Western intervention, as Western powers disqualify the Islamic State’s claim to the legitimate use of force. When the reality of creating a “caliphate” appears less likely, the initial recruiting influx will subside, and the Islamic State’s capacity to construct a sovereign nation will be limited because of its insufficient cultural base.

The Islamic state does not necessarily represent a rejection of modernity, but rather as philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls it, “a case of perverted modernization.” The group operates under an understanding of the world reflective of nation-states and national boundaries, yet takes advantage of aspects of global interconnectivity. As Zizek notes, its focus on religious purity, rather than the state’s “general welfare,” separates it from traditional notions of power and sovereignty. Nevertheless, the Islamic State has placed itself within discourses of globalization and national identity and must be discussed in those terms.

The growing significance of the Islamic State forces the global community to confront its understanding of national identity in the 21st century and perhaps re-articulate important strategic and political approaches to conflict. Failure to locate the Islamic State within a larger global transition will only perpetuate the violence that Juergensmeyer describes. As Western powers respond to the Islamic State, it may be necessary to begin by understanding their own role in proliferating conflict in this time of global transition.