This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.
The Islamic State – which I refer to by its Arabic acronym, Daesh – has many of the attributes of a state. To call Daesh an insurgency gives too little attention to its ambitions for territorial control, and to call it a state gives it a false air of legitimacy, but it falls somewhere between the two. Daesh, I contend, is an unusual state indeed because it does not believe in state sovereignty. Its ideology puts it fundamentally at odds with the norms of Westphalian sovereignty that have developed in the international system over the past three centuries.
One of Daesh’s goals is to erase political borders, starting with bulldozing barricades separating Syria and Iraq. This border is particularly offensive to Daesh because it was created as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France that carved up the Ottoman Empire – the last caliphate in Daesh’s eyes – in the waning days of World War I. “We don’t believe in the Sykes-Picot agreement,” a Daesh spokesman explained while bulldozing the border.
Daesh’s border-free ambitions do not stop there. A map circulating on the Internet, purports to depict to Daesh’s vision of its Islamic caliphate. While the provenance of this map is unclear, it is consistent with statements by the leadership of Daesh about what they see as the legitimate territory that Daesh should hold (note that the white borders within the black are administrative subdivisions as imagined by Daesh, not international borders). Perhaps beyond the borders of the black – what Daesh sees as traditionally Muslim lands – there might be some notion that other states have some form of sovereignty, but any sovereignty that infringes on these “historically Muslim lands” is illegitimate. Daesh might recognize sovereignty outside of these boundaries for precisely the reasons that it does not recognize sovereignty within them: God may have sanctioned these borders by not allowing Islam to ever spread beyond them.
Daesh claims that its attempt to assert exclusive political control over wide swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria is legitimate, but Daesh’s brand of sovereignty is very different from the existing international norms. Robert Jackson characterizes sovereignty as “a foundational idea of politics and law that can only be properly understood as, at one and the same time, both an idea of supreme authority in the state, and an idea of political and legal independence of geographically separate states.” Daesh demands recognition of its supreme authority, but it cannot, for religious reasons outlined below, recognize the legal independence of other states. This one-sided sovereignty is hardly a recognition of sovereignty at all.
Jihadist groups such as Daesh reject sovereignty primarily because of religious ideas. It is not merely a matter of political or military strategy, although Daesh’s willingness to flaunt international norms has brought it some temporary advantages. There are multiple religious justifications for Daesh’s position, but a common line of argument is that (1) God alone is worthy of worship and worship of anything else constitutes idolatry, (2) God has given humankind rules governing all aspects of life for individuals and societies, (3) following rules not established by God constitutes worship of those rules, (4) state sovereignty is a man-made rule that separates Muslims from each other by man-made borders, therefore (5) recognizing state sovereignty is a form of idolatry. Although Daesh rejects sovereignty on the basis of its religious ideas, this does not imply that Islam is incompatible with sovereignty. Islam as a unified, doctrinal entity is a fiction — a more accurate statement is that Daesh’s interpretation of Islam rejects sovereignty, while other interpretations may or may not.
The ideology of Daesh is merely the latest incarnation of jihadist rejection of sovereignty, which Barak Mendelsohn details in his 2009 book. “The jihadi movement,” argues Mendelsohn, “goes beyond the targeting of specific states for specific grievances to a rejection of the foundations of the Westphalian state-based order.” To test whether he was right about how these jihadists thought about sovereignty, I searched for the term “sovereignty” and “Sykes-Picot” in a collection of 5,000 documents posted on the largest jihadist web-library on the Internet. Over 500 documents mentioned sovereignty and 130 mentioned “Sykes-Picot,” suggesting that these are not fringe concerns. A few examples from this collection give the flavor:
I exhort all Muslims: support the Mujahideen in Palestine with your souls, your money, materiel, information, opinion, and expertise, in spite of international resolutions and in spite of the borders of “Sykes-Picot.” (Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Facts of the Struggle Between Islam and the Infidels,” translation by author)
We here are not striving for a handful of dust, or imaginary borders drawn by “Sykes” and “Picot,” and we do not strive to replace the Western tyrant with an Arab one. Rather, our Jihad is higher and nobler – we strive that the word of God be sovereign and that all judgment be God’s. (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “Our Legal Position on the Government of the ‘Karzai of Iraq,’” translation by author)
Jihadists’ rejection of sovereignty goes back at least to the ideology professed by 20thcentury Islamist intellectual Sayyid Qutb. In his 1964 book “Milestones” Qutb justifies jihad precisely because humans have embraced earthly, rather than heavenly, sovereignty: “The whole world is steeped in jahiliyya [ignorance]…based on rebellion against the sovereignty of Allah on earth. It attempts to transfer to man one of the greatest attributes of Allah, namely sovereignty, by making some men lords over others.” This idea is Qutb’s central argument in the main chapter on jihad, and Qutb explicitly states that the sovereignty of God requires eliminating sovereignty by humans:
Any system in which the final decisions are referred to human beings, and in which the source of all authority are men, deifies human beings by designating others than Allah as lords over men. This declaration means the usurped authority of Allah be returned to Him and the usurpers thrown out – those who by themselves devise laws for others, elevating themselves to the status of lords and reducing others to the status of slaves. In short, to proclaim the authority and sovereignty of Allah means to eliminate all human kingships and to announce the rule of the Sustainer of the universe over the entire earth.
Jihadists are not the only Islamist actors in the region who reject sovereignty on religious grounds. For example, Hakim al-Muteiri, an assistant professor at Kuwait University’s College of Sharia and Islamic Studies – not a jihadist – went on Al Jazeera’s popular show “Sharia and Life” in 2012 and had this exchange with the host, Uthman Uthman:
Uthman Uthman: As I understand you, the current jihad in Syria is obligatory. Is it obligatory only for Syrians living in Syria, or for Syrians elsewhere, or more generally for Muslims in the region?
Hakim al-Muteiri: The house of Islam is one, and the legal rulings are one. This map that was imposed by Sykes-Picot and imposed by the Western occupation is of no consideration legally.
There are many groups around the globe that are unhappy with state borders as they currently exist, and it is tempting to view Daesh as another of these groups. However, there is a fundamental difference. Many groups make their territorial claims on the basis of existing norms of sovereignty, asserting that current borders are illegitimate because they violate the right of a people to collective self-determination. Such groups are challenging existing borders, but not underlying norms of sovereignty. In contrast, Daesh is not just dissatisfied with the current borders, but rejects the possibility of borders at all.
Some scholars have argued that Daesh will start to “believe in sovereignty” once the group consolidates territory and starts governing. The argument posits that pragmatic governance issues could lead Daesh to moderate its radical rejection of the legitimacy of international borders and the international system. After all, it could be hard to govern while perpetually provoking war with great powers. Such arguments for the power of structure to change behavior and ideology are common, for instance, the claim that Islamist parties moderate once they come into power or that states become more responsible once they acquire nuclear weapons.
However, it is not a given that Daesh will adopt more traditional norms of sovereignty as it becomes expedient and it is unlikely that Daesh will begin respecting norms of sovereignty as it begins to govern. Daesh will be adamant about defending its own territorial integrity: Its religion-based doctrine practically forbids it from recognizing the sovereignty of other states even if doing so would be strategically advantageous. Religious beliefs are “sticky,” and Daesh’s ideology is at the core of its identity.
Daesh’s rejection of sovereignty is more than strategic. Daesh’s disbelief in norms of international sovereignty means that it is likely to be a maximally expansionist for some time to come. This makes it difficult, or probably impossible, for other states to bargain with Daesh, because maximally expansionist goals effectively eliminate the range of possible bargains. Add to this the idea that Daesh is doctrinally committed to the illegitimacy of all such agreements and it becomes unlikely that normal international relations could ever occur, even if Daesh carves out a state in northern Syria and Iraq. Daesh’s existence poses a fundamental challenge to international order, not only to the people under its rule.
Richard A. Nielsen is an assistant professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dissertation and book project, “The Lonely Jihadist: Weak Networks and the Radicalization of Muslim Clerics,” explores why some Muslim clerics adopt the ideology of militant jihad while most do not.