Islamic State's controlled areas

Map of the Islamic State’s controlled areas by the Economist.com

One of the fascinating aspects of the Islamic State (IS) is its capturing of territories and attempting to govern . This is unlike its mother organization, Al-Qaeda Central (or Al-Qaeda Iraq), which supports an establishment of an Islamic State but has never attempted doing so. The IS is serious about perpetually holding on to territories, governing, and expanding. In fact, one of its famous slogans is (baqiya wa tatamaddad (lasting and expanding). However, IS rejects to call its current controlled territories ‘a state’ in the western (Westphalian) sense of statehood and calls it khilafah (caliphate). It rejects the current territoriality and believes it is de-territorializing (creating a borderless world) the current system or at least the area it is occupying (i.e. parts of Iraq and Syria); but it appears to be re-territorializing (taking up territories and keeping it under its control to model the current system). Is it possible to think of, or practice a state system outside the westphalian state system paradigm? This brings to the fore a number of issues regarding state building in the Middle East, territoriality and how IS is re-territorializing rather than the de-territorialisation narrative it wants many to believe.

Unlike in Europe, state building in the Middle East has not been smooth sailing in terms of congruence between territory and identity of the populace of a number of territories. In the Post-Ottoman state formation through the Asia Minor (or as it is popularly called the Sykes-Picot) agreement territories were arbitrary demarcated based on imperial powers’ interests and not the interests of the locals. This created sub-states entities (and later supra-state ideological entities through Pan Arabism) not satisfied in the territories they find themselves. It subsequently led to some of the protracted conflicts in the region for decades. A case in point is the Kurdish issue in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq; and the Palestinian question among others. Such a challenge to state sovereignty by such groups pursuing nationalistic ambitions has since been extended to religious dimension where religious militants would like to reverse the imperial powers territorial legacies in the Middle East as well. The Islamic State is no exception as it publicly denounced the Sykes-Picot borders through one of its propaganda videos. It rejects the current territoriality and believes it is de-territorializing the current system or at least the area it is occupying; but it appears to be re-territorializing. Is the IS attempting to create a conception of state outside the westphalian paradigm?

Territoriality is a key feature of the current Westphalian nation-state system conception of sovereignty. The IS is exercising sovereignty in the area it is occupying and territorializing by trying to protect those swath of lands it has captured yet rejects the very fundamental idea of state sovereignty of the current system. This rejection could be supported by the fact that the IS still tries to conquer more territories, and not necessary trying to run a state. But the IS is not lying in waiting. It is running diverse state institutions. It brutally punishes those who denounce its ways and rewards those who conform to its ideas within its territory. Interestingly, in Islam sovereignty is attributed to only God (Allah). Islamic political thinkers like Maulana Maududi, Sayed Qutb, Ayatillah khomeni have argued for this as the basic yet essential distinction between the conception of sovereignty in Islam and western conceptualization. Indeed, this makes Islamic conception of sovereignty universal, non-territorial, and absolute. Attempting to exercise sovereignty over territory by the IS would be eccentric to the concept of sovereignty and territoriality in Islam. In Islam there is no such thing as sovereignty over a territory but rather sovereignty of God over humanity. This leads to an important question: Does Islam really sanctions an establishment of a revolutionary state, especially when Muslims are free to practice their religion?

However, it could be argued that human beings are sent as Khalifa (roughly: stewards of God) to the earth (see Qur’an 2: 30), and among them arises a leader who acts as the custodian of others by the authority God granted him. In as much as that leader does not act contrary to the will of God, he enjoys marginal autonomy necessary to implement and enforce the laws of his creator. The Qur’an also acknowledges the existence of a human figure through whom the authority of God is exercised (see 4: 59). However, as to whether the IS’s leader is that ‘human figure’ to enforce God’s laws here on earth is greatly doubtful. Besides, whether such a figure has been instructed to lead a borderless world upheaval or could lead regardless of the location of his subjects is inexplicit.

In the speeches and publications of the Islamic State, especially the inaugural sermon of Al-Baghdadi, he suggests that IS is trying to establish a borderless kingdom of God on earth where nationality would not be of importance but the Islamic faith that binds people together. At the same time the Islamic Sate is calling on believers to the Islamic State’s territories. There is a contradiction between what IS is practicing now and what it preaches. If borders are not necessary then why call believers to migrate to the Islamic state’s territories. Do believers really need to be in the same geographical location to practice their religion well?

In sum, IS appears to be re-territorializing instead of the de-territorialisation it want many to believe it is embarking on. It is unclear what sort of re-territorialisation it is attempting to accomplish. What is ostensible is that it is contradicting itself regarding calling for borderless world whilst practicing territorialization and sovereignty regardless of what it wants to call it. It is unpredictable where such abstruse IS phenomenon is leading to, whether success or a failure in term of territoriality. However, two postulations are worth noting: when IS succeeds in holding to its territories, could that lead to an alternative conception (not necessary a replacement) of territoriality outside the current nation-state sovereignty paradigm? Or when it fails could that further entrench the current nation-state system, as the best there is to stay with us for some time?