June 11, 2020

The Islamic State within the Rules-Based Society of States

By Otabek Akromov


The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) has elicited a great resonance both within the terrorist community and in the international community. The reason why was that an erstwhile al Qaeda Central`s (AQC) affiliate group (al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)) proclaimed the establishment of a legitimate state (IS) (Hamming, 2017, pp. 20-37), which started looking down on AQC as to ‘a mere group’ (Ibid., p. 9). The bulk of research has been carried out to understand IS. It was analysed through various angles, ranging from comparative analysis of IS and al Qaeda (Turner, 2015, pp. 208-225), statehood (Novogrodsky, 2018, pp. 36-59; Balanger-McMurdo, 2020; Ahram, 2017, pp. 345-362; Al-Dayel and Anfinson, 2017, pp. 45-64; Offenhuber, 2017, pp. 196-219), stateness (Walt, 2015), territorial logic (Kadercan, 2019, pp. 1-17), state formation (Ille and Mansour, 2015, pp. 21-30) and governance (Caris and Reynolds, 2014) to political economy (Stergiou, 2016, pp. 189-207) and international law (Longobardo, 2017, pp. 205-228; Coleman, 2014, pp. 75 – 80).

However, no significant work was dedicated to examining IS through the international relations (IR) lenses, except for some student-level essays (Cali, 2014; Ibrahimi, 2018). Though the aforementioned approaches are valuable, situating IS within IR principles is also pertinent and significant as we are not dealing with a mere group, but a terrorist organization that claims to be state. Thus, the paper aims to fill this gap by seeking to answer why was the IS’ claim to become a legitimate actor in the international society futile from the very beginning? To address this question the essay applies two concepts of the English School theory of IR — international society and standard of ‘civilisation’. Also, the secondary sources derived from the field of terrorism studies are applied for our empirical section. The paper concludes that IS deprived itself of a chance to be a member of the international society because, first, it violated the elementary rules governing the international society; and, second, though IS tried to exercise fundamental functions of the state, its anti-democratic and anti-secular stance and use of cruel and inhuman instruments of violence reminiscent of the medieval times are incompatible with the standards of current civilisation.

This paper is organized as follows: representing the conceptual part of the paper, the first section underlines the main principles proposed by Hedley Bull and other proponents of the English School — rules and standards governing the international society; the following section argues that IS is more than a mere terrorist group, by showing its effective governance mechanisms; the third section shows how IS brushed aside fundamental rules of the international society and failed to meet the standards of contemporary ‘civilisation’.

Conceptual Framework: The International Society Concept

The field of international relations (IR) has witnessed a split along the line of methods. There have been four waves of disputes between opposing parties — Realism vs Liberalism, Traditionalism vs Behaviouralism, Neorealism vs Neoliberalism and Rationalism vs Reflectivism, which is termed as ‘The Great Debates’ (Worth, 2011). The opposing parties in this debate presented their arguments as scientific, but disagreement among them was in ‘which techniques were actually “scientific” in the relevant sense’ (Jackson, 2011, 6.). Thus, science, especially today, started being associated with ‘quantification and formal models’ (Ibid), while qualitative methods and traditionalists` interpretive historicist approaches, especially in American IR coven, were perceived as ‘non-serious’. Applying naturalist methods in IR, what contemporary American IR requires today, is doomed to misconstrue the reality, as states are run by people who are not always rational because they sometimes yield to their emotions, which make their actions difficult to predict and explain, let alone quantify. Thus, this essay approaches the task through the English School that rests on interpretive historicism and claims to be scientific, as being so does not necessarily imply ‘the method of knowledge acquisition …, but the aim of the knowledge itself, which takes it to be the “explanatory content” of scientific knowledge’ (Ibid., p. 18) and avoids to be partisan as politics is (Ibid., p. 20).

Now, let me introduce the main concept of the English School — the international society that this essay builds upon. I will do it quoting directly Hedley Bull, the founding father of the School:

A society of states (or international society) exists when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions (Bull, 2012, p. 13).

Thus, according to Bull, states form such society because they recognize ‘common interests and values’ and, more importantly, they regard themselves as ‘bound by certain rules in their dealings with one another — respect one another’s claims to independence, honour agreements into which they enter, and [recognize] certain limitations in exercising force against one another’ (Ibid). Society of states, according to Bull, can only be sustained if elementary goals are achieved. There are three elementary goals of international society. First, there is the ‘goal of preservation of the system and society of states itself’, which means that states should not let actors other than states to evolve in international politics; second goal is maintaining the independence of individual states; third, there is the goal of peace in terms of an absence of war among members of the society of states (Ibid., pp. 16-18).

However, these rules do not constitute an exhaustive to-do list that states have to stick to in relation to one another: there are also standards of ‘civilisation’ that states should adopt in their internal affairs in order to be a member of the society. There have been a whole range of international societies throughout the history of international relations (IR), such as Classical Greece, Persian, Medieval European, Westphalian and European (Watson, 1992). ‘Barbarians’ wishing to be a ‘civilised’ and join the international society had to adopt the standard of ‘civilisation’ relevant to that period, in addition to sticking to the above-mentioned-rules. The concept of ‘standard of civilisation’ implies ‘the differentiation between ‘civilised’ and ‘barbarian’ that was common to most civilisations’ (Buzan, 2014, p. 577). I am not going to delve in comparing standards of ‘civilisation’ of different periods of history, but I will bring the standards of the European international society of the 19th century up until the present day. Thus, in order for the status of ‘civilised’ to be bestowed upon nonEuropean states by main members of European society, the former had to meet certain requirements: guaranteed basic rights (life, dignity and property; freedom of travel, commerce and religion), ensured efficiency in governing the state machinery and organizing the self-defence, adhered to international law and law of war, maintained diplomatic relations and conformed to the norms accepted by the international society (polygamy and slavery were considered unacceptable) (Gong, 1984, pp. 14-15). For instance, Turkey was the first non-European to be admitted to this society under Article VIII of the Treaty of Paris (Bull., 2012, p. 32).

Today`s ‘global society’, as Adam Watson argues, ‘was not brought into being by a radical break with the past, but … it has inherited its organization and most of its concepts from its European predecessor’ (Watson, 1992, p. 300). Indeed, although European powers later were sidelined by the US and USSR, and the international society ceased to be European, but its standards with minor rectifications have remained a cornerstone of today`s international society (Ibid., pp. 288-289). However, we should note that originally, as Barry Buzan argues, ‘political role [of standard of ‘civilisation’] was to gate-keep membership of the international society, and to justify colonialism’ (Ibid., 576). Later, after 1945 this notion disappeared as ‘the right of self-determination opened membership to nearly all peoples’ (Ibid). Most of the proponents of the English School consider ‘the conditionality of Western demands for human rights [as] the successor to the ‘standard of civilisation’’ (Ibid., 586). Thus, Buzan concludes that ‘the substance of the ‘standard of civilisation’ thus very much remains[: i]t is often still about membership’ (Ibid., 585).

However, this does not necessarily mean that ‘barbarians’ have to adopt such norms and rules in the form and shape that major powers of the international society try to foist on them: it is sufficient to do it at least nominally. In social science and IR per se mechanisation (Akromov, 2018, p. 27-28) of some processes, as realists and neorealists try to do, would misconstrue the reality, because, as was argued above, though state represents a system with its elements (government bodies), it is, notwithstanding, governed by human beings. That is why I am not arguing that there are certain mechanisms in the form of norms and rules that ‘foreigners’ have to adopt them as they are. On the contrary, I argue that a certain level of flexibility could be applied in implementing those standards of ‘civilisation’ in domestic affairs. For instance, there are a whole bunch of autocratic and kleptocratic states that frequently violate those norms. Despite the fact that they are widely criticized by major powers such as the US and EU, they survive and continue to be members of the international society. The rationale behind this is that they either simulate democracy (Maerz, 2019, pp. 1-23) and use democratic rhetoric (Maerz, 2016, pp. 727-735) on the international scene or they at least do not unleash anti-democratic rhetoric. However, states, such as North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran, who not only do reject façading democracy, but also totally brush aside it, and behave aggressively in IR, end up being ‘rogue’, which means ‘pursuit of [its national interests] through methods contrary to accepted standards of international behaviour’ (Pillar, 2020).

What does this all — the society of states with its rules and standards of ‘civilisation’ — have to do with the Islamic State (IS)? The point is that IS does not consider itself as a mere group, but claims to be state; but in order for other states recognize it as such, it must meet the aforesaid requirements. Thus, the next section will argue that IS is indeed more than a mere group, while the following section shows IS`s incompatibility with the society of states and unfitness of its stateness to the standards of contemporary ‘civilisation’.

More Than a Terrorist Group

IS is considered as a member of a wider al Qaeda family (Hamming, 2017, p. 3), nevertheless, it is a unique offspring of al Qaeda. Though they share similar basic values and organizational overlaps, there is a fundamental difference between them. Unlike AQC and essentially all terrorist groups that use attack-and-run tactics, IS aimed to ‘remain and expand’ (Kadercan, 2019, p. 1). Remaining requires order, which is ensured by stateness — ‘capacity to sustain its territory, nation, and citizens’ welfare’ (Zaytsev, 2020). This capacity is manifested in accomplishing order in a conquered territory through certain government institutions and mechanisms. The leader of IS al Baghdadi thought to have a right to claim to become a state because it effectively applied such mechanisms and successfully exercised fundamental functions of the state.

IS is not the only terrorist organization that claimed the statehood. For instance, some AQC affiliates, such as al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali have declared statehood (El Damanhoury, 2016). However, claiming statehood requires certain state-building measures, which IS, unlike the attempts (Ibid) of the above-mentioned terrorist groups, successfully met. IS practiced a form of governance, containing all mechanisms that contemporary states have. Based on the analysis of IS media products, Aaron Y. Zelin concludes that IS could systematize, bureaucratize, and formalize its governance structures (Zelin, 2016, pp. 1-23): it provided social services (education, healthcare etc) (Ibid., p. 4), engaged in economic activities (resumed the activities of certain factories, build new shops etc.) (Ibid, p. 5), organized state propaganda (dissemination of IS ideology and its effectiveness through billboards, printed literature, CDs/DVDs, and/or USB drives of IS official media) (Ibid., p. 3), introduced a tax system (Ibid) and established law enforcement mechanisms (religious police (al-Hisba) (Ibid), police forces and sharia court) (Ibid., p. 9) and punishment mechanisms (Ibid., p. 2). The implementations of regulations touching on various aspects of social life serve as another argument of the effectiveness of IS`s stateness (Al-Tamimi, 2015). Why were then IS efforts to have a statehood were futile from the beginning? The reason why is that it failed to obtain an entrance ticket to international society.

Entrance Ticket to International Society: Rules and Standards

The international system, as realists construe, looks like to the gladiator arena (Bull, 2012, p. 25), which has no rules, but fight-for-survival, and where only the stronger wins the battle. Realists extrapolate this analogy to IR because they see the system of the state as anarchic, without no 1 ‘Leviathan’ above all states. According to realism, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must (Bagby, 1995, p. 175), which means that ‘justice is simply the advantage of the stronger’ (Mynott, 2013, p. XXV). Although there is no a superior power that possesses the monopoly on violence and despite the fact that the history of IR is littered with wars and conflicts that substantiate the argument ‘the strong took what they wanted and the weak submitted when they must’, this perception misconstrues the reality of IR. This is because states even being at war with one another limit the scope of war by certain rules. For instance, states mostly do not wage war in demilitarized zones, they first give a warning signal before announcing a war, they keep communicating with belligerent parties via diplomatic channels and they try to avoid killing noncombatants.

However, none of those rules apply to IS. Thus, the first subsection reveals how IS brushed aside all possible international rules, while the following subsection shows that though IS effectively governed the state machinery and organized the self-defence, it unleashed anti-secular and anti-democratic policy, along with practicing inhuman, medieval instruments of violence.

Islamic State and Three Rules of the Society of States

IS did not appear suddenly from nowhere, but it evolved from AQC (Turner, 2015, pp. 208-225; Hamming, 2017, pp. 1-18). However, a turning point for both AQC and the international community was 29 June 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of Islamic State. For the sake of our analysis, let’s pretend that the international society would eager to grant a society-of-states membership to IS, if the latter met its criterion. Hence, the arguments that are going to be presented below will show how IS failed to stick to the three rules of international society — limitation in exercising force against one another, respecting one another’s claims to independence and honouring agreements into which they enter. We will go through each criterion one by one.

First, IS totally ignored limitations in exercising force against one another. It was not blitzkrieg expansion operations that the IS successfully waged since its inception that overwhelmed the international society, but it was its brutality and unmitigated violence that has shocked the world. If states before announcing war make a verbal warning sign, then IS warned the world of, as they perceive, ‘infidels’ with war — slaughtering innocent ‘Westerns journalists and aid workers, executing thousands of Christians and Yazidis and killing anyone, [including muslims] (Hamming, 2017, p. 9), that opposes IS and its ideology’ (Coleman, 2014, p. 75). What is interesting, the unconstrained violence directed by IS shocked even its ‘father’ — al Qaeda that, consequently, disavowed ‘any association with their former affiliate’ (Turner, 2015, p. 210) and declared that ISIS ‘is not a branch of al-Qaeda, has no links to it, and the al-Qaeda group is not responsible for its acts’
Realists use this term instead of the international society/society of states, as they consider that states are not bound by any rules and 1 that they only coexist in the system, but not cooperate. (Ibid, p. 212). Thus, IS breached one of the main principles of ‘civilised’, just war — ‘participants in war must distinguish combatants from noncombatants, and that whereas combatants are the justifiable targets of attacks, noncombatants are not’ (Hoskins, 2011). Above all, not only did they just slaughtered them but also they made a process of slow-motion killing (brutal beheading and dismembering body) as an ‘aesthetic performance’ (Chouliaraki and Kissas, 2018, p. 25).

Second, IS totally rejects respecting other`s claims to independence, as it contradicts its ambitions and, more importantly, religion/ideology. The history of IR is full of examples of secessionist movements that materialised the emergence of a new state on the world map. For instance, Czechoslovakia`s dissolution represents a peaceful and smooth split into two separate states — the Czech Republic and Slovakia; as a result of ethnic, economic and political tensions Yugoslavia broke up, and new five republics (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia) emerged on the political map. These secessionist actions were based on one of the main principles of the UN — the right for self-determination (Hannum, 1998, pp. 773-780), which means that those secessions were organized within the international law and further underpinned by the recognition of major players of the international society. However, if in the above-mentioned examples seceding groups knew the almost the exact amount of and rational-to-achieve land they needed to establish a state, then the territory that IS is aspired to conquer is beyond rationality. As the spokesman of IS Adnani stated, IS`s ambition was to ‘restore the Islamic caliphate’ and he followed that ‘[their] goal is to establish an Islamic state that doesn’t recognize borders’ (Wood, 2020): ‘IS rejects not only the location of borders but also the very concept of Westphalian border itself’ (Kadercan, 2019, p. 3). This explicitly implies that IS did not want to establish a state by merely seceding from either Iraq or Syria, but it intended to revive the caliphate encompassing all territories that once Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates (Jabareen, 2015, p. 52) controlled — MENA region, part of Iran, Caucasus and Central Asia, with their further expansion plans. As we all know, those caliphates were expanding their empire in the name of Allah and to foist Islam in conquered lands. Thus, replicating the latter, IS ‘positions itself as a frontier state fighting a never-ending war in defence and for the glory of the Islamic lands’ (Ibid., p. 8). ‘At its ideological heart, IS`s [ambition is] to overthrow the existing world order … to convert all people to Islam; and to rule all Islamic lands and eventually the world according to its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam’ (Lister, 2015, p. 7). However, this was their ambition, and they themselves might understand its unfeasibility, bearing in mind the military might of major players (USA, Russia, EU, etc.). What was then the core reason behind IS`s rejection to recognize other`s independence? The main rational is ideological. For IS ‘accepting any border is anathema, as stated by the Prophet and echoed in the Islamic State’s propaganda videos’ (Ibid). As the author of the most read (Cottee, 2016, pp. 439-454) article on ISIS Graeme Wood argues that ‘recognition [of borders] is ideological suicide’ because such an act along with negotiation and exchange of ambassadors would be ‘apostasy’ (Wood, 2015).

Third, IS is not able neither to enter into, so nor honour agreements. Usually, major conflicts are settled under the auspices of the UN and agreements are reached through diplomatic processes requiring face-to-face contacts. As was already highlighted above, diplomacy for IS is apostasy. As for sending an ambassador to the UN, IS equates it with ‘recogniz[ing] an authority other than God’s’ — ‘shirk, or polytheism, [which] would be immediate cause to hereticize and replace Baghdadi’ (Ibid). Such an ideological base of IS constrains it to negotiate with opposing parties, let alone entering agreements with them. If so, there is no reason to elaborate further on the principle of honouring agreements, as how would IS honour them, if they cannot even enter into such agreements because its religion prohibits doing so. However, lets again pretend and hypothetically argue that IS entered an agreement with a state, violating its religious principle. Even in such circumstances, ‘Islamic law permits only temporary peace treaties, lasting no longer than a decade’ (Ibid). Wood argues, ‘if the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error’, because, as he continues, ‘the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year[: h]e may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin’ (Ibid). We should not forget that the then-caliph al-Baghdadi claimed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (Alkaff, 2014, p. 4). This status symbolically presented him as sinless, virtuous and always right in the eyes of his followers. Thus, the caliph is considered to be the core element that IS could not get by without in their endeavours to revive the Islamic Caliphate. That is why the caliph would not sacrifice his status for the sake of a temporary agreement with ‘evil’ states, as it could undermine the foundation of IS — the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi`s claim to be the caliph.

The list of rules sketched in this subsection represents only the first step to obtaining membership in international society. For gaining a full-fledged membership one also should meet the contemporary standard of ‘civilisation’ — human rights.

Against the Standard of ‘Civilisation’ and Its Exporters

We live in a time where the perception of LBGT communities in the minds of people is step by step transforming from unacceptable to normal (Roth, 2015); wherein some developed countries prisons ensure a luxurious condition (Pillai, 2017), because the government take care of prisoners and ensure good conditions for them notwithstanding their criminal deeds; where in the US and some other countries the capital punishment by overwhelmingly painful electric chair is replaced by a painless lethal injection, while the main aim of the death penalty was to kill by inflicting pain on those who themselves took one`s life. These examples indicate how humans` life is valued today, no matter what kind of humans they are. Of course, the West — the locomotive of the world economy and international economic institutions, is not requiring to copy these standards as they are, but at least ensure basic human rights: right to a fair trail, protection against enslavement, prohibition of genocide, free speech or a right to education etc. For not meeting this requirement, the West punishes by economic means. For example, the West boycotted one of the main sources of hard currency of Uzbekistan — cotton and textile — for ‘human rights violations by encouraging the use of forced labour (a sort of exploitation/enslavement)’, including child labour; however, after a new government of Uzbekistan has undertaken reforms in this realm, the West started lifting the ban on Uzbek cotton (Shaykhov, 2020). Thus, in light of when human rights are becoming standard of civilisation today, IS` medieval methods of punishments and its war against the democracy brought its statehood to naught.

As was discussed above, IS established effective government institutions, however, it implemented the state-building mechanisms reminiscent of medieval times. Back then, it was a usual punishment to cut off the hands for theft or to give the death penalty by beheading or hanging for murder (Medieval Crime & Punishment, 2020). Above all, the people were accustomed to seeing such horrific scenes, as such punishment procedures were regularly executed in public. When it comes to IS`s punishment methods, they are as horrific as they were at that time. It instituted harsh judicial penalties, which are based on Sharia law — namely, ‘ta‘zir (discretionary), qisas (retaliation), and hudoud (fixed in the Quran and hadith) punishments…, including whippings, tying people to lampposts or fences along with signs naming their misdeeds to deter future transgressions, caging individuals, cutting off hands or feet, stoning, point-blank shootings, beheadings, and crucifixions’ (Zelin, 2016, p. 4).

Does it mean that IS is a unique case that practices punishments such as hanging or chopping hands off today? Answering superficially to this question, you may say it is not, by arguing that Saudi Arabia still uses the same punishment — chopping hands off for theft, while ‘repeat offenders … can lose both hands, and legs are sometimes taken for other offenses’ (The World`S Most Barbaric Punishments, 2010). Moreover, a beheading method of punishment is also widely practiced here: about 100 people per year are beheaded in Saudi Arabia (The Guardian, 2015). You may also argue that hanging as capital punishment is still executed in a purely democratic Japan (Lane, 2020). However, IS is unique as its brutal methods are incompatible with the Westphalian norm and unacceptable to the majority of Muslims around the world (Jabareen, 2015, p. 51). Thus, unlike the latter, it uses ‘repressive mechanisms, eliminating, often in a very public fashion, against anyone who is seen as a dissenter’ (Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria, 2017), without a fair trial. Above all, the aforesaid countries use such punishment mechanisms exercising their right for the monopoly of violence and limit the scope of their application to their citizens only. They do not go beyond this scope because they respect the independence and sovereignty of other states; thus punishing other countries` citizens might be perceived as an act of war: that is why states established the institution of extradition. As for IS, apart from punishing its ‘citizens’, it slaughters the ‘enemies of Islam’ — all who share the ideas of the West, i.e. the whole international system shaped after Westphalia (Kadercan, 2019, p. 4).

Ideas such as democracy and human rights, secularism and nationalism that govern the international society and belong to the West are considered by IS as rubbish and against Allah (Jabareen, 2015, p. 53). They even considered ‘wearing Western clothes, shaving one’s beard and voting in an election’ (Wood, 2015) as apostasy and sin. Stemming from this logic, following takfiri doctrine IS intended to purify the world by slaughtering vast numbers of people (Ibid), and called Muslims in Western countries ‘to find an infidel and smash his head with a rock, poison him, run him over with a car, or destroy his crops’ (Bayouny, 2014). Above all, as against today`s standards, IS ‘continued to embrace slavery and crucifixion without apology. “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women”’ (Wood, 2015).

In Lieu of Conclusion

Thus, how could IS gain statehood, while seeking ‘to overthrow the existing world order’ (Lister, 2015, p. 7), which has mainly been built by the West? How could it be a member of the international society while ignoring all its possible rules? How could it gain recognition by the international community if not only did it not try to stick to its standard of ‘civilisation’ by at least facading democracy as autocratic states try to do today, but also it designated democracy and its derivates as sin and against the Allah, and announced a war against those who practice democracy? How could it be one if it openly claimed numerous acts of terrorism across the globe’ (Kadercan, 2019, p. 12)? The answer to these questions is that the Islamic State would never become a state. However, as we have seen above, IS is not a mere terrorist group. Thus, IS is a non-state actor. Hence, another reason why IS would never evolve from a non-state actor to state actors that the first goal of the international society is the ‘preservation of the system and society of states itself’, which means that states would not let actors other than states to evolve in international politics.

Though I generally argue that there are certain rules and standards that ‘foreigners’ have to meet in order to join the society of states, this essay leaves other factors untouched. This has some limitations and opens avenues for further research on this issue. Though membership to the international society depends on the rules and standards sketched out above, there are other, materialistic factors as well. For instance, while oil-rich Iran that is Islamic (non-secular), authoritarian, and waging proxy-wars here and there is considered as a rouge state by some major players of the international society, then Saudi Arabia with almost the same system — authoritarian to the core with the Islamic system of governance— is an ally of the West. The reason behind this is its oil that Saudis eager to sell and the West is eager to buy. With this, I want to say that materialistic factors play a huge role in the recognition of a state.


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