ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

Is ISIS a State?

This question is one of the most significant in this book. What does ISIS represent? The president of the United States along with many other noted scholars has stated that ISIS is neither Islamic nor a state. When such notables make these statements what are they trying to say? If they are saying that it is not a state like “us,” then they are correct. ISIS rejects Western models of statehood. It rejects the notions of the treaty of Westphalia (1648 CE) from which Europe, North America, and most other modern states derive their concept of statehood. It rejects the United Nations Charter and the claims and rights asserted in that document. It rejects the colonial efforts of Western powers preceding and following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (circa 1919) to create Western-style states in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Western notions of democracy, social justice, and government separated from religious guidance are not what they stand for. Islam provided all of those things long before the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, or so ISIS would argue.

What is a state? This is a complex question; the German sociologist and thinker, Max Weber, posited that a state was a political organization that maintains a monopoly on the use of violence in a given territory. If this is the sole definition of state, then ISIS is definitely a state. It maintains a monopoly on the organized use of violence within the territory it governs. In this regard, it is more of a state than Iraq or Syria since there is less internal violence under ISIS rule than is true for either of those regimes.

ISIS developed a currency—gold coin. There is a proscription in the strictest sense of Islam that eschews the use of paper money. Abandoning paper money has been an objective of ISIS for a while and certainly since the announcement of a caliphate in 2014. This is starting to come to fruition as the coins are minted in some quantity. Since they are supposedly made from gold (what level of purity is uncertain), there is inherent value in the coin itself. Does currency give credibility to being a state? If so, then ISIS gets another mark in the statehood column. That said, there is little evidence by early 2016 that such currency is being produced in quantity or used in average transactions.

Some definitions of a state include the ability to negotiate treaties and other binding agreements with other states. This one is a little difficult to assess as ISIS considers most other states (certainly most Muslim states) as morally corrupt. It therefore has no interest in doing business with them. No country or state has recognized ISIS as a state, thus it is completely excluded from the international community. Such a condition is a blow to being considered a state. Of course, this category implies that there is a club called the international community and if one is not invited in, then one cannot be a state. ISIS may argue that the numerous other wilayas that have pledged its allegiance and support constitute a new international community—a community of believers—the only community worth belonging to from its perspective.

Because of the problems associated with being locked out of the international community, there is nothing that ISIS can do to interact with that community. It cannot issue passports or travel documents recognized anywhere in the world. ISIS cannot participate in the international banking infrastructure. From its perspective, this is not a bad thing as it views the globally accepted commerce system as a violation of Islamic law.

The question of whether or not ISIS can be considered a state is dependent on definition and perspective. If by being a state one means that ISIS can participate in the global community, then ISIS is not a state. If the definition of a state is one that includes the monopoly of violence and the ability to make laws to govern people within a given territory, then it certainly is a state.

Certain Iraqi leaders have expressed concern over the potential evolution of ISIS within the minds of people around the world. The following analogy was used to convey the concerns of those leaders. Originally the state of Israel was simply a Zionist entity. Early Zionists bought land and petitioned the international community for rights as a state. The United Nations saw the growth of the Zionist community and proposed the division of lands to include land for a Zionist state. The Zionists fought for the land and took much of it by force, driving off the Arabs who lived there. The world came to recognize this entity as a state, and it is now treated as equal with other states. Iraqi leaders fear that such a thing could happen to ISIS. While its current position is transitory, eventually it may be accepted within the international community. While this argument may make sense to some, others have dismissed it as impossible and unacceptable. Only time will tell the ultimate classification (and eventual fate) of the Islamic State.