The Islamic State Works, But That’s No Reason for Peace

The fanatical Sunni group has all the trappings of a state, but it is still beholden to a destructive ideology.

An armed man waves an Islamic State flag in Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014
An armed man waves an Islamic State flag in Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014 (Reuters)

It’s hard to be fair to totalitarians. The vast majority of us English-reading folks have no concept of totalitarian systems beyond the hard-jawed stereotypes of Nazi movie villains, Thought Police boogeymen of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Kim Jong-un-like buffoonery. We take for granted the innate moral superiority of our systems so often that we rarely think about the reality of daily life under a dictator or a would-be caliph. When we do think about it, we resort to the lazy caricatures utilized in any story that needs a bad guy.

The fall of Sirte in Libya has pushed the Islamic State out of its would-be African capital and revealed much of what life is like under their rule. The intense interest in the group has given us glimpses into its daily life. And there is an uncomfortable truth within it: by many metrics, the Islamic State works.

What we mean by “works” should be defined, however

A state is a group of people who lead a population. A state is not a family running a slice of territory; that’s a tribe. A state does not make family ties the be all, end all of your relationship with it. Yes, nepotism does exist in all kinds of modern states — would Hillary Clinton be so popular were she never married to a president? — but we consider that a corruption of the state’s powers.

We don’t do the same with tribalism: We fully expect the son to take over for dad, for special rights to be granted to everyone related to dad and for the best stuff to go to dad’s family members first. Anyone not related to dad is kept out of the tribe unless they marry in.

The Islamic State is not a tribe. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, no doubt has special privileges for his family but not all of its elites are related to him. Anyone who converts to the IS version of Sunni Islam can join up. Say the magic words and find the right Twitter account and recruitment is as simple as a planet ticket and a border hop.

Nor is the Islamic State a mere terrorist group. While it certainly uses terrorist tactics like suicide bombings, it goes beyond terrorism because it can do two things: it can kill people within its borders with impunity and it can carry out long-term plans.

The first is the monopoly on the use of violence. Its police and fighters can shoot people however they see fit. The second is the key to why it is a state and not a terror group. The Islamic State not only has ambitions that include minting a gold currency but can actually carry out some of these plans. That the state is barely over two years old means many of these plans haven’t got far; battlefield defeats and a relentless air campaign have also slowed most of its policies.

Yet when Sirte fell, residents told stories of IS setting up a Department of Motor Vehicles. The banality of evil really is banal.

So if a state is built of institutions of strangers, has a monopoly on violence in its territory and can carry out long term plans, it works

In March, reports emerged of an uprising in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital. They were quickly discredited by the dissident movement in the city itself. We have no other reports of IS’ monopoly on violence being broken by its subjects (or citizens, depending on how you see it). Crime is policed; shops are inspected. When violence does occur, it’s within the context of war. This is not the same as a failed state, which is essentially anarchy.

Compare the Islamic State to Syria as a whole. The Syrian state is unable to prevent violence in its own territories. Even Damascus is not wholly secure, with entire neighborhoods outside of government control. Its once-largest city, Aleppo, is split in a brutal vivisection. The Syrian state plods on, but compared to its 2011 self it has failed. The Islamic State, on the other hand, deserves a different metric: from controlling zero territory in 2011, it now rules large swathes of the Euphrates River valley. It has gone from underground to overt. To call it a “failed state” is to imply that it had a state to begin with.

It is also becoming clear the elite of IS understand how to put together state services. Until coalition bombing destroyed its oil derricks, IS was an oil-exporting country. The complicated work needed to do so required a certain degree of sophistication. Vice‘s early documentary on IS-occupied Raqqa revealed inspectors checking up on shops and rallies held peacefully in public spaces.

The Islamic State’s youth means the final caveat — the ability to carry out long-term plans — remains in question. As battlefield reverses crush its resources, it’s unlikely that many of its dreams will come true.

Yet that also reveals another uncomfortable truth.

Without a war against it, the Islamic State would likely bring order to a region full of chaos

Islamic State success in Sunni-dominated Syria, Iraq and Libya is telling. It is not, as some might presume, just angry Sunnis rallying to a Sunni rebellion. It’s actually more like thoughtful elites giving angry Sunnis precisely what they expect.

The Islamic State’s ruling mechanisms align with the cultural dimensions of both Iraq and Syria, as best demonstrated through the Hofstede cultural dimensions comparison. Both score high for power distance; both score low for individualism. For a ruler to manage such a culture, they must demonstrate power and clarity and they are given free reign to crush individuals who stand in their way.

Such rulers must be remote and even larger than life. In the Sunni world, there are few geopolitical figures bigger than the long-last caliph. With a supposed direct connection to God, the office of the caliph radiates authority and power: the precise method of power distance needed in a time wherein Islamism has become the dominant political thought in much of the Arab world.

Once it was the the Arab nationalist who stood tall, having emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman caliphate ready to apply Western state methods for Arab glory. But repeated defeats have caused Sunni Arabs to cast about for some alternative. In the fractured landscape, the caliph alone has yet to be discredited.

The Islamic State’s elites also understands that in the course of exercising authority, group values will always trump individual ones. While many of its subjects many grumble, even abhor, IS methods for keeping order, they also accept them. This is proven by the lack of organized or large-scale revolts against its rule. In the lands it rules people accept, even demand strongmen who are unafraid of harming the few to preserve the values of the many. In 2016, the most effective ideology of a strongman in Syria and Iraq is Sunni supremacism.

Interestingly, IS would be far less successful in Iran: not because Iran is Shia necessarily, but because Iranians tolerate far less distance from power and value individualism more. The Shia dimension would provide an ideological backbone to resistance, but the cultural difference would be more fundamental: Iranians, used to the limited elections of their Islamic republic, would react much more strongly to the totalitarian tactics of the Islamic State.

Left alone, the Islamic State would slowly and inevitably overrun both Syria and Iraq and reorder them; of the factions today, it is the most effective one and has done much with very little because of its ruthless alignment with local culture.

For this reason, Jordan is a tempting target: Jordanian culture is not so different from Syrian culture in its cultural dimensions. If IS defeats the Jordanian military on the battlefield, it will probably find Jordan easy to rule.

Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states are also culturally ripe for such conquest. All score within the bounds of cultures that would accept the Islamic State’s ruling techniques; the argument could be made that Lebanon is so dysfunctional not because it has extremists but because no one extremist group can dominate the others and impose the authoritarian system that would work there.

But just because the Islamic State would work is no reason to suffer its existence

This is not a moral consideration but a security one. The Islamic State, while using an effective totalitarian ideology through Sunni supremacism, does bring order from intractable chaos. Plus, the world already tolerates a Sunni supremacist state: Saudi Arabia, whose similarities with the Islamic State cause discomfort for the world’s geopolitical moralists.

But there is a major and important difference: While the Saudi state finds security and survival through its embrace with the West, the Islamic State gets just the opposite through confrontation and war. As an aspiring state in the middle of a multisided civil war, the Islamic State needs regular infusions of motivated recruits. It cannot just draw from its stocks of subjects in Raqqa and Mosul, who are too few to fill up the ranks (and whose conscription would produce a weaker conscript army).

Since it has found Sunni supremacism is just the ideology it needs to justify its totalitarian state, IS must walk the walk or else they may well end up discredited just as Arab nationalists were. It must attack, bomb and kill its declared enemies as often as possible. For Sunni supremacists, this is any force that holds together the US-dominated Middle East.

That it has not struck Israel yet has a bit to do with logistics: there’s no nearby IS territory to launch a large-scale attack. But one can reasonably expect that if IS ever held a major town near Israel, it would try its best to provoke it into war. The attacks on US allies like France and Turkey only make sense in such a context.

This is not all that dissimilar from Nazism in outcome. Nazism was based on doing things, conquering things, overcoming things, in rapid succession. As best detailed in The Anatomy of Fascism, Nazism as an ideology required endless escalation to keep itself powerful. Only by creating a crisis and overcoming it could Nazism give its elites the power they sought. First they overcame the crisis of the Depression and the Weimar Republic’s political chaos; then they began to invent crises to overcome with their neighbors. The point was simple: so long as Germany was had a crisis, the Nazis could tighten their grip. As The Anatomy of Fascism details, Nazism was most extreme, and most politically powerful, in the waning hours of defeat in 1944-45.

Sunni supremacism acts the same way. Should the Islamic State somehow (inconceivably at this point) conquer Syria and Iraq, it would then have to manufacture yet another crisis to keep its elites empowered or else they would risk being displaced by even more radical upstarts who would try to remain true to Sunni supremacism’s murderous ideology.

This has a historical equivalent. While there’s no evidence that Hitler ever wanted peace, had he ever appeared to favor it, it seems quite likely he’d have suffered a coup at the hand of Nazi purists like Herman Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. Ambitious men, they would have seen an opportunity to take over the state while understanding that the end of war would have weakened what control they already had.

This is the clear difference between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State: Saudi Arabia’s monarchy gives lip service to Sunni supremacy but is not controlled by it. The Islamic State can’t do the same thing, even if elites emerged that wanted to. To survive, it must go on the offensive against its enemies forever.

Yet uncomfortable lessons will remain once it is vanquished

We already know that much of the Middle East is ill-prepared for democracy; cultural dimensions theory helps us understand why. As Kurdish, Iraqi, Assadist and now Turkish forces sweep the ground clear of the Islamic State, what replaces it will fail unless it uses a similar authoritarian model to govern.

Cultures can and do shift over time; enlightened authoritarians shepherd their cultures to the point where democracy can took a firm root. (Alas, the Hofstede Center has no measurements for Tunisia, which would be fascinating to look into.) That is the best case scenario for post-IS Syria and Iraq.

Sunni supremacism will only be wiped out after a full generation of defeat. To ensure it goes down and stays down, a workable political model must emerge after the Islamic State is conquered. Democracy will probably repeat the failures of the past; the better planners will think of something else.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, August 24, 2016.

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