The Universal State and the Universal Threat

The rise of the Islamic State has united the various actors in the Middle East and North Africa that are otherwise fighting tooth and nail against each other throughout the scorched battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The Syrian regime, which this time last year was preparing itself for a possible last stand against a Western military campaign, is now looking the other way as American and Arab jets carry out bombings in its airspace. Since the beginning of the uprising, the Syrian government has attempted to paint the entire diverse opposition as Islamists trying to destroy the secular and ostensibly progressive government, internalizing the discourse of the war on terror. Some have even claimed that, by the time the war had reached the point of no return for the government, it began purposefully ignoring the most radical Islamist forces within the armed opposition, hoping that it could reverse its international isolation and rebrand itself as bulwark against Islamism and a champion of the existing international order. Whether this was a deliberate strategy is difficult to know for sure, but it is clear that the government has transitioned from an international pariah to an active participant in the anti-ISIS coalition, despite what is being written in the press releases of Western governments. What is it about ISIS in particular, which has united these desperate actors against it?

The brutality of ISIS is well known by now, but brutality cannot alone explain what has united such disparate actors as Hezbullah, Iran, the Syrian government, Syrian Kurds, France, the Arab monarchies, and the United States against the group. No party to the conflict has a monopoly on horrific violence. As the constant stream of grainy mobile phone videos and photos demonstrates, conditions in Syria and Iraq remain truly unfathomable to detached observers. In quality and quantity, the violence unleashed by ISIS pales in comparison to that carried out by the Syrian government, yet the regime’s industrial-scale violence could not galvanize the international community. Thus, it would be difficult to argue that it is the scope or particular form of ISIS’s violence which has united the coalition against it. Perhaps it is the retrograde ideology of ISIS that is uniquely galvanizing? In the United States this has certainly garnered a lot of media attention. ISIS itself has deftly marketed its ideology. But is this ideology any worse than that which has been put into practice by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a key ally in the region and against the Islamic State? Even if the answer is a marginal “yes,” that would not explain what about the ISIS group has spurred the coalition states into action. The United States has decades long alliances with Arab states which have some of the worst human rights records in the world. Contrary to what many seem to believe, the vast majority of Arab states are closely allied with the US, principally Saudi Arabia, which has a history of beheading convicted criminals and implements a very extreme version of Islam. This contradiction is well documented and is often pointed out. The US and Western countries certainly can make no claim that their regional alliances have anything to do with humanitarianism or ideological compatibility. What makes ISIS such a unique and serious threat to the Middle Eastern states and world powers is the group’s re-articulation of “the universal state” for all Muslims, as opposed to the nation-state, the structure through which the United States has maintained its regional hegemony and the ruling elites of the region have enriched themselves over the past four decades.

The Importation of the Nation-State

The disorientation of the Arab world which resulted from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was built upon the importation, by force of arms and without consideration to existing social structures, of the European nation-state to replace the (nominally) universal state of the Ottoman Empire. This process culminated in the dissolution of the caliphate by Kemal Atatürk, who argued that the nation-state was the only scientific form of social organization, in opposition to the universal Ottoman State.[i] Nascent national leaderships, whether elevated by dominant powers or inheriting past divisions created by them, had to scramble to legitimize their positions, but the typical characteristics of the European nation-state were unavailable to them for the purpose of articulating a legitimating narrative. Worse still, these characteristics cut across the boundaries of the new states in a region with a common language, history and culture which spanned, for the most part, from Morocco to Iraq. Some governments even legitimated themselves in opposition to this division, adopting a pan-Arab vision and the ideals of social transformation through an Arab socialism. Others used a combination of oil wealth redistribution and appeals to religious legitimacy, even claiming to be the rightful heirs to the caliphate themselves. By the 1970s, the economic systems adopted by the Arab socialist governments were in crisis, and the “republics” had lost much of their legitimating narrative. Despite some impressive progress, they had failed to create sustainable growth and social transformation, they had failed to challenge Israel, and they had failed to achieve Arab unity.

On top of these problems, the economic commitments made to their citizens were no longer possible to sustain, and the Soviet Union was quickly retreating from its foreign commitments. Vehemently combated by socialist governments at first, Islamist organizations stepped in to fill the gap, as these governments began neoliberal restructuring at the behest of Washington and international financial institutions.[ii] The charity work of these organizations became an appealing way for governments, stripped of their ideological raison d’être, the economic modernization project, to buffer populations from the worst shocks of integration into world markets in the context of the receding state. The conservative and oil rich petro-states were happy to fund these groups if it meant the decline of the populist and socialist challenge to the joint regional hegemony they had built in alliance with the United States.[iii] The state system designed by the West had emerged triumphant, and the governments which sought to challenge it began fortifying themselves behind it.

While others have pointed out that, for the first time since the 1950s, the order built up by the victorious world powers in the wake of World War I is being challenged by the strain of the collapsing Syrian and Iraqi governments, the current challenge is unique. It is not a challenge to a particular state or alliance of states, these have been challenged in the region before. What is being challenged by the rise of ISIS is the very concept of the Westphalian nation-state itself. ISIS is taking advantage of the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi governments, not only to successfully re-articulate a collective “Muslim subjectivity,” but to put the idea into practice through the reestablishment of the caliphate.[iv] This was not created based on Syrian or Iraqi national identities—these identities are rejected by ISIS and similar groups as attempts to ape European social organizations. Its project is one of creating a universal state based on an Islamic identity, not just to Islamize an existing political structure, as the Iranian revolution did or other national Islamist movements seek to do. This development is highly significant, not because the ISIS caliphate has widespread popular legitimacy—it does not—but because it is the first time the nation-state system in the Arab world has come under serious threat in decades.

Neoliberalism and the Nation-State

Neoliberal restructuring stripped the Arab republics of their ideological basis and the popular legitimacy those ideals gave them. It transformed them from vehicles through which popular goals of full employment, education, dignity, and unity were articulated and executed into nihilistic, conservative husks, standing in opposition to their populations while a class of connected elites became enriched through the exchange of state assets and the procurement of lucrative state contracts which have accompanied rapid neoliberal restructuring. The United States happily cooperated with these governments, content to keep the aid flowing in exchange for the abandonment of policies of confrontation with Israel and, more recently, cooperation in combating militant Islamism. All the while, international financial institutions held these regimes up as models of neoliberal growth able to demonstrate ever-shrinking current account deficits.[v]

As is well-known by now, this proved a deadly approach for some regimes in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, as the process of international economic integration exposed their populations to the ups and downs of the world market, without the ability of the state to act as a buffer. When the mass of people took to the streets in 2011, the regimes had no ideological basis from which to mount a defense. They were exposed to be existing solely to perpetuate their own existence, to protect the economic interests of their own cliques; the Assad family, the Mubaraks and the generals which control a huge percentage of the Egyptian economy, or the royal families which have become obscenely wealthy through controlling oil rents. The US and Israel are keen to keep them around because they are instrumental in defending American geopolitical and economic interests.

The emergence of ISIS, with its reassertion of the notion of the universal state for all believers as opposed to the nation-state, embodied by the reestablishment of the caliphate, stands in direct opposition to the current state system in the region, control of which has enriched the few at the expense of the masses. The state as it exists today in the Middle East is not—as it is in Europe—the result of long historical processes forging common identities. It is either a foreign-imposed structure with limited historical legitimacy being propped up by one set of compradors, or a failed modernization project turned nihilistic and repressive tool of another set. In a region where the young, unprotected and unfree populations have a particular and common set of economic and political grievances, language, and culture, these conditions have given a group that has re-articulated the notion of the universal state founded upon religion rather than the nation,(harkening back to before the fracturing and humiliation of the Arab world after World War I), a very powerful message. Successfully relaying this message has transformed a rag-tag guerrilla band into an outsized threat to all of those who have used their positions within the nation-state system in the Middle East to reap the huge rewards of the neoliberal restructuring in the Middle East, from secular Syria to the Islamist Iran and Gulf monarchies, to the United States and Israel.

[i] Sayyid, S.A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism. London: Zed, 1997. Print.

[ii] El-Said, Hamed, and Jane Harrigan. “Globalization, International Finance, and Political Islam in the Arab World.” Middle East Journal 60, no. 3 (2006): 444-66. Accessed October 1, 2014. JSTOR.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Heydarian, Richard J. How Capitalism Failed The Arab World. London: Zed, 2014. Print.

[v] Ibid.


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