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The Islamic State and the politics of official narratives

- September 8, 2014

A resident of Tabqa city celebrates after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqah city on August 24. (REUTERS/Stringer)
While its exploits in battle and crime in conquest have captured most of the headlines regarding the group formerly referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), since the June declaration of the Islamic State, increasing attention has turned to how it governs, most specifically how much actual “state” there is and how its state-like institutions function.
The sources of the Islamic State’s budget – from ransoms of foreign hostages and “foreign aid” from wealthy Gulf Arabs to the sale of oil from production facilities that have come under its control – have been widely reported. Its high profile destruction of the border crossing between Iraq and Syria, which the Islamic State framed in terms of overturning the legacy of Sykes-Picot, demonstrated its ideological rejection of existing state boundaries as it extended its own realm. Recent developments in Mosul, the largest Iraqi city to be conquered by the Islamic State, certainly call to mind Charles Tilly’s famous piece “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime;” however, it is in the Syrian city of Raqqah, where the Islamic State established its first major seat of power, that the basic institutions of its nascent state can be most effectively observed.
Courts, prisons, tax collection, a complaints department (diwan al-mazalim) and the morality patrols (hisbah) – the Islamic State’s version of Saudi Arabia’s religious police (mutawwain) – are obvious manifestations of its assumption of control over regulating daily affairs. Most recently, however, the Islamic State has turned its attention to what Ernest Gellner once claimed was “more central than the monopoly of legitimate violence” to the state: the monopoly of legitimate education. Reports from Raqqah during the last week in August detailed a “General Directive to all Educational Institutions” issued by the Islamic State’s Bureau of Curriculum, on official stationery and with its own official stamps, which sets preliminary guidelines for instruction. The first order in the directive is that all of the following subjects are to be annulled: music, art, civics, social studies, history, math, philosophy and social issues, and Christian and Islamic religious education. However, the directive also states that the Bureau of Curriculum will “compensate” for their removal, a phrase that suggests that what is underway is not the wholesale abolition of most courses of study, but rather the first stage in a massive reworking of the curriculum.
Decades ago, the need for an educated population was widely recognized by the first generation of post-independence leaderships in the developing world as one means of confronting the myriad challenges of post-colonial economic and political development. Just as important, however, was the role that education was to play in inculcating a new national narrative, one that would “correct” the history and mission promulgated by the former colonial power. In their place, an heroic story would be constructed, aimed at building a unified national identity, establishing the vision of that nation, and – crucially – consolidating power through reinforcing the regime’s legitimacy to rule. Thus, taking control of the curriculum in the early stages of state development, what the Islamic State appears to be engaged in, has been a common policy across regions and over time.
My research on national narratives in the Middle East and North Africa bears this out. One of the most basic tasks of narrative reconstruction undertaken by new leaderships is establishing a new founding story. In both Egypt and Algeria, as part of this process, the name of the country was changed, a different flag was introduced and revised history, civics and other texts were developed that promoted the vision and values of the revolutionary leadership. In the case of Egypt, while the Free Officers who overthrew King Farouk in July 1952 by no means rejected the role of Mehmet Ali in establishing the bases of the modern Egypt state, the textbooks that were produced shortly after the revolution constructed the overthrow of the monarchy as the beginning of a qualitatively new era in Egyptian history. In the case of Algeria, it took longer for indigenous textbooks to be produced, in large part because of the sorry state of indigenous schools at the time of the French departure, but when they were, the bloody war of liberation was clearly marked as a glorious and heroic rebirth for the Algerian people.
Previous work has shown that the constituent elements of national narratives are often open to multiple interpretations, hence allowing for investing them with altered or new meanings as the polity evolves and as the leadership may need. As a result, even deeply rooted narratives have a degree of flexibility, leading to relative stability in most tropes over time. Only during periods of crisis – economic, political, military, etc. – does it appear that sufficient “space” opens up for major revisions or reconstructions of basic story lines and values. My research revealed that in the cases of Egypt, Algeria and Jordan, certain types of regime transition – particularly unexpected leadership changes, as with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death in 1970 and Houari Boumediene’s death in 1978 – seemed to open the way for significant, if not sudden, narrative revisions. However, only in the cases of the implantation of a completely new ruling group does it seem that attempt is made to generate a wholly new founding story.
What we see now with the Islamic State is in keeping with these examples. If one reads the entirety of its recent curriculum directive, the outlines of a new narrative under the declared caliphate can be discerned. The term “Syrian Arab Republic” is to be removed completely and replaced with “the Islamic State,” and the Syrian national anthem is to be discarded or suppressed. There is to be no teaching of the concepts of national patriotism (wataniyyah) or Arab nationalism (qawmiyyah); rather, students are to be taught that they belong to Islam and its people, to strict monotheism and its adherents, and that the land of the Muslim is the land in which God’s path (shar’ Allah) governs. The words “homeland” (watan), “his homeland,” “my homeland,” or “Syria” are to be replaced wherever they are found with the phrases “the Islamic state,” “his Islamic state,” “land of the Muslims” or the “Sham (or other the Islamic State-governed) Province.” The teacher is instructed to replace any gaps in Arabic language and grammar instructional materials that may result from the suppression of these terms with examples that do not conflict with sharia or the Islamic State. In addition, all pictures that violate sharia are to be removed, as are any examples in mathematics that involve usury, interest, democracy or elections. Finally, in the science curriculum anything that is associated with Darwin’s theory or evolution is to be removed and all creation is to be attributed to God.
Thus the nascent narrative has several key bases that reveal its radical nature. First is the change, not only of the name, but also of the form of state – for it is not really “national” – affiliation. Second is the rejection of the national anthem and all of the history and values it represents. Third is the suppression of existing types of belonging, well established in the Arab world – qawmiyyah and wataniyyah – and their replacement with a particular version of a religious creed. A new founding narrative is clearly in the process of being constructed and inculcated.
While it may be tempting, upon seeing the brutal videos of the Islamic State’s campaign of “shock and awe” to call it a “death cult” as some commentators recently have, much of what it is currently engaged in has clear parallels in other historical examples of conquest aimed at securing control over both territory and people. How far the Islamic State will be able to extend its aspirations to state-like control, and to what extent it will be able to consolidate those structures currently in place remain to be seen. For those keen to counter and defeat it, as well as those simply intent upon understanding its origins and prospects, nascent entity-consolidating activities like the promulgation of a new narrative through, among other means, a reconstructed educational curriculum, demand closer attention and analysis.
Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies at the University of Southern California. She is the author of “Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria” (Stanford University Press, 2014).
Recent Monkey Cage posts on developments in Syria and Iraq include:
William F.S. Miles: The Islamic State won’t find it easy to wipe away post-colonial borders

Morgan L. Kaplan: Why the U.S. backed the Kurds
Kevin Mazur: Local struggles in Syria’s northeast
Laurie A. Brand: The Islamic State and the politics of official narratives
Elizabeth Ferris and Abbie Taylor: The past and future of Iraq’s minorities