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The Islamic State as an ordinary insurgency

- May 14, 2015

A flag of the Islamic State is seen on the other side of a bridge on the road between Kirkuk and Tikrit, Sept. 11, 2014. (JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)
This post is part of the “Islam and International Order” symposium.
The attention heaped on the Islamic State in Western media and public debate has centered primarily on two issues: its religion and its violence. On both fronts, the group has left observers aghast with its extremism. Those analysts focusing on the religion try to make sense of the group’s distinctive brand of Islamic ideology as well as the “psychopaths” who choose to become its followers. Those fixated on the group’s violence posit that its seemingly unlimited capacity to brutalize and terrorize has few parallels among violent organizations, so much so that “even al-Qaeda,” as is repeatedly pointed out, has disavowed the group.
Nevertheless, as Marc Lynch recently argued in the Monkey Cage, putting the Islamic State in a broader comparative perspective shows that the group is hardly unique among armed non-state organizations. This in turn points to ways scholars and observers might most productively study and write about the group.
Much of the media coverage and popular discussion of the Islamic State has focused on the group’s atrocious acts of violence. In their orchestrated murders and in the savvyness with which they broadcast them to the world’s horrified viewers, they are perhaps unmatched in the present age. And yet, to portray the Islamic State as uniquely brutal or unrivaled in its savagery is to forget our unfortunate history – even recent history – that is filled with episodes of extreme violence against civilians committed in the name of some political goal. One would be hard pressed to argue that the Islamic State’s actions are more unconscionable than those of the Khmer Rouge who created the killing fields of Cambodia, or Renamo of Mozambique whose fighters specialized in the kidnapping, rape and mutilation of women, men and children, or the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon in the Bosnian war; or that the group’s staged beheadings are any more appalling than the thousands of “forced disappearances” conducted behind the scenes in the Salvadoran conflict. The only difference between cases such as these and the Islamic State when it comes to violence is that the latter operates in the age of social media and uses it to the fullest for shock-and-awe effects.
Nor is the Islamic State unique in mobilizing its own interpretation of theology as part of an ideological-political campaign. The Darul Islam movement sought to found an Islamic state in Indonesia following independence from the Netherlands in 1948, and its fighters launched violent rebellions in various parts of the archipelago. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Uganda and its predecessor, the Holy Spirit Movement, claimed as their goal the establishment of a theocracy based on the Ten Commandments; the LRA is now responsible for one of the longest running conflicts in Africa. Nor is the Islamic State unique in its transnational vision to create an Islamic state that rejects existing borders: Darul Islam reemerged in the 1990s in the form of Jemaah Islamiyah, which proclaimed a mission to create an Islamic state spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Thailand and the Philippines.
The Islamic State certainly is not unique among violent organizations in developing networks of traffickers, dealers, and middlemen to secure enormous wealth from natural resources like oil, and the group is typical among rebel and terrorist organizations to capitalize on the political and institutional weaknesses of host states to launch military operations and take over territory. Neither does the Islamic State stand out for successfully creating its own civilian governance system in towns it secured. In places like Raqqa, Syria, it may have collected taxes, built infrastructure, posted traffic police at intersections and kept bakeries running while enforcing strict social codes with threats of severe punishment, including public execution, for deviant behavior. And so have many other militant non-state groups, as my ongoing research on rebel governance shows. In addition to creating sophisticated governance structures, the Naxalites of India ran their own banking system; the Eritrean rebels ran a pharmaceutical plant while operating a humanitarian wing that worked with international NGOs; their neighboring Tigrayan rebels conducted extensive land reform; and UNITA of Angola ran a mail system replete with its own internationally-recognized stamps, all in the midst of intense violent conflict against established states. Like the Islamic State, many groups, including Uganda’s National Resistance Army and Nepal’s Maoist insurgents, had a code of conduct for their fighters and laid out punishments for violations that included execution for the worst offenders.
Critics may charge that the Islamic State, far from ordinary, is in fact extraordinarily unique in its vision to fundamentally reconfigure the international political order itself as part of its all-encompassing goal to create an Islamic caliphate. There is no doubt this is a radical aspiration that surpasses other organizations in terms of its revolutionary zeal and global scale. It remains, however, just that – an aspiration – and again, the history of conflict has seen no shortage of aspirations that were deemed as threatening, revolutionary and fantastical in their own time. Talk is talk, and it is interesting and, as I argue below, indeed important to examine what groups claim about themselves. But putting explanatory stock into the ideologies without considering the instrumentalism behind them can do more to mislead than to inform.
The point here is not to downplay the threat posed by the Islamic State or to “normalize” its behavior by highlighting the group’s ordinariness among violent political groups. It is simply to stress that comparatively speaking, the group is not as exceptional as observers and the media have often characterized it. Putting the Islamic State into a broader theoretical and historical perspective – that is, beyond the frame of “Islamist terrorism” and beyond the post-9/11 period – is important because there are clear dangers in hyperbolizing the group’s own claims to exceptionalism. To unduly emphasize the Islamic State’s distinctiveness is to distort its threat, inadvertently boost its legitimacy, and worst of all, to directly play into its leaders’ hands. Whatever the Islamic State has achieved so far, history has seen much of it before in other contexts. Knowledge of these other contexts can therefore inform both scholarship and policy on this pressing issue.
That the Islamic State’s behavior is so consistent with that of so many other militant organizations – and this, despite all its efforts to establish itself as the only true vanguard of an Islamic State in the making – strongly suggests there is a strategic logic underlying the common behavior. This insight in turn suggests some scholarly approaches to understanding the group may prove more productive than others.
First, the banality of the Islamic State among violent political organizations suggests scholars should first and foremost treat the group as a political actor and seek to identify its political goals, capabilities, incentives and strategic calculations. In other words, scholars ought to engage in actor-centric analysis. Such an approach has reaped enormous benefits in conflict scholars’ collective efforts to understand phenomena such as insurgency, violence, rebel social service provision, war duration and termination, and foreign interventions in conflict. It is familiarity with this body of work that makes me not at all surprised that the Islamic State reportedly provides health services, taxes local residents, has an elaborate organizational structure (which looks not so dissimilar from the organigrams of other insurgent groups), enforces strict discipline among fighters and is selective in whom it kills. These are classic behavior on the part of strategic armed non-state actors with some amount of military strength.
All of this means, second, that religion-centric analysis may be less useful, even as regards a group that bases its raison d’être on a religious ideology and whose leaders claim to do everything in its name. The argument here is not that religion is unimportant – it clearly matters because it helps mobilize people around the group, attracts a stream of new recruits and threatens Islamophobic governments and people in the West in just the way the group might wish. Careful analysis of its religious ideology is worthwhile in the same way analysis of other war-fighting instruments, from violence, social service provision and propaganda, to alliance formation and compliance with international law, has been highly illuminating in making sense of rebel group behavior. But always, scholars examine these tools not as an end in and of themselves, but as part of a larger effort to understand how armed group pursue their wartime objectives, recognizing that battlefield fights are but one dimension of conflict. Likewise, any analysis of the Islamic State’s ideology that does not ask why the group chooses to formulate and propagate its ideology the way it does risks becoming, in spite of itself, detached from politics, and potentially serving as an uncritical endorsement of the group’s own claims.
An actor-centric analysis would have us asking not simply what the Islamic State does and says, but also why, or for what ends. It sees even extremist, seemingly fanatical leaderships like the one heading the Islamic State as rational and strategic, constantly making decisions based on an assessment of what course of action would best enable the group to achieve its objectives of increased military strength and control of territories, markets, ideas and people. After all, the Islamic State, when expedient, readily put ideology aside and made alliances with the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
Critically, an actor-centric analysis has the Islamic State leaders exercising full agency over religion, whereas a religion-centric analysis would have religion driving the Islamic State leaders and their rank-and-file as if they were all but blind adherents – as if their ideology were in fact God-given rather than meticulously and tactfully crafted and propagated by the the Islamic State leadership itself.
Finally, conflict scholarship suggests it would be prudent to avoid making unfounded assumptions about why the Islamic State fighters do what they do, and instead allow for diverse motivations. Foot soldiers will all claim divine inspiration for their daily campaigns of killing and destruction – they can’t do otherwise if they wish to survive – but people may have joined the Islamic State for any number of reasons, including, certainly, religious conviction, but also adventurism, revenge, peer pressure, coercion, bribery and so on. To conclude that the source of their behavior is their religious devotion is to vastly underestimate human agency and strategic faculties and to baselessly buy into their propaganda.
Not only so, attributing actors’ behavior to their religious or other identities is to revert unproductively to primordialist thinking, which has long been abandoned by the bulk of scholars who specialize in identity politics – in fact, the rejection of primordialism is arguably one of the few ideas around which there is now something of a scholarly consensus in this area of inquiry. People do not do what they do because they are Muslim or Christian or Serb or Hutu, or because Islam or Christianity or any ancient ethnic hatreds dictates them to; they do what they do because they think – note the agency – it helps them achieve specific objectives. Again, religion-centric analysis would lead us down theological rabbit holes while ignoring the counterfactual question of whether or not actors would, under the same circumstances, behave any differently if they adhered to a different religion or ideology. The many examples of the banality of the Islamic State suggest that for all the religious talk, the group’s behavior is familiar and even predictable.
Scholars now know much about how violent non-state groups behave. They – and policymakers – should use that knowledge to understand groups like the Islamic State and not be sidetracked by its extremism or by those observers who fall right into its propaganda traps by lending credence to the group’s own claims of exceptionalism.
Reyko Huang is an assistant professor of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.