On Borders and the Islamic State

Ever since I picked my dissertation back up in January after a year and a half of near-total inattention, I’ve tried to get back into the academic mindset by thinking about the security situation a bit. While I would have preferred that world peace had broken out in the interim and left me with nothing to write about, warfare is a depressingly consistent feature of international politics. That goes double for certain unlucky parts of the world, like any country sharing a border with Russia that isn’t China, or the whole of Western Asia, where borders in general now seem less meaningful than ever (despite Saudi Arabia’s best efforts).

I’ve always been interested in international borders. Two of my favorite books growing up were the New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History and the New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, both compiled by Dr. Colin Mcevedy, who his 2005 obituary described as a “psychiatrist, historian, demographer and polymath” (in other words, the real-world version of Hari Seldon). You could pick one of these atlases up, thumb it like a novelty flipbook, and watch an animation of hundreds to thousands of years of human history, seen from near-Earth orbit, play out in a few seconds. Here’s a version on YouTube if you need help visualizing this.

Watching these things, one realizes that borders are what states make of them. That is to say, a stable border exists where two neighboring countries agree to put it. When one or both parties disagree, war tends to follow–or at least it did up until the latter part of the 20th century, when the United States and the Soviet Union, and then the United States alone, decided to spend its blood, treasure, and international credibility freezing most borders between countries in place.

In 2015, that rule is looking less like a permanent change and more like a blip on human history’s radar. Last year, the borders of Ukrainian Crimea vanished into Russia with a whiff of artillery fire, followed by a quick referendum. Meanwhile, certain disputed islands in the South China Sea currently enjoy six sets of borders at once, which might be some kind of modern record and frankly seems unsustainable.

But the real action is taking place in the countries formerly known as Iraq and Syria. These states are being steadily consumed from the inside out by the Islamic State, a virulent political cancer that is abhorrent and fascinating in equal measure.

Dreamers gonna dream.

The Islamic State doesn’t fit neatly into any of the analytical categories we use to describe political entities and substate actors in the 21st century. For instance, it is a successor organization to the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq, and it uses the media to broadcast its atrocities like a terrorist group would. But it does other stuff that terrorist groups don’t typically do, in that it controls and governs large amounts of territory and is not primarily interested in extorting political concessions from a government.

It looks like a classic insurgency from some angles, particularly in its use of infiltration tactics and its steady efforts to take territory away from the Iraqi and Syrian governments, but it is also spending its resources cleansing the areas under its control of ethnic and religious undesirables, and it is replacing those it has killed or expelled with homesteading families from all over the world. It acts like a nation-state by fielding a regular army and governing the areas under its control–collecting taxes and providing services–but has also declared itself the center of a supranational caliphate which will eventually dissolve all international borders in the areas under its control:

“Nothing remains after the elimination of these borders, the borders of humiliation, and the breaking of the idol, the idol of nationalism, except the caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method.”

– Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Islamic State spokesman

This is a fascinating quote on several levels. First, we have the reestablishment of the caliphate–and not just any old caliphate, like the Ummayad, the Abbasid, or the Ottoman varieties, all of which came to resemble secular imperial administrations to some degree–but the original article, the Rashidun, which was led by the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood recently analyzed the religious scholarship of the Islamic State’s leadership, concluding that the June 2014 declaration of a new caliphate was meant to initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. The Islamic version of the apocalypse involves the armies of the righteous getting the tar kicked out of them by the Antichrist right up to the very last minute, when Jesus returns to Earth and leads them to final victory.

With this in mind, the Islamic State’s many gross provocations come into sharper focus. They’re following a script that requires them to turn literally the entire non-Salafi non-Sunni Muslim world into deadly enemies.

Needless to say, that is highly atypical (although not unprecedented) behavior for a state. So is the obsession with erasing the borders of the Middle East. Most irredentist regimes (such as Revolutionary Iran) are focused on redrawing borders and then fortifying them. Not the Islamic State. Al-Adnani’s references to “the borders of humiliation” and “the idol of nationalism” refer not only to the former colonial powers of the West, but the Westphalian system of nation-states itself. The degree to which the Islamic State’s ideology is actually Medieval in origin is debatable, but at least in this respect, the appellation fits.

It’s important to remember that the establishment and spread of the nation-state, along with the parceling out of the Earth’s territory into 200-odd sets of borders delineating who controls what, is a relatively recent phenomenon. A thousand or more years in the past, temporal and spiritual powers were conflated in both the Muslim world and in Christendom, and borders meant significantly less than they do now. Politics was characterized by multiple overlapping spheres of authority: the emperor or the king, the pope, and various flavors of liege lord in Europe, and the caliph, the emir, the city, and the tribe across the Middle East and North Africa. The people living on a single piece of territory might owe allegiance to several parallel organizations or hierarchies at the same time. Needless to say, it was a confusing and dangerous time to be alive.

The Islamic State is not at interested in restoring this kind of political system. It hopes to establish a highly centralized, totalitarian theocracy. But when you look at places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, or Afghanistan–places where the state and its borders mean little, and the new caliphate and its allies have established a foothold–the facts on the ground spell out a similar kind of liminal space. It’s not quite anarchy, but it certainly isn’t hierarchy, either.

I very much doubt that the Islamic State will be able to erase the borders of the Middle East and reestablish the classical caliphate. However, I don’t think that the international community is going to be able to get rid of it very easily, either. The ideal behind it is powerful, it has romantic appeal, and it is loose in the wilds of the Internet. Although the meme resonates with only a very small fraction of Muslims globally, that will be enough to keep it alive longer than we might think.

The real risk is not that the Islamic State will explode. It is that it will persist indefinitely, allowing that small fraction a chance to tick upwards year by year. If it lasts another five years, or ten, how many people will be joining its ranks at that point? These guys aren’t in a rush. They’re making themselves comfortable and settling in for the long haul.

I am generally in favor of selective engagement when it comes to grand strategy, but when it comes to the Islamic State, I don’t think the United States can afford to wait. We, our allies, and as many of the nation-states of the Middle East as possible should act now, with overwhelming force, to strangle this particularly ugly baby in its crib.