Does the Islamic State believe in sovereignty?

By Richard A. Nielsen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” conference, January 23, 2015. 

The Islamic State – which I refer to by its Arabic acronym, Daesh – has many of the attributes of a state. To call Daesh an insurgency gives too little attention to its ambitions for territorial control, and to call it a state gives it a false air of legitimacy, but it falls somewhere between the two. Daesh, I contend, is an unusual state indeed because it does not believe in state sovereignty. Its ideology puts it fundamentally at odds with the norms of Westphalian sovereignty that have developed in the international system over the past three centuries.

One of Daesh’s goals is to erase political borders, starting with bulldozing barricades separating Syria and Iraq. This border is particularly offensive to Daesh because it was created as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France that carved up the Ottoman Empire – the last caliphate in Daesh’s eyes – in the waning days of World War I. “We don’t believe in the Sykes-Picot agreement,” a Daesh spokesman explained while bulldozing the border. Read more on the Monkey Cage.

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