Exit, Voice, and Loyalty Under the Islamic State

Mara Revkin[1], Yale University, & Ariel I. Ahram[2], Virginia Tech

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Adaptation Strategies of Islamist Parties and Movements  workshop held at George Washington University January 27, 2017. POMEPS Studies 26 is a collection of the memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

The social contract is a conceptual cornerstone of contemporary political theory. States that violate this contract lose legitimacy and face popular resistance. In the Arab world, there has long been discussion about states’ inability to uphold their end of the social bargain and failure to maintain socio-economic protections and benefits for their citizens.[3] Opposition factions offer alternative visions of the social contract, often drawing on Islamist discourse.[4] The 2011 uprisings have made the question of renewing the social contract especially salient, as armed rebel factions have seized the opportunity to assume control over significant territories and populations. In doing so, they are attempting – with varying degrees of success – to construct new social contracts and de facto states.[5]

Studies of civil war and state failure increasingly posit the existence of a distinctive rebel social contract. Some scholars see this contract as primarily a material exchange. Rebel rulers provide security to civilians in exchange for taxes, military service, or other types of labor.[6] Other scholars focus on the symbolic, ideological, and moral dimensions of the contract, arguing that rebel groups use the social contract to communicate their normative priorities and values to civilians and capitalize on grievances against the nominal state.[7]

This memo examines the idea of the social contract as articulated by the Islamic State (IS). Since seizing control over eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014, IS has claimed to be building a caliphate according to the model laid out by the Prophet Mohamed in the seventh century. Unlike other violent jihadist groups that seek to take control over existing states, IS sees itself as creating a wholly new state and social contract of its own, albeit one that benefits from the capture and cooptation of existing institutions and infrastructure. Since 2014, IS has taken on many state-like function including taxation, policing, dispute resolution, and service provision.[8] While these governance activities are to some degree observable, the social contract upon which they are based is a more challenging object of empirical inquiry. Using Albert Hirschmann’s exit/voice/loyalty schema,[9] we propose a qualitative methodology for studying the IS social contract – and the social contracts of other rebel groups – by examining the different ways in which civilians respond to IS’s invitation to become citizens (or subjects) of its caliphate..

The Ambivalence of Rebel Social Contract

While social contract theory has a long lineage in political philosophy, empirical and historical researchers have been skeptical of its validity.[10] At its most basic level, a social contract requires evidence that a would-be ruler offers a set of protections and benefits and that a population voluntarily accepts that offer, granting their loyalty and obedience. Finding evidence of popular acceptance is a daunting challenging. It is difficult to distinguish between genuine expressions of loyalty that legitimate a regime and disingenuous shows of support induced by coercion or the desire to avoid punishment.[11]

Periods of civil war and state breakdown naturally invite the renegotiation and reconstruction of existing systems of social and political order. Civil wars therefore present a unique opportunity to observe the breaking of existing social contracts and the emergence of new ones. However, data collection in or near conflict areas is uniquely challenging, requiring that both researchers and their subjects navigate complex security risks and ethical considerations.[12]

From an empirical standpoint, the rebel’s offer of a new social contract can be ascertained from official communications and policies by the rebel government concerning services and public goods provision, as well as unofficial statements made by rebel group members on social media or in interviews. Ascertaining acceptance of the rebel social contract, however, can prove more difficult. Adapting Hirschmann’s formula to the context of civil wars[13], we identity three potential responses:

  • Loyalty is a response in which civilians either explicitly or silently accept the terms of the social contract. Expressions of loyalty are a kind of “straw in the wind”[14] evidence, since these expressions can be motivated either by genuine acceptance of the terms of the offer, or by fear of the consequences of refusal.
  • Voice is a response in which civilians implicitly accept the social contract by criticizing the rebel government or seeking to hold it accountable through institutional processes rather than resorting to violence or rebellion. Voicing criticism through institutional channels is, paradoxically, a stronger indication of acceptance of the basic legitimacy of the system.
  • Exit is a response in which civilians signal their rejection of the terms of the social contract by leaving rebel-controlled areas (“voting with their feet”). Another form of exit is participation in armed resistance against the rebel group –a kind of rebellion within a rebellion. Exit is generally a strong indication of rejection of the terms of the social contract.

In the sections below, we apply this strategy to identify the key components of the social contract that IS claims to be offering to civilians in Iraq and Syria, and to describe the spectrum of civilian responses to it.

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty in the Islamic State

Our empirical research is based on multiple qualitative sources: first is a review of official IS publications and statements, especially the constitution-like “documents of the city” (watha’iq al-madina) that were issued in various IS provinces and online beginning in 2014. Second is social media data generated by users in IS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria. Finally, Mara Revkin conducted interviews with 88 individuals who have lived in or travelled through IS territory. Many of these individuals have paid taxes to IS, used IS courts, been arrested or imprisoned by IS, or have relatives who have joined IS. Twelve are former IS fighters who had deserted or defected to a rival group. In addition, Revkin conducted Skype or text message interviews with six self-identified IS supporters and combatants living in Syria and Iraq.

There is very strong evidence that IS leaders consider themselves to be offering the population a social contract. The “documents of the city” appear to be inspired by a constitution-like text allegedly drafted by the Prophet himself to govern the city of Medina in the year 622. These documents explicitly refer to the idea of a contract (‘aqd) between ruler and ruled and purport to “define the shari‘a principles and Islamic regulations by which the shepherd and the flock are bound.”[15]

Table 1. Excerpts from the Islamic State’s “Document of the City” [16]  

Document of the City (Wathīqat al-Madīnah)
Art. 1 “We [the Islamic State] have taken responsibility for restoring the glories of the caliphate and ending the oppression and injustice suffered by …  our Muslim brothers.”
Art. 2 “We do not make accusations without clear evidence and proof. … We show mercy to Muslims as long as they do not give aid to aggressors and criminals.”
Art. 3 “The people in the shadow of our rule are secure and safe. … Islamic governance guarantees the rights of the people and seeks justice … when their rights are violated.”
Art. 4 “The funds that were under the control of the apostate government (public funds) must be returned to the public treasury under the authority of the Caliph of the Muslims, who bears responsibility for spending these funds in the maslaha [interest] of the Muslims. No one is permitted to reach out his hand to loot or steal …  or he will be brought before the shari‘a judiciary. … Whoever steals private property in the form of money, furniture, and [other] possessions from a private place without doubt will have his hand cut off. … Whoever terrorizes the Muslims with brigandage or extortion will be subject to the most severe deterrent punishments.”
Art. 5 “Producing and dealing alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, or other forbidden items are prohibited.”
Art. 6 “Mosques are the houses of God. …  We urge all Muslims to build them and pray.”
Art. 7 “Beware of dealing with the apostate governments and tyrants … He who repents of sin is not guilty of sin. To the apostates of the army and police and the rest of the unbelieving apparatus, we say that the door of repentance is open to anyone who wants it. We have designated specific places to receive those wishing to repent subject to conditions. For those who insist on remaining apostate, there is no alternative but death.”
Art. 8 “Parties, councils, associations, and banners [bearing the names of other groups] are unacceptable.”
Art. 9 “God commands that you come together, unite, and renounce factions and strife … Division is one of the traps of Satan.”
Art. 10 “Our opinion regarding …  polytheistic and pagan shrines is that of the Prophet [who prohibited them].”
Art. 11 “To the virtuous and noble women … God urges modesty, covering, loose garments, and veiling the head and face.  Embrace prudence and do not leave the house except when necessary.”
Art. 12 “Enjoy Islamic governance, which is just and benevolent … [The Islamic State will] spread the authority of the shari‘a and release the people from the shackles of rotten positive laws.”
Art. 13 “We listen to the counsel of the young and the old and the free and the slave. In our eyes, there is no difference between red and black. We judge ourselves the same as we judge others just as God said, ‘Be firm in justice … even if against yourselves, parents or relatives’ [Quran 4:135].”

In these documents, IS describes three main categories of entitlements for civilians: (1) justice, (2) protection, and (3) services. In exchange for these benefits, civilians are obligated to fulfill two primary duties: (1) exclusive allegiance to IS and (2) support for its state-building project, either through military service or tax payments. IS purports to be creating a system of accountable governance, based on reciprocal obligations between the people and the government led by the caliph. In theory, the caliph can be removed for failing to uphold his duties. In practice, however, the IS social contract is a highly authoritarian. Opposition is easily construed as blasphemy or apostasy – offenses punishable by death according to IS interpretation of Islamic criminal law.

We identify a spectrum of different responses to IS’s offer of a social contract: (1) loyalty, (2) criticism, and (3) exit. Loyalty is most obviously expressed in the swearing of an oath of allegiance to the IS caliph known as “bay‘a.” In Islamic political philosophy, the bay‘a oath is understood as a contractual commitment to remain loyal to a leader in return for political protection and the upholding of justice.[17] Many modern rulers (including Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad) have used this ritual as part of their efforts to enhance their legitimacy. IS media has published announcements both of individuals offering the oath, as well collective pledges of allegiance by whole tribes or large groups of people gathered in public squares. Civilians living under IS rule overwhelmingly comply with IS’s strict rules regulating clothing, behavior, and gender relations. They attend IS-run schools, use IS-run hospitals, and pay taxes to the IS treasury. It is difficult to discern the meaning of cooperation in such an authoritarian context. Compliance motivated by fear and coercion is observationally equivalent to compliance motivated by genuine belief in the legitimacy of IS rule.

A more useful test of public acceptance of IS social contract comes from the voicing of criticism. We have found numerous examples of civilians using IS’s own institutions (including courts and official “complaints” departments) to express grievances and file complaints against the IS government as a whole or against particular fighters or officials. For example, in Deir Ezzor eastern Syria, an IS court was pressured into reconsidering its decision to sentence an epileptic man to death on charges of blasphemy after 100 members of the community, including doctors, testified that the alleged statements were involuntary result of his medical condition.[18] IS formed a fact-finding commission to investigate the court decision that included judges from other districts. Although the decision was upheld, the case nonetheless suggests that civilians sometimes avail themselves of IS’s official complaints procedures and that IS does respond to public opinion. Another example comes from the Syrian city of al-Bab. According to our interviewee, a traffic police officer was caught intimidating, harassing, and extorting bribes. IS officials investigated the officer and sentenced him to death. They crucified the body and displaced it in the public square with a sign that stated, “This was one of our officers. Because of his corruption, he has been punished according to sharia.”[19] Public complaints against IS suggest not only dissatisfaction but also acceptance of the basic validity and procedural fairness of IS institutions. If civilians had no confidence in the ability of IS institutions to adjudicate complaints, they would not bother submitting them.

In addition to formal complaints, civilians have occasionally organized public protests and demonstrations, especially in the early stages of IS control. While these are anecdotal, they illustrate some of the ways in which civilians attempt to hold IS accountable to its own social contract. In the Syrian city of al-Bukamal, for example, one Twitter user reported, “A group of locals went to the center of the hisba [religious] police to complain to them about their conditions without electricity and the rising prices of water and food.”[20] In another example, a Facebook user reported that approximately fifty women protested outside of the IS court in Raqqa to demand the release of their imprisoned sons in April 2014.[21] However, as IS consolidated its control, civilians became increasingly reluctant to criticize the regime for fear of reprisals. Public displays of opposition are now rare or non-existent in IS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria.

Finally, a third potential response to IS’s offer of the social contract is that of exit or “voting with one’s feet.” We interpret the decision to leave IS-controlled areas as a clear rejection of the terms of its social contract. When IS first began capturing territory in Iraq and Syria, the group initially allowed civilians to leave freely, so it was possible to observe massive out-migrations of civilians from cities like Mosul. As IS faced more military pressure and began retreating from previously held territories in 2016, however, it became more restrictive toward emigration and eventually banned travel outside of the caliphate except for medical emergencies or other extenuating circumstances. As a result, refugee outflows are no longer an accurate measure of the extent to which civilians reject IS rule. Instead, those who reject the IS social contract but are unable to leave its territory peacefully will be more likely to resort to armed rebellion or other extra-legal efforts to overthrow the IS government. Evidence of rejection can be seen in assassination attempts targeting IS officials and other armed attacks on IS property and infrastructure.


Many analyses posit that re-negotiating the social contract is the key to stability and prosperity in the Arab world. From political parties that seek to participate peacefully in electoral institutions to violent Salafi-jihadist groups like IS, Islamist factions play a major role in the struggle. IS capitalized on the failures of the Syrian and Iraqi regimes to provide good governance and accountability. IS uses the symbols and historical references to medieval Islamic history though notions of ‘aqd and bay‘a, but it articulates a social contract that invokes themes of justice, accountability, and economic equality that parallel the unfulfilled promises of modern, secular Arab states.

Evaluating civilians’ choices to use exit, voice, or loyalty under IS highlights the ambiguity and ambivalence surrounding the idea of the social contract. The social contract is important to IS’s image of itself as a state. Yet there is considerable variation in civilian attitudes and behaviors toward the social contract that IS purports to be offering them.  Some civiliasn may not view it as a social contract at all but instead as an authoritarian regime that was imposed on them unilaterally, without any consent or negotiation. As IS consolidated control and then saw its expansion falter, the state relied more and more on coercion and intimidation to secure the compliance of its population. This indicates the limits of social contract theory in conditions of civil war. Political order might arise, but it is often based on domination rather than legitimacy.

[1] Yale University, Department of Political Science, 115 Prospect St., New Haven, Conn., mara.revkin@yale.edu

[2] Virginia Tech School of Public & International Affairs, 1021 Prince St., Alexandria, Va., ahram@vt.edu

[3] World Bank, MENA Economic Monitor: Towards a New Social Contract, April 2015, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/202171468299130698/pdf/956500PUB0REVI020150391416B00OUO090.pdf.

[4] Akhavi, Shahrough. “Sunni modernist theories of social contract in contemporary Egypt.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 35.01 (2003): 23-49; Jones, Toby. “Seeking a ‘Social Contract’ for Saudi Arabia.” Middle East Report 33.3 (2003): 42-47; Wiktorowicz, Quintan. The management of Islamic activism: Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and state power in Jordan (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001); March, Andrew F. “Reading Tariq Ramadan: Political Liberalism, Islam, and ‘Overlapping Consensus’.” Ethics & International Affairs 21.4 (2007): 399-413; Harrigan, Jane. “Economic Liberalisation, Social Welfare and Islam in the Middle East.” Development Viewpoint 25 (2009).

[5] Lynch, Marc. “Failed States and Ungoverned Spaces.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 668.1 (2016): 24-35; Ahram, Ariel I., and Ellen Lust. “The Decline and Fall of the Arab State.” Survival 58.2 (2016): 7-34.

[6] Arjona, Ana. “Wartime Institutions: A Research Agenda.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58.8 (2014): 1360-81; Weinstein, Jeremy M. Inside rebellion: The politics of insurgent violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 101.

[7] Mampilly, Zachariah Cherian. Rebel rulers: Insurgent governance and civilian life during war (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011); Hoffmann, Kasper, “Myths Set in Motion: The Moral Economy of Mai Mai Governance,” in Arjona, Ana, Nelson Kasfir, and Zachariah Mampilly, eds. Rebel Governance in Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[8] Mecham, Quinn. “How Much of a State is the Islamic State?,” Washington Post Monkey Cage, February 5, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/02/05/how-much-of-a-state-is-the-islamic-state/?utm_term=.f72e27cd4df7

[9] Hirschmann, Albert O. Exit, voice and loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1970).

[10] On skepticism toward the social contract as concept, see Durkheim, Emile. The Division of Labor in Society (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 159.

[11] Kuran, Timur. Private truths, public lies: The social consequences of preference falsification (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Scott, James C. Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

[12] Malejacq, Romain, and Dipali Mukhopadhyay. “The ‘Tribal Politics’ of Field Research: A Reflection on Power and Partiality in 21st-Century Warzones.” Perspectives on Politics 14.4 (2016): 1011-1028; Cohen, Nissim, and Tamar Arieli. “Field research in conflict environments: Methodological challenges and snowball sampling.” Journal of Peace Research 48.4 (2011): 423-435; Wood, Elisabeth Jean. “The ethical challenges of field research in conflict zones.” Qualitative Sociology 29.3 (2006): 373-386;

[13] These elements borrow from Barter, Shane. Civilian strategy in civil war: Insights from Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016).

[14] Van Evera, Stephen. Guide to methods for students of political science. Cornell University Press, 1997.

[15] Islamic State, Maktab al-Himma. “Document of the City, Second Edition.” (January 2016). Available for download at https://archive.org/details/wth_mm.

[16] Excerpts translated by Mara Revkin. Islamic State, Maktab al-Himma. “Document of the City, Second Edition.” (January 2016). Available for download at https://archive.org/details/wth_mm.

[17] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqadimmah: An Introduction to History, tr. Franz Rosenthal, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967) Vol. 1, 428. See also Khel, Muhammad Nazeer Ka Ka, and Mohammad Nazeer Ka Ka Khel. “Bay’a and its Political Role in the Early Islamic State.” Islamic Studies 20.3 (1981): 227-238.

[18] Interview with Haitham, Şanlıurfa, September 2016.

[19] Interview with Saad, November 2016.

[20] @aymanprince2020, Tweet, August 27, 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20161127121333/https:/twitter.com/aymanprince2020/status/636837957140369409.

[21] A group of approximately fifty women protested outside of the Islamic Court to demand the return of their imprisoned sons in April 2014. Facebook post by Manhal Abdulrazak, April 27, 2014. https://www.facebook.com/zed.Alfares/posts/10203705422626194.