Briefing Note: ISIS' Rejection of the Nation State

Photo: The ISIS Dabiq magazine

At a Glance

Briefing Note: ISIS' Rejection of the Nation State

31 Mar 2015

The eighth edition of ISIS' magazine, released on 30 March 2015, emphasises its claim to universal allegiance and attacks the 'idolatry' of nationalism. 

Alongside its characteristic inflated claims and justification of its actions through selective reading of scripture, the latest edition of ISIS' propaganda magazine, Dabiq, places a major focus on rejecting nationalism, presenting religion as the key unifying force for their 'caliphate'.

In the magazine, ISIS presents itself as transcending nationalism, with their so-called caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quoted as saying "let the world know that we are living today in a new era," rejecting the entire concept of the nation state, and reducing the world into the camps of the ummah (the Muslim community) and its opponents.

Distinguishing themselves from what they perceive to be the inferior ideology of al-Qaeda, they claim, "We do not perform jihad here for an illusory border drawn up by Sykes and Picot. Rather our jihad is loftier and more superior." Democracy and secularism are also repeatedly condemned, alongside nationalism, as shirk (the association of others with God), which stands in opposition to tawhid (belief in the oneness of God).

Suffering heavy casualties in the important battle for Tikrit, the group is keen to emphasise its growing presence outside of Iraq and Syria. This expands upon the magazine's previous focus on glorifying lone attackers in the West, emphasising the equal value of these "wolves" with the jihadi who comes over to fight in Iraq and Syria.

The magazine emphasises ISIS' international agenda; claiming that it was the rejection of nationalism that drove the 'ISIS-inspired' fight against the state in Nigeria, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Afghanistan (the magazine contains an obituary of an ISIS, and former Taliban, commander killed in the country) and Egypt. Even the perpetrator of February's Copenhagen attack, was rejecting nationalism when he "did not let national borders and skies stop him", argues the magazine, citing his pledge of bay'ah (allegiance) on Facebook. It was also the "rejection of nationalism that drove the mujahidin in Nigeria to give bay'ah to the Islamic State and wage war against the Nigerian murtaddin [those who reject Islam]."

Looking forward, it is also the rejection of nationalism that will "drive the Caliphate to continue expanding until it takes Constantinople and Rome from the Crusaders and their allies by Allah's permission."

Religion as the Only Unifier

Shared religion is presented as a unifying force above all others, going beyond race and nationality: "the American Muslim is our beloved brother. And the kafir [unbeliever] Arab is our despised enemy even if we have shared the same womb." Remarks such as these may be responding to accusations of racism from critics of the group, which is said to have been turning non-Arabs away from ISIS. In a similar vein, Dabiq refers to the international constituency of fighters that ISIS have attracted, including "Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghribi, American, French, German, and Australian."

There is, however, a distinct hint of defensiveness in the magazine's claim that "Nationalism, patriotism, tribalism, and revolutionism were never the driving forces inside the heart of the mujahid... The banners of nationalism are beneath his dusty feet."

Nationalism is presented as a colonial and foreign import.

Such ideologies are presented as a colonial and foreign import "brought to the Muslim world by the two crusaders: Sykes and Picot... [which] contradicts the creed of wala and bara [loyalty to Islam and enmity to other religions] – a great fundamental of the religion – and uproots it". Nationalism is castigated for making Muslims equal to unbelievers and "limits the religion to a nationalist border, and... prohibits its expansion beyond."

Nationalism as Idolatry

ISIS leader Baghdadi is quoted as saying that "boots will trample the idol of nationalism," an allusion that draws upon ISIS' defence of its destruction of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and other heritage sites, which made headlines around the world. Justifying those actions, the group's focus is once again on the 'shirki' legacy of past nations in the region, through the statues that had been left behind.

In another example of the group responding to international attention, ISIS claim that the outcry against the destruction "attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity that the Muslims of Iraq should embrace" which "only serves a nationalist agenda that severely dilutes the wala [loyalty] that is required of the Muslims towards their Lord."

There is a clear parallel being drawn between these ancient cultures and the modern 'idolatry' of the nation state, with a plea for "Allah [to] cleanse all Muslims' lands of the idols of both the past and the present."

"The Loftier Jihad"

The last few issues of Dabiq have featured withering attacks on al-Qaeda affiliates around the world. This edition frames its criticism around what the group perceives to be the inherent contradiction of "nationalist Islamism" in Syria, encapsulated by groups such as the Islamic Front, an (occasional) ally of Syria's al-Qaeda franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jihadis opposed to ISIS are regarded as apostates and hypocrites.

Religious affinity is presented as a much stronger binding force between people than man-made national identities, and ISIS sees contradiction in the fact that the Arab Iraqi Christian or " Yazidi devil worshipper" is [the Syrian Muslim's] "brother who has all rights, whereas the Indian or Turkish Muslim has no rights... According to the allies of al-Qaeda in Syria there is no difference between Muslim, Christian, and Rafidi [derogatory term for Shia]... they stand under the flag of the two crusaders – Sykes and Picot."

A dense theological discussion about irja (denying that anything is required to make someone a Muslim except the shahada, or declaration of faith; a denial that ISIS regards as a serious sin), is a prelude to explaining why the non-ISIS factions in Syria are apostates. Particularly noted are "'Islamic' factions with a nationalist agenda" and "Nationalist factions with an 'Islamic' agenda." Both categories are treated more or less synonymously and are said to be guilty of bidah (religious innovation) and hypocrisy. Dabiq claims their apostasy is particularly revealed by their willingness to fight ISIS.

In their description of the conflict in the 'Libyan Arena,' democracy is conflated with the idolatry of nationalism, with the "democratic Islamists" (the General National Congress) attempts to field candidates to run in the "shirki" democratic election, "practicing a butchered form of Sharia and diluted version of Islam." Indeed, ISIS again emphasises its universalism, saying that "Libya has become an ideal land of hijrah [migration] for those who find difficulty making their way to Sham [Syria], particularly those of our brothers and sisters in Africa."

By rejecting borders and nation states, ISIS attempts to reduce the world into two rival camps: Dar al-Kufr (Domain of Unbelief) and Dar al-Islam (Domain of Islam). This contrast can be seen in an article written by an Arab woman, 'Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah,' calling upon women to migrate to the 'land of Islam' from the 'lands of kufr'. She makes a telling distinction between the ISIS flag, "the Uqab [Eagle] banner fluttering high," and 'idolatrous' national flags, "the idols fluttering in the skies of dar al-kufr."

However, despite the emphasis throughout on how ISIS supersedes the state, it simultaneously hints that it is one. This is most apparent in British hostage John Cantlie's regular 'feature' in the magazine. He presents ISIS as more than an organisation, referring to the "paradigm shift" in attitudes to the group, away from being an international terrorist group towards being a state, saying its army, police force, currency, court and education system, "are all hallmarks of (whisper it if you dare) a country." He also alludes to the possibility of a truce, something that could only ever be temporary according to the exapansionist, apocalyptic world view of ISIS.

 

Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.