Stephen Chan: As we enter May 2017, the city of Mosul, held stub­born­ly by ISIS forces, has still not fall­en. What has become a siege of the city is now a fight almost on a street-by-street basis for the old city. The nar­row streets, the entrenched pock­ets of resis­tance that are mak­ing life extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for the Iraqi forces and their allies.

In fact, Mosul is not like­ly to fall for at least anoth­er two months, prob­a­bly not until per­haps the end of the European sum­mer. And even then it might take the kind of heavy-duty air bom­bard­ment that brought the Russians into such dis­re­pute when they took Aleppo. Then we crit­i­cized the Russians for their seem­ing blood­thirsty­ness. We shall per­haps be crit­i­cized for doing exact­ly the same thing. Because the ISIS fight­ers know that as long as they are entrenched in the nar­row streets, the com­pressed build­ings of the city, with more than 100,000 civil­ians also trapped along­side them, there is no way they can be dis­lodged with­out blood being let on all sides—particularly inno­cent blood. So the stand of ISIS on behalf of its caliphate is one which is going to be long, and it’s going to be bitter.

And hang­ing on to the ter­ri­to­ry of the caliphate is some­thing which is very impor­tant. Because it is a ter­ri­to­ry which demar­cates the begin­ning of an upris­ing against the Westphalian state. The con­quest of ter­ri­to­ry was not only con­quest of ter­ri­to­ry for its own sake, but to estab­lish a new kind of state. And this new kind of state would be a dif­fer­ent kind to the Westphalian mod­el. It would be a chal­lenge to the Westphalian mod­el. The achieve­ment of Westphalia was to estab­lish a sec­u­lar state sys­tem. What ISIS is fight­ing for, what is at stake, is the resacral­iza­tion of the state sys­tem. The vision of the world along con­fes­sion­al lines and antag­o­nisms with­in the world, drawn along state ver­sus state lines, with dif­fer­ent states adher­ing to dif­fer­ent con­fes­sion­al persuasions.

If it all sounds like a rerun of some­thing that was meant to have been bypassed as inter­na­tion­al rela­tions and inter­na­tion­al civ­i­liza­tion” pro­gressed from the 17th cen­tu­ry onwards, in fact it has all the hall­marks of both some­thing old and some­thing spec­tac­u­lar­ly new. Because the inter­na­tion­al finance, the inter­na­tion­al move­ment in arms, the inter­na­tion­al move­ment in terms of men and matériels to make all of this work, to fur­nish a struc­ture of resis­tance, a struc­ture of fight­ing using the lat­est and the most mod­ern weapon­ry, is some­thing which bespeaks not of a throw­back but of some­thing which looks for­ward to a tech­no­log­i­cal world which all the same is going to be very very much infused with val­ues that are strict and val­ues that seem to look back­ward to a time of desert puri­ty, and that kind of iter­a­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam.

But is it, real­ly, that kind of iter­a­tion of Islam? Great schol­ars like Olivier Roy have just recent­ly pub­lished books say­ing that in his opin­ion what is at stake here is noth­ing Islamic as such, but Islamic in terms of pro­vid­ing a cloak for rebel­lion. So that many of the fight­ers under­neath ISIS col­ors actu­al­ly have no Islamic learn­ing. They claim Islamic per­sua­sion because this gives them a vehi­cle and a ratio­nale, which they per­haps do not ful­ly under­stand, for wag­ing a war of resis­tance and per­haps of vengeance—certainly a war of dissatisfaction—against all things Western from which they have been mar­gin­al­ized, from which they have been excluded.

But Roy prob­a­bly goes one step too far remov­ing from these fight­ers all Islamic ani­ma­tion of any deep sort. It’s a com­bi­na­tion of things. Both the desire for a world in which deep learn­ing once exist­ed of a par­tic­u­lar sort, but also fierce antag­o­nism towards an inter­na­tion­al sys­tem dom­i­nat­ed by Western glob­al­ism, which has mar­gin­al­ized so many peo­ple. That kind of com­bi­na­tion makes it in fact more dead­ly than if it were just any sin­gle one vari­ant of the dif­fer­ent caus­es that peo­ple discuss. 

But in terms of its so-called deep learn­ing, when fun­da­men­tal­ist media sites, web sites, Facebook sites, seek to deploy all kinds of arcane jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for going to war in the man­ner that ISIS has going to war, this is learn­ing real­ly as deep as all of that. There’s been a fierce Egyptian debate, led by peo­ple like al-Qaradawi, who dis­pute the urgency of the strug­gle against the West. Who resist and argue against the inter­pre­ta­tion of the surah and of the hadith which sug­gests that wag­ing war against the West is an inevitabil­i­ty and in fact is part of a divine command.

What al-Qaradawi says is that the so-called Sword Surah—those vers­es in the Koran, those pas­sages in the hadith—which call for war against the unbe­liev­ers are not in any way supe­ri­or to surah vers­es in the Koran that call for coex­is­tence and an ecu­meni­cal way of look­ing at the world, in which there is peace between believ­ers and so-called unbe­liev­ers, pro­vid­ed the ter­ri­to­ry of the believ­ers is not itself invad­ed by unbe­liev­ers. Almost as it were a Westphalian view of the world, the right to self-defense then is able to be upper­most. Provided that does­n’t hap­pen, there is no cause for wag­ing war against unbe­liev­ers. So that what you have here is a the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment which gives weight of argu­ment to the ecu­meni­cal surah ver­sus what al-Qaradawi says is the lack of den­si­ty, the lack of the­o­log­i­cal depth and argu­ment which per­tains to the his­to­ry of the inter­pre­ta­tion of the so-called Sword Surah.

So if what is at stake is in fact a con­tes­ta­tion over inter­pre­ta­tion, over learn­ing, then this debate is not well under­stood in the West. But it is a debate which is con­tin­u­ing at a very ele­vat­ed as well as at a very fun­da­men­tal lev­el in many Middle Eastern coun­tries. What it means is that the polit­i­cal thought on the just rebel­lion inso­far as it con­cerns ISIS, inso­far as it con­cerns the future of the Westphalian state sys­tem, may be much more com­plex than we have been able to dis­cern thus far. And it means that the polit­i­cal thought of the just rebel­lion is a project which is not yet complete.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course infor­ma­tion