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.
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