Middle East

Goodbye and Good Riddance to the Islamic State

Without territory, the terror group's influence will wane.

What liberation looks like.

Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

The fall of Raqqa won’t be the last time you hear the words “Islamic State.” The name remains capable of inspiring acts of terrorism, and various groups fighting for territory in failed states around the world may continue to borrow the brand.

But the collapse of the caliphate’s capital -- the last remaining symbol of Islamic State’s claim to control sovereign territory -- marks the end of what made the entity unique. Future historians will study how the capture of territory enabled what had been a ragtag group of Iraqi and a few Syrian jihadis to gain the attention and the imagination of supporters and opponents worldwide.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State

In its claim to be a state and a caliphate, IS became a revolutionary utopia to some sympathetic Muslims. It became a corresponding dystopia in the eyes of those people, Muslims and non-Muslims, who condemned its beheadings, stonings and rapes in the name of religion.

Without territory, IS may still be dangerous, but it will no longer be unique or even very interesting. At best it may revert to being al-Qaeda 2.0, a very loosely organized terrorist network that kills innocent civilians but doesn’t represent an existential threat to the places it targets.

The secret of IS’s three-year run as a phenomenon of historical importance is territory -- and its meaning not only for Islamic political thought but also for the universal ideal of revolutionary governmental experimentation.

From the Islamic perspective, what made IS distinctive was its claim to have reconstituted the caliphate. A caliph isn’t a caliph unless he has a state to rule. According to classical Sunni constitutional thought, the caliph could delegate actual governing authority to a sultan, but there still must be an entity to be ruled.

Thus, as the scholar Cole Bunzel has shown, IS’s predecessor entity, the Islamic State in Iraq (2006-2013), was laughed at and derided as a “paper state” by other jihadi-salafis, primarily because it didn’t actually exercise sovereignty.

What changed things was the capture of Mosul and the expansion of IS into Syria. Tactically, IS was exploiting the weakness of the Baghdad government’s control in Sunni Iraq, and the state failure that was the consequence of the Syrian civil war. At the level of religious legitimacy, this claim to control territory opened the door to the idea of a government entity organized entirely according to principles of Islamic law.

The claim to be an authentic Islamic state implementing the rules of government found in the classical law books was the key to IS’s international appeal. Jihadi groups like al-Qaeda had long been able to draw upon volunteers from around the world seeking to fight infidel invaders occupying Muslim lands. IS also sought to draw in a different demographic: Young Muslims eager to experience the idealized manifestation of what had previously been an abstract fantasy.

Remarkably, it worked. All the shocking acts of exemplary violence and cruelty carried out by IS came with detailed justifications derived from a rigid interpretation of Islamic legal sources -- and posted online. From the standpoint of inspired believers, these horrific acts were claims to authenticity. The world’s condemnation provided free publicity, and a sense that the Prophet Muhammad’s true teachings were being put into motion.

Thus, IS followers saw themselves as joining a utopian community organized under God’s laws and carrying out his dictates.

One person’s utopia, however, is another’s dystopia. Anyone nervous about the rise of jihadi-salafis -- which could be almost anybody, regardless of religion -- could look to IS as the anti-model of the hell on earth that Islamic rule could impose.

Never mind that it’s fairly certain no historically existing Islamic polity ever engaged in the kinds of systematic, rationalized killings and rapes that IS did. It was enough that IS was presenting its horrors as authentically Islamic. The harm IS caused to the global perception of Islam is likely to remain with us for many years.

To understand why some young Muslims flocked to join IS, it’s helpful to compare it with other revolutionary utopian movements. Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution is a good example. In its wake, Cuba became an idealized utopia/dystopia. Young socialists from around the world came to join the experiment. There were mass executions there, too -- but most utopians seem to believe they can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

People, especially young people, who go to join a revolutionary utopia are expressing a distinctive human aspiration: to shape the future and the world through their own efforts. It can lead people to do shocking, terrible things, especially when they’re under the influence of utopian idealism.

It was always the case that IS’s global influence could be broken by ending its claim to sovereignty. It’s shameful that it took three years. But now that it’s happened, IS can’t maintain its distinctive brand.

Reduced to a shadowy terrorist network, IS will be no more than al-Qaeda without Osama bin Laden. It will engage in violence for the sake of violence, not with the possibility of restoring the caliphate.

It will take a generation or maybe more to make sense of what IS has meant for Islam in the 21st century. Nothing good, that’s for certain. But perhaps its failure will help ensure that future utopian dreams won’t become dystopian quite so rapidly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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