Part II: ISIS's Fight for Legitimacy and Authenticity

ISIS RaqqaISIS fighter in Raqqa, Syria 2014.Credit: STRINGER/Reuters/Landov

In the first part of this series on ISIS’ narrative, we identified ethno-nationalism as one of the reasons why foreign and domestic fighters choose to join the Islamic State. But that's not the whole story. One of the most recurring phrases that we hear about ISIS is that it has nothing to do with Islam. Yet, while ISIS is not Islam, can we really say that the group has no religious motivations? 

As we try to confront the growing global threat of ISIS, we must avoid what Maajid Nawaz calls the “He-who-not-be-named” strategy. We should deal with all the root causes of the group’s successful rise over the past four years. Although it raises uncomfortable questions, we must look at the religious roots and social aspects of ISIS’ existence. Having consolidated land in Syria and Iraq, the extremist group must now grapple with the conflicting demands of a functioning modern state structure and the representation of a 7th Century Islamist Caliphate. To do so, the extremist group is forced to establish authenticity both through religious credibility and by implementing a (semi-) functioning governance and civil structure.  


Religious Legitimacy? 

Writing for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood points out that “if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul (…) The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” He then points out that “virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls (…), ‘the Prophetic methodology’.” To the leaders of ISIS, the battle against the “armies of Rome” are meant to usher in the end of days, and their role as a political entity is by and large to play a part in the apocalypse’s narrative. This religious message has allowed them the confidence to preach inevitable success to even the learnt Muslim practitioners, claiming to gain the ability to do so through the use of millenarian prophecy. 

Despite the differences between the Islamic State and other jihadi proto-states, there are religious similarities in regards to their end goals. In Perspectives on Terrorism, Brynjar Lia describes their enterprises as self-defined ideological projects, which are justified primarily by the imperative to establish Shari’a and wage jihad against its opponents. In order to “demonstrate their ideological purity and allegiance to the jihadi movement’s goal of liberating ‘Muslim lands’ and establishing ‘God’s rule’, jihadi proto-states are eager to publicize and ‘market’ their virtuous acts.” This is usually achieved through means such as harsh punishment and the brutalization and discrimination of minorities. By publicizing the acts in videos and on social media, ISIS demonstrates its ambitious goal and “ideological purity.” These brutal techniques and ideology, inseparable from the religious legitimacy, combined with the territorial and state-building ambitions of ISIS, is what makes the group different from other Islamic groups before them. 


Legitimacy and Building of the “Caliphate”

The pursuit of authenticity is just as present in regard to the Islamic State's dealings with its citizen base. Since ISIS has declared a Caliphate, it has to engage in building and managing a state. That means providing for citizens living under its control. How has ISIS managed to balance its role as both a captor and benevolent defender? And how has it created some sort of legitimacy on the ground amidst the chaos and violence? 

In How ISIS Governs its Caliphate, Simon Cordall explains that ISIS has established civil organization and structure through various methods. For example, ISIS has divided its territory into provinces known as waliyehs in order to ease administration cost and complexity. Legitimacy is then developed through “codes of law” which are meant to reinforce the Islamic State’s presence in the area. ISIS has also made it a point to strengthen its economy through the creation of a central bank, the Muslim Financial House, which allows the group to manage the Caliphate’s economy on a broad scale. The group’s state-building efforts includes levying taxes, monitoring borders, building armed forces, co-opting local tribes, and even solving disputes between tribes, thereby providing some form security. By becoming an adjudicating and governing force, ISIS is able, to a certain extent, to co-opt citizens psychologically. 

ISIS al-BaghdadiISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadii

The issue of authenticity and legitimacy has also in part been dealt with through the group’s leadership style. From its beginnings ISIS effectively transitioned from being a simple Salafi militant group into an actual “state.” Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who led the organization from 2006 until his capture in 2010, put emphasis on ideology, rebranded the group as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and slowly solidified gains made under Zarqawi. When al-Baghdadi came to power, his emphasis on pragmatic rule allowed the Islamic State a wide-ranging authority structure which empowered military commanders and members of the Shura council. Al-Baghdadi made it quite clear that he should not be perceived as a singular messiah for the movement or the only reason for the continued existence of the Islamic State.

Thus, ISIS’ use of millenarian and apocalyptic rhetoric combined with its coopting of civilians through coercion, structure and administration has allowed it to create the illusion of authenticity. To depict the Islamic State as being successful in its state-building exercises, however, is to skew reality greatly. Many people living under ISIS’ rule live in poverty, fear and insecurity. As early as 2014, the contradiction between the group’s desire at creating normalcy for its citizen base, and continued relevance of Jihad led to deteriorating living conditions across the territory it controlled. Several people who have settled in ISIS territory, have complained about the military raids conducted by the coalition, lack of electricity and cold winters. Lately, ISIS has also experienced economic pressure as a result of airstrikes against financial targets, especially oil revenues. This seems to have forced the group to cut fighters’ salaries in half, which could affected the cohesion of the group and lead to discontent as the group fails to provide for its fighters and citizen base.

It has often been a point of contention amongst analysts to define when and if the oppression and lifestyle which citizens face under the Islamic State will ultimately cause its downfall. Regardless of this eventuality, work must be done to find concrete, knowledgeable manners in which to delegitimize the Islamic State’s reign in the eyes of its citizens and most fervent religious followers. Perhaps the answer to this lies in studying the balancing act which the Islamic State is increasingly finding itself forced to play.

Noah is a Montreal native completing his Bachelor's degree with a Specialization in Peace, Conflict, and Justice at the Trudeau Centre of the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a major in Economics at the University of Toronto. He is primarily focused on operationalizing peace building missions, pre-conflict bargaining, ethnic conflict, identity politics and civil war.

Cédrick Mulcair is involved in his community's Federal Executive Council as former Vice-President Youth, now part-time assistant. His experiences range from close to a decade of work, including as an assistant to Community Outreach for Member of Parliament Djaouida Sellah. He is completing a double Major in Political Science and History McGill University and hopes to transition into the faculty of law and pursue studies in international law and the promotion of human rights through doctrines such as the responsibility to protect (R2P).