A death cult by any other name
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A death cult by any other name

As the control of Islamic State spreads like a cancer across Syria, Iraq and now Lebanon, violence against individuals, peoples and cultures, radiates out alongside it.

This violence, and its seeming irrationality to Western observers, has acted as a solvent for the observational powers of pundits who claim that ISIS threatens the global order, that it is a "death cult", and that it is some radically new and incomprehensible actor.

Symbols: Militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) posing with the trademark Jihadists flag.

Symbols: Militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) posing with the trademark Jihadists flag.

Photo: AFP

Let's be clear; the Islamic State (IS), for that is what it wishes to become, is not a challenge to the global system of divided sovereignties and power politics.

Replacing the territorial states of the region with a unified system of government based on religion can only look like a state based on religion. A bigger and different state yes, but still a state.

It has acquired all the symbols and attributes that we use to define states; a flag, a claim to a monopoly of violence, a defined if as yet unrecognised territory, and with the declaration of a Caliphate, a declared political system of authority and control. These are not challenges to the fundamental ingredients of global order.

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However violent it is, however morally repugnant its actions and goals, it deals in the traditional currency that all aspiring states have since time immemorial: power, violence and wealth.

It has combined extensive military hardware with military strategic success, powering its expansion. This has been underpinned by a successful approach to garnering and then spending financial resources. While remarkable, horrifying and headline grabbing in equal measure, in each of these activities IS treads down the path of previous emergent states who have grown in competition with those nearest to them.

IS at this point lacks the conceptual ambition to challenge the meaning of sovereignty. This does not mean, however, that it is not an existential threat to certain sovereign states. IS has publicly stated as a goal the overthrow of the particular shape of sovereign borders that British and French colonial powers sketched out a century ago, and which, through the machinations of internal political struggle and external pressures during and after the Cold War, has been sustained for almost 100 years.

The misfortune to be situated upon the key economic resource that has underpinned the economic fortunes of the industrial world – oil – has exerted an ossifying effect on the political configuration of the region. Authoritarian leaders have in turn been embraced and vilified as it suited the geopolitical goals of key Western states, with scant regard to the population of those states until it was expedient to be so concerned.

These borders are hated by as many as those who support them, and opposition to the colonially-imposed and Western-sustained divisions is not restricted to IS.

Western sensibilities ignore this, assuming that sovereign boundaries everywhere are as natural and valued as those at home. All too easily images of bulldozers erasing the border between Iraq and Syria seem to those in more comfortable surroundings to be a fundamental rejection of sovereignty when it is equally, if not more, likely that it is nothing more conceptually radical as moving where those sovereign borders should lay.

Ultimately we do not know whether the territory IS has claimed can be managed and whether it will be able to continue to infect the bodies politic that surround it. The fractured and bleeding lands of Syria and Iraq have proven perfect incubators for its virulent and violent claims. Saudi Arabia, should it ever become involved, will prove far harder opposition, let alone the Iranians and the Israelis who sit as IS's ultimate target.

Western observers of the ongoing trauma face a choice as to how to respond.

The suffering of those who are now either in the way of IS's advance, or who are unwillingly now under its sway, are bitter ground on which to build arguments about sovereignty and global order, whether that be its endurance or rejection. Our comfort and their distress should be a powerful rejoinder to an interest in building our own arguments on the backs of their suffering.

Yet at the same time if we are to try and understand what motivates IS and what, in part, has powered the terrible violence it has unleashed, then we cannot abandon a rational and historically informed investigation.

Dr Mathew Davies is a fellow at the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific. Among other topics, he researches and teaches international relations theory, global politics and world history.