The Islamic State: Between Aspirations and Reality


arabcounterrev-filiu“Democracy is stronger than organizations like ISIS,” U.S. President Barack Obama said today, using one of the names for Islamic State. Democracy is why the United States welcomes “people of all races, and all religions and all backgrounds and immigrants who strive to give their children a better life,” he said in a valedictory speech in Greece.

“Our democracies show that we are stronger than terrorists, fundamentalists and absolutists, who can’t tolerate difference,” Obama added, highlighting democracy’s unique characteristics and values.

Democracy is being challenged by resurgent authoritarianism, illiberal mutations and various forms of populism.

Whether it’s nativism, European-style ethno-nationalism, or, in the case of the Middle East, Islamism, the thread that connects these disparate experiments is similar: the flailing search for a politics of meaning, Brookings analyst Shadi Hamid argues in Foreign Policy:

The ideologies might seem incoherent or hollow, but they all aspire to some sort of social solidarity, anchoring public life in sharply defined identities. During the Arab Spring, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood hoped, at least in the long run, to transform Egypt into a kind of missionary state. The essence of politics then isn’t just, or even primarily, about improving citizens’ quality of life — it’s about directing their energies toward moral, philosophical, or ideological ends.

isis-lahoudThe key to the long-term trajectory of the IS is its ability to provide satisfactory levels of governance to people living under its control, argues Nelly Lahoud, Senior Fellow for Political Islamism at the IISS–Middle East:

In the short-term, the IS has had some success at providing social services to locals that the Syrian and Iraqi governments failed to provide. This success has resulted in some boost to its overall appeal. However, there is no lack of shortcomings in the area of the IS’s governance. Barring adaptation by the group and a reduction in pressure applied by third-party actors, these failures will only increase with time. Highlighting these failures, together with the negative aspects of the IS’s governance, may undercut support for the group.

At a forthcoming event – The Islamic State: Between Aspirations and Reality – Lahoud will address the Islamic State’s prospects as its state-building project fails. Topics discussed will include the way in which the same ideological tools that once served to propel the momentum of the startup state are now generating ideological uncertainties among the group’s followers. The discussion will also draw on how the Islamic State’s official publications envisage the role of women in its militant worldview.

This event is part of the IISS Manama Dialogue Discourse Series, a series of events on Middle East security issues leading up to the 2016 IISS Manama Dialogue.

Nelly Lahoud is Senior Fellow for Political Islamism at the IISS–Middle East. Her recent research has focused on the ideology and evolution of al-Qa‘ida and the group that calls itself the Islamic State. She was the lead author of Letters from Abbottabad (CTC: May 2012), the report that analysed de-classified documents captured in Usama bin Ladin’s compound. Other recent publications include The Evolution of Modern Jihadism (ORE, August 2016) and The Group That Calls Itself a State: Understanding the Evolution and Challenges of the Islamic State (CTC: December 2014).

This event will be chaired by Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas. It will take place at IISS–Americas, 2121 K Street NW, Suite 801, Washington DC 20037. If you would like to attend, please RSVP via this online form or by email.

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