Islamic State’s social contract



How does the Islamic State/ISIS win the support (or at least the tax dollars) of Iraqi and Syrian civilians, who tend to be less ideologically committed to the cause of the caliphate than its foreign recruits? asks Yale University researcher Mara Rivkin. The answer is the same as in many states: ISIS’ establishment of courts, welfare institutions, and essential services are part of an attempt to build a social contract based on reciprocal obligations in which civilians are guaranteed protection and basic rights in exchange for support to the caliphate in the form of either taxes or military service, she writes for Foreign Affairs:

The social contract isn’t just theoretical. Evidence of it can be found in so-called “documents of the city” (wathiqat al-madīnah), which appear to be inspired by a constitution-like text allegedly drafted by the Prophet himself to govern the city of Medina in the year 622. ISIS has issued documents bearing this title in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and Hit, and the Libyan city of Sirte. ……

With such documents, ISIS purports to be creating a system of accountable governance that emulates the model of the original seventh-century caliphate. To be sure, external observers find it hard to believe that anyone living in fear of death by decapitation or stoning could regard such a system as legitimate. Yet even if cooperation with ISIS is to some extent driven by such fear and coercion, it is important not to discount the relative legitimacy of ISIS governance compared to equally bad or even less desirable alternatives: a repressive dictatorship in Syria, sectarian politics in Iraq, or rule by rival armed groups such as the Free Syrian Army that have been plagued by allegations of corruption and ineptitude. In a civil war in which all of the options available to civilians are bad, the social contract offered by ISIS needs only to be seen as marginally better than that of its competitors in order to be preferred as the lesser evil. And by some accounts, it is.


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