The Political, Religious, and Everyday Allure of Islamic State’s Utopianism

This is the second in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015. Subsequent posts will come out on Wednesdays and will cover topics such as the motivations for joining IS and the responses by the Kurds, Turkey, and Iran to the rise of the Islamic States. An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


In late February 2015, in the face of the extreme violence of Islamic State, President Barack Obama declared that the group should not be referred to as Islamic, because doing so gives it legitimacy and reinforces its world view of a war against Islam. He along with many political leaders declared that the ‘West’ is not opposed to Islam but a perverted form of it. The Islamic State, Daeesh, or ISIS, however situates itself not only as a fighting force but as a Utopian religious and political project. As a Utopian project it offers a critique of the existing world, a solution, and action to make it all possible.

The project is predicated on a binary political world view in which Muslims’ suffering is ignored and deliberately inflicted upon them by non-Muslims. The solution Islamic State offers is a Caliphate -not only a safe haven but a realisation of God’s will. This ‘State’ is to be governed by God’s laws (Shari’a) . It declares that all Muslims have a duty to move to its territory and if they cannot, to offer their lives in sacrifice. Islamic State’s imitation of the modern state, while simultaneously upholding historical structures and practices, such as slavery and beheadings confirms that there is nothing theologically inevitable about the Caliphate. Specifically, Islamic State’s construct of statehood is not grounded in the Qu’ran despite their appeal to a Prophetic tradition. But, it is rooted in a tradition of revolutionary Islamic political thought, beginning with the medieval thinker Ibn Taymiyya and developing from Jamal al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Abul Ala Maududi, and Sayyid Qutb who debated the colonial condition. These writers compared the unfair and increasingly invasive political systems they lived under to a condition of jahiliya (ignorance of pre-Prophetic knowledge and life) and consequently justified a violent jihad to overthrow it. The current quest to overcome this state of ignorance, and to enter into a ‘world of peace’ (Islamic State) that is pure and perfect, not only requires fighting against the ‘camp of kufrs’ (the West), it also leads to the expulsion of deviant faiths (such as the Yazidi and other minorities, and the Shia), and removal of corrupt leaders. Islamic State draws on these complex traditions of Jihad and Caliphate and reduces them to a fundamentalist totalitarian quest for perfectionism and purity.

Islamic State combines this ideology with mundane and modern pragmatic concerns of local politics and welfare to generate legitimacy. Significantly, the dehumanising of opponents is also rooted in sectarian politics concerned with access to resources and security – Sunnis living in Iraq and Syria have not had security since the fall of Saddam Hussain nor under Assad’s regime. IS’s offer of everyday security, quick (albeit unforgiving) justice, social services and welfare for Sunni Muslims is a reasonable trade off against any disagreement over IS’s vision and Utopia – especially if they are further rewarded for their cooperation through access to the spoils of war. Unlike Al Qaeda, Islamic State embraces the trappings of a modern state: a monetary system, police, taxes, military and governing councils of populations. The group is not acting like a terrorist organisation, nor a military, but a totalitarian government.

The appeal of Islamic State is greater than their political critique and offered solution, but is also created by the journey to that solution. This path is presented as exciting and adventurous and simultaneously filled with righteous suffering, and may lead to martyrdom. Therefore if Islamic state or individual members don’t realise Utopia within this world, it will be achieved in the next. Violence is glorified as heroic, Muslim, and manly. This path offers a break from the mundane and seemingly dull and disengaged life offered to young recruits from the West living in an age of austerity. As Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis alongside me at the Rise of the Islamic State roundtable highlighted, this idea incorporates a jihadi macho masculinity and the possibility to assert an otherwise emasculated manhood through acquiring warrior status. In an allegedly post-heroic age these men can have God, gold, and glory. For young women of Europe and North America their agency is also realised by IS; they actively reject both local community values and orthodox interpretations of Islamic traditions, and those purportedly on offer by liberal democracies. Contra to presentations of these women as love stricken naive girls who have been duped by the evil Islamic state, as per the imagery of the ‘Jihadi bride‘ or ‘sex slave‘, their social media outputs show conscious decision-making based on both private and public-political concerns. This combination allows for the veneration of motherhood, giving them social power, and exalting the family as the political and religious structure of the state. The personal is political and the political is personal.

Situating Islamic State as Utopian demonstrates that any separation or expulsion of religion from politics and international relations of IS in our analysis is flawed. Furthermore gender analysis in religion and politics leads to a more holistic understanding of IS. The lure of Islamic State is threefold. First it offers a challenge to existing politics that resonates especially in the absence of alternative credible and accessible critiques. Second, this critique is combined with a solution – an Islamic State, open to all who they consider to be correctly believing Muslims. Third, this new project will create a Muslim ‘good life’ through a particular version of Shari’a, thereby providing meaning and purpose to everyday politics and activity. These three components are essential elements of Utopian social dreaming: critique, solution and action. The challenge to Islamic State must therefore address all three. The beginnings of such a challenge in the West can be seen in the open letter by ‘Sara’ for Inspire which questions the reality of Islamic State’s ‘good life’; the humour offered by the Italians in reply to IS’s threats that undermine its ability to strike fear; and the outing of ‘Jihadi John’ thereby demystifying both him and their violence.

One thought on “The Political, Religious, and Everyday Allure of Islamic State’s Utopianism

  1. Another good article. One question is the lack of reference to the type of state that Daesh are trying to form in their idealised Caliphate. I have made the assumption that you consider Daesh to be forming a typical Western defined state with territory, borders and a semblance of political-religious governance? With their exported ideology, does this also include an attempt at creating an Umma or ethereal Muslim Community? Can you have both or would they even want this?


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