To Be Or Not To Be? Islamic State as a Proto-State

The fourth contribution to our forum on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations, this time from Katherine Brown. Katherine is Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies and Head of the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, where her work focuses on the gendering of religious resistance and politics. Recent publications address social media and terrorism and the securitisation of human rights. The full series of posts is available here.


The so-called Islamic State (hence forth Daesh) offered a new world order to believers, one in which states were abolished, the pious ruled, and Allah’s will prevailed. The group offered adherents ‘Gold, God and Glory’, and in exchange members would help realise the group’s vision through extreme levels of violence and banditry. Alongside this was an everyday, mundane and tedious mode of governance, covering tax inspections, trading standards, fishing permits, Quran reading competitions, and fairgrounds. This dichotomy puzzled security analysts who struggled to classify the group. Daesh was both more and less than a terrorist group, or an insurgency, or a guerrilla movement. For IR scholars, if it wasn’t any of these then a new possibility opened up – were we witnessing the birth of a new state? It was therefore a perfect case study for the revisiting of Gendered States.

Daesh was set a series of tests by academics and others to determine its ‘right’ to call itself a state. Did it have autonomy, capacity, legitimacy to govern, was it a ‘bordered power container’, could it redistribute resources, did it have a monopoly on the use of force? Longobardo asks this question about whether or ISIS could be seen as a sate in international law, and Belanger-McMurdo also addresses whether it can achieve political domination. The problem is that it had all and none of these. As Nexon notes, there is a tendency to conflate the Weberian ideal-typical definition of the modern state with the concept of ‘state’ and secondarily, a tendency to read the literature exclusively with an eye toward asking when, if, and how particular polities crossed some imaginary threshold into ‘state-ness.’ The tests seemed ‘unfair’ in so far as setting a high bar for a state emerging as ‘fully functioning’; it was like expecting a PhD candidate to pass their viva just by having been accepted onto the programme.

A flurry of writing about Daesh being a nascent state, a quasi-state, and a proto-state subsequently emerged. Liz Robson talks about the capability gap that the group faced in becoming a state. The idea of the ‘proto-state’ became popular, and rested on the idea of Daesh being ‘almost but not quite a state’ or a ‘state-in-waiting’. This appeared to settle the matter; even as the group lost territory to Iraqi, American and Syrian forces, it remained alive with potential. However, as I argue in my chapter in Gendered States Revisited, there was a conflation of ‘proto-statehood’ with ‘new statehood’ that is a misreading of the anthropological literature from which the term stems. In my chapter, I offer an alternative reading of Daesh that resists bench-marking against a European norm but also draws upon the work of V.S Peterson.

In anthropology, the term ‘proto-state’ denotes a highly unstable and yet cohesive environment. Within a proto-state, emerging centres of power are antagonistic to local and traditional ways of life, and are seeking to wrest authority and wealth away from existing structures to new ones. Charrad has shown how in the Middle East, nation-building and state formation involved a contest for power between kinship patrilineal based networks and centralising post-colonial states. In violent competition with both the local and national, new emerging centres of power manage to coalesce and cohere. These entities occupy the conceptual space between states and non-state actors and become proto-states, permanently ‘emerging’ and never truly fixed. Another limitation of existing work on proto-states is that there is little explicit consideration of how gender affects these processes. If the political is personal and the personal political, as per Cynthia Enloe, then this perpetual process of making and remaking is inevitable, because personal lives never stand still. In the original Gendered States volume, we see how feminist interrogations of state creation revealed the importance of gender patterns in the interlocking imperatives of state-making: centralisation of political authority, accumulation, militarism, exploitation, and legitimation. Linking these two strands (an anthropology of the state and feminist theorising), produces my understanding of statehood which differs from others. I argue that the ‘proto-state’ is permanently in flux, it is a permanent condition of insecurity, and therefore the transformation of gender relations are a central part of the process.

Examining the gender patterns of Daesh reveals how much is in flux. For example, in the figures of the ‘MuslimWoman’ and the ‘WarriorMonk’ (who I detail in the chapter) there are contradictory expectations because of the contestation between local, national and regional power centres and the new one being formed. For example, under the ‘new model’ the MuslimWoman is not meant to fight, she’s meant to be protected, living a sheltered live in purdah, which represents a return to chivalry and to the presumed examples of the early Muslim communities. Daesh institutionalised this figure, and policed her through sub-entities such as the Al-Khansaa Brigade. This brigade of women flogged other women who failed to comply with the rules and regulations of everyday life – including not gossiping, not going out of the home unnecessarily, and dressing in a certain way. Here, some women were empowered at the expense of other women. Daesh also intervened in local marriage norms regarding polygamy, dowry, and the role of the guardian in arranging marriages, disrupting the influence of community and traditional leaders. These, and other changes introduced by Daesh, are explicit challenges to pre-existing gender relations in the home, in local communities and at the regional level. These interventions by Daesh show, in contrast to some orientalist readings of the group, how it is not rooted in traditional norms and institutions but is in fact challenging these. 

Therefore Daesh is both ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’ a state. It exists as a state through the institutionalising of new gender relations, the WarriorMonk and the MuslimWoman, through violence. However, the violence intrinsic to its creation and existence makes Daesh ‘not to be’ a state. This approach to understanding Daesh follows the thinking of Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta (2006,) who call for a focus on everyday practices of the state, its ‘official procedures’ and ‘authorless strategies’, through which power is exercised and inequalities institutionalized. These iterative practices are performative in that rather than being an outward reflection of a coherent and bounded state core they actually constitute that volatile core itself. As I argue in more detail in my chapter, the proto-state of Daesh is therefore in flux, being constantly remade and reconstituted through violence and a remodeling of gender relations. Moreover, this insight of Daesh as a proto-state helps challenge the exceptionalist narrative of Daesh, and through a gendered analysis, its paradoxical mechanisms, discourse and practices are demystified.

One thought on “To Be Or Not To Be? Islamic State as a Proto-State

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

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