Three Theses on ISIS: The Universal, the Millenarian, and the Philistine

Nimer SultanyA warm welcome to Nimer Sultany who brings us a guest post on thinking about ISIS. Nimer is Lecturer in Public Law, School of Law, SOAS, University of London. He holds an SJD from Harvard Law School. He practiced human rights law in Israel/Palestine, and was the director of the Political Monitoring Project at Mada al-Carmel – The Arab Research Center for Applied Social Research. His recent publications include: “The State of Progressive Constitutional Theory: The Paradox of Constitutional Democracy and the Project of Political Justification” in the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review and “Religion and Constitutionalism: Lessons from American and Islamic Constitutionalism” in the Emory International Law Review.

The ruthless brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) unfolds before our eyes on the screens. As commentators struggle to explain and understand it, it becomes convenient to revive old Orientalist tropes. Beyond the spectacular brutality, the reason that ISIS invites attention (both fascination and fear) is that it seems easy to fit in confrontational narratives of Islam (us v. them, anti-American, etc.). Muslims are clearly angry at something. In his infamous article “The Roots of Muslim Outrage”, Bernard Lewis simplistically explained that Muslims are envious of, and angry at, Western modernity and secularism. The U.S. magazine Newsweek illustrated this knee jerk reaction, and recourse to run of the mill thinking patterns, in a Muslim Rage cover in September 2012.


In his book “Covering Islam” (1981) Edward Said has effectively critiqued these binary simplifications that dominate not only journalistic discourse about “Islam”, but also expert-talk about Islam. For Said, all attempts to conceptualise other cultures are a value-laden interpretive exercise. He showed the deficiencies of orthodox writings on—and views of—Islam, and called for “antithetical knowledge” to challenge the orthodoxy’s claims of value-free objectivity.

It seems little has changed, however, since Said wrote his book in the wake of the Iranian revolution. In this brief commentary I want to examine three attempts to understand ISIS. These are long treatments in respected liberal media outlets. To use Said’s phrase, these are treatments that fit in different “communities of interpretation.” These three essays are all aware of the need to provide “context” for ISIS. However, their contextualisation differs. The success of this contextualisation in shedding a light on ISIS varies. Let me call these interpretive techniques: universalization; Millenarian confrontation; and intellectual bewilderment. These three attempts operate mostly on the ideational/ cultural domain.

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The Global Transformation: A Response

The final post in our forum on The Global Transformation, in which Barry Buzan and George Lawson respond to the points raised by Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson. The original post, summarising the book is available here. The book will also be discussed further at the ISA conference in New Orleans and a launch at LSE.

[Editor’s note: The authors are not responsible for the images in this post. But it’s Friday.]

Given the ‘excess’ of contemporary academic production, it is a rare treat to have colleagues engage seriously with your work. We therefore offer our heartfelt thanks to Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson for their close reading of our book and for their thoughtful critiques of it. We offer our equally heartfelt thanks to the editors of The Disorder of Things, particularly Meera Sabaratnam, for investing a considerable amount of time in organising and publishing these commentaries.

The interventions by Go, Mulich and Allinson raise two main issues: the first relates to our use of, and contribution to, theoretical debates, particularly those around imperialism, and uneven and combined development (UCD); the second concerns the relationship between history and theory, most notably our use of macro-historical frames such as ‘modernity’. We discuss these issues in turn.

On theory

Julian Go is right that The Global Transformation ‘expressly rejects any grand theoretical narratives or systems’. He is also right that we do not use ‘categories derived from a larger and more comprehensive theoretical system’. And, however tiresome it is to keep agreeing with your critics, Go is once more right in saying that our use of uneven and combined development is not meant to correct this shortcoming – as we discuss below, we use UCD as an analytical shorthand rather than as a theoretical schema containing a range of causal claims.

Why is this the case? The first reason is strategic. At the beginning of the project, we had several choices to make: whether to pitch the book primarily to an IR audience or whether to also take some swings at cognate disciplines; whether to get drawn into internal debates associated with particular theoretical schemas or seek out a position in-between, or perhaps above, the fray; how to balance big picture and fine-grained historical analysis, and more. In each of these instances we chose the easy option – easy not in the sense of being straightforward to do, but in the sense of ‘less is more’. For example, rather than spend much time on the shortcomings of disciplinary historical sociology when it comes to its ‘occlusion of the global’, we concentrated on what historical sociology (and economic and world history) contributes to IR debates. Given that the answer to this was ‘quite a lot’, we made this our primary concern. Similarly, rather than distract ourselves – and readers – with the minutiae of debates internal to the whys and wherefores of ‘the global transformation’, we constructed a composite argument that assembled diverse storylines into a single narrative. To be clear – we are not saying that we neither built on, nor took a stand on, many of these debates, not least around the ‘internalism’ and Eurocentrism of many existing accounts. Rather, we made a deliberate decision to take an ecumenical approach, building on insights from a variety of theoretical churches rather than sticking to a single tradition.

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Modernity Is Everything; Empires Are Everywhere

JMulich_squareJeppe Mulich brings us the third post in our forum on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. Jeppe is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History at New York University. He works on comparative empires, global history, and colonialism in world politics. His research on regionalism, law, and intercolonial networks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been published in the Journal of Global History and in the anthology The Uses of Space in Early Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

The authors’ original post, Julian’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now live.

Let me start off by stressing that The Global Transformation is a fantastic book. Buzan and Lawson manage to pack a host of information and analysis into a relatively short and very readable book, while at the same time keeping their fundamental argument sharp and coherent. It is one of those works that leave you wondering why it has not already been written, particularly in a discipline so intent on retelling the wrong stories over and over again.[1] It is also, incidentally, a book that strongly argues in favor of the relevance of my own field, something that any aspiring scholar should welcome with open arms. With this in mind, my comments and critiques in the following piece might come off as nitpicky, but if they do this is only because I agree with so very much of Buzan and Lawson’s core argument. I am not trying to offer a counterargument or even a corrective to their account, but rather a few friendly jabs and perhaps an opening for further research into and discussion of some of the wider themes and implications of this important book.

I will primarily provide comments on the book from the perspective of a historian, with the theoretical underpinnings which that classification implies. My comments are divided into three broad sections. The first section will deal with issues of thinking in time, in particular how to date the type of global shifts that Buzan and Lawson are interested it and, related to this, how to disentangle the historical forces of change and continuity. The second section will delve more into the specific substance of the global transformation – namely the notion of modernity and the potential problems and benefits of using this nebulous concept. The third section will focus more on a particular part of the puzzle of the nineteenth century – that of colonial configurations and the multitude of state-forms emerging at this time – and consider this phenomenon vis-à-vis Buzan and Lawson’s treatment of rational state-building.

Periodization and Eurocentric Narratives

BelleyWhile Hobsbawm (1962) introduced the idea of a long nineteenth century more than half a century ago, in the first of his three books covering the period from 1789 to 1914, the past decade and a half has witnessed a resurgence of interest among historians and historical sociologists. Unlike Hobsbawm’s work, which focused almost entirely on events and developments within Europe, many of these new accounts are in various ways attempting to grapple with the inherent Eurocentrism of earlier histories. Such projects are often accomplished by telling decidedly global stories of the nineteenth century, with the most widely read example being C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, joined in the past year by Jürgen Osterhammel’s 1000-page behemoth The Transformation of the World.[2]

What the works of Bayly, Osterhammel, and Buzan and Lawson have in common is their focus on the transformative nature of the nineteenth century, apparent with just a cursory glance at their titles. While these authors might be interested in a certain kind of big history, their work focuses on shifts, breaks, origins, and turning points – not on continuities and long trajectories. This is in many ways true for most academic history, which often ends up as an exhausting chase to find the origins of specific phenomena or practices or, when coupled with the peculiar obsession with modernity, an endless argument over when and where the first example of a truly modern state/revolution/economy/philosophy/society/ideology/science/war should be found. Increasingly relegated to the sidelines are the crotchety old contrarians who insist that nothing much ever changed anyhow.[3] Continue reading