The BLOG: Faith and Law

ISIS: A new totalitarianism?

As liberal democracies assess the threat that ISIS poses and try to understand what motivates those who are attracted to it, an analogy springs to mind. Like the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century — Nazi and Communist — and like North Korea today, ISIS aspires to attain complete control of those whom it governs, and to totalize all moral and legal norms within the territory that it controls. And like Communist regimes, ISIS is more than willing to kill its own people, particularly dissenters. It employs the tactics of totalization to achieve the strategic goal of eradicating all pluralism, all differences, all distinctions and duties that it has not itself specified and dictated.

Yet if ISIS is totalitarian then it is a different species from those we have fought before. The Communists totalized the norms and institutions of society in order to consolidate power. ISIS consolidates power in order to totalize norms and institutions. The object is not to make everyone completely subject to a ruling class, as it is for Communists. Rather, the goal is to make everyone completely subject to a particular interpretation of Islamic law, including the ruling class.

This would seem to entail that, unlike Communist and Nazi totalitarians, ISIS’s leaders are ruled by law. Communist rulers are like Hobbes’ Leviathan: the source of all law and themselves above the law. The point of show trials and central plans and the disappearance of political dissidents is to show that everyone in a Communist dictatorship lives at the whim of the small, ruling elite, and that the ruling elite is beholden to no one and bound by no rules.

Not so with ISIS. The source of ISIS’s power is also a source of obligation on its leaders. ISIS exists to force compliance with a determinate set of rules, and its leaders are strictly bound by those rules.

One of the most interesting facts reported in Graeme Wood’s detailed study of ISIS, which I referenced in an earlier post, is that the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, can be removed from office and excommunicated from ISIS if he fails to follow the law.

The caliph is required to implement Sharia. Any deviation will compel those who have pledged allegiance to inform the caliph in private of his error and, in extreme cases, to excommunicate and replace him if he persists. (“I have been plagued with this great matter, plagued with this responsibility, and it is a heavy responsibility,” Baghdadi said in his sermon.) In return, the caliph commands obedience — and those who persist in supporting non-Muslim governments, after being duly warned and educated about their sin, are considered apostates.

One implication is that it seems unlikely that ISIS can be reasoned with. It will remain “impervious to persuasion,” in Wood’s perfect phrase. The rules governing ISIS are conclusive and binding. They leave nothing open for deliberation. God has spoken, and he has spoken clearly and conclusively. So for ISIS, as one expert puts it, “the Quran means exactly one thing, and other levels of meaning or alternate interpretations are ruled out a priori.” Human judgment, interpretive canons, and discretion just are not in it.

However, another implication is more hopeful. It is possible to understand ISIS, and therefore to anticipate the actions of its leaders, because ISIS is not governed by choice or arbitrary whim. It is governed by rules, top to bottom. This enemy should not be difficult to learn. If we will learn the Islamic State’s jurisprudence then we will know the Islamic State.

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod is a member of the Maine and Massachusetts (inactive) bars and an Associate Professor at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law. He is the author of “Property and Practical Reason” (Cambridge University Press) and dozens of articles in journals in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, many of which can be accessed at his website.