When it comes to politics, we vastly underestimate the power of vocabulary. The words our leaders use to describe political phenomenon are charged with preconceived meanings, and it is often on these preconceived meanings that citizens vote.
In no political situation is the impact of vocabulary more apparent than the growing threat of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq(ISIS). When it comes to defining the political nature of ISIS, the international community faces—very literally—an inexplicable situation.
Most commonly, we hear elected officials, journalists, and voters alike refer to ISIS as a state or perhaps an unrecognized state. Others refer to ISIS as a terrorist organization, and recently, many intellectuals have compared ISIS to a mafia-like organization.
All these descriptors—state, terrorist organization, and mafia—do give certain insights into the nature of ISIS. Ultimately, however, each descriptor is charged in its political connotations and the emotional response these connotations elicit. Thus, to employ these heavy terms in an arena where logic and truth must prevail is simply counterproductive.
Let’s look at the idea of a state. Though political scientists to this day disagree about the exact definition of a state, most broadly agree it is an organized political community under one government. When one thinks of a state, one likely thinks of an organization comprising executive, judicial, financial, defensive, and diplomatic branches that each possess unique mandates. Even in authoritarian states these branches exist, corrupt though they might be. A failed state is one in which these branches are no longer effective. But even if a state has failed, it was, at one point, considered a state.
Thus, a state, whether America’s friend or foe, whether a strong democracy or a failing autocracy, has a certain inherent legitimacy.
It is difficult to validate ISIS as an organized political community under one government. Primarily, the markers of a political community are not present. While Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of ISIS, has a number of deputies, they are few and far between. Their positions are mainly defense-related. While there is a manager of finance, ISIS does not engage in legitimate economic activities; it accumulates wealth through underground or black-market dealings. ISIS has no diplomatic engine to speak of, as the organization does not see itself as part of the world at large, but as the world’s lone future.
To call ISIS a state is to give the organization far too much legitimacy. We are not dealing with an autocratic state like North Korea, nor a failed state like Somalia, nor even simply an Islamic state like Iran. ISIS is not, and never has been, a state.
Indentifying ISIS as a terrorist organization is no more productive. A terrorist organization, by definition, achieves its ends through capitalizing on fear. When one thinks of terrorists, one imagines car bombings, plane hijackings, and under-the radar, inconspicuous dealings. While this image is an incomplete stereotype, it is the picture that prevails in the minds of most world citizens.
While ISIS does create fear through suicide bombings and regular beheadings, fear is its means, not its end. The end is the control of a vast region and population. Therefore, we should not define ISIS principally by its fear mongering. To do so gives ISIS a different kind of legitimacy; it gives ISIS’s currency of fear power over the actions of the international community.
Lastly, those that compare ISIS to the mafia make this comparison to explicate ISIS’s pyramid leadership structure and economic operations. The mafia, and other organized criminal groups, have a “kingpin,” who has a few close confidants, and, under those confidants, masses of thugs. The mafia operates through extortion, murder, fraud, kidnapping, and smuggling.
In a mafia-like fashion, ISIS has one leader, Baghdadi, and a few ministers and advisors. At the base of the organization are masses of people willing to die for Baghdadi’s promised vision. Baghdadi funds his organization by “taxing” local economic activity and threatening, or even murdering, those that resist. He kidnaps foreign nationals and ransoms them for many millions of dollars. He is active in human and sex trafficking. And of course, Baghdadi has taken control of about one dozen oil fields and makes a fortune smuggling this black gold.
Still, ISIS is decidedly not a mafia. For the mafia, the goal is wealth. Any control of politics is in pursuit of economic gain. For ISIS, money, like fear, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. To call ISIS a mafia allows us to foolishly dismiss ISIS as the problem of the local police, local governments, and competing underworld dealers. This could not be farther from the truth, as ISIS is, principally, the problem of the masses. ISIS’s threat to the Middle East and the world at large requires more legitimacy than our conceptions of the mafia allow.
So where does this leave us? Our current descriptors give ISIS either too much or too little legitimacy. They fail to identify the true nature and scale of ISIS’s threat to the international community. They bog all, politicians and voters alike, in preconceived and emotional ideas. They instill us with irrationality and fear.
It is time we change our vocabulary for an ever-changing world order. I call upon the political scientists of Capitol Hill and world universities to find a way to speak of ISIS that allows us all to face our enemy with logic, bravery, and without reactionary emotions.