Reading about the frightening military offensives being conducted by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), especially in the light of the ongoing separatist unrest in Eastern Ukraine and the self-proclaimed annexation of the Crimea by Russia, I am fascinated by the tremendous pressure being currently placed on national borders. As this analysis by Tim Lister shows, ISIS is operating deliberately across national lines, with the apparent goal of setting up an Islamist state that would consist of Sunni-dominated territories currently classified as either Syrian or Iraqi sovereign soil. Intriguingly, the final “S” in the ISIS acronym, as this BBC News profile shows, is not actually from the word ‘Syria,’ but from the Arabic word “al-Sham,” whose meanings range from Damascus to Syria to the “Levant”— and if it is the latter, then this jihadist group could spread well beyond simply two nations.
While ethnically-motivated civil conflict is certainly not surprising in Iraq, the role of ISIS in this current fighting has clearly altered the landscape in radical ways. As Peter Bergen shows in this analysis, ISIS has been an outlier even to al-Qaeda, with its refusal to conform to organizational directives and its particularly ferocious fighting in Syria having caused it to be expelled from al-Qaeda itself. What is striking to me is its clear ambition, woven into its very organizational fabric, to produce a new sort of state that defies current sovereign borders accepted by the United Nations (and recall that the First Gulf War was waged primarily to defend the Kuwaiti borders that Saddam Hussein had challenged—as you can see from this US Department of State explanation from the Office of the Historian)—stretching at least across Syria and Iraq.
As one who has read numerous books on the meaning of nationalism, I have always been intrigued by one recurring flaw in many definitions of what separates the nation-state from, say, a kingdom or empire—namely, many scholars see nations as static entities that coexist in an international world of agreed-upon borders, whereas the age of empires and kingdoms involved constant expansion. One of the problems with such a definition is that it requires us seeing a good percentage of the twentieth century as entirely aberrational, since the expansionist energies that were linked to World War I and World War II were clearly central to those eras. Moreover, nations and empires are often very difficult to distinguish—a phenomenon I recently discussed in terms of nostalgia for the U.S.S.R transcending the opposing sides in the current civil war in Ukraine and—again, depending upon how you see it—in a now Russian Crimea.
Empires—whether King Arthur’s or Stalin’s—seem most powerful when they can bring many sorts of polities within their umbrella, as national borders melt before the powerful appeal of a greater, thriving state-body. Promising a greater Sunni state that is answerable to no one, not even al-Qaeda, ISIS seems to be a simultaneously unifying and entropic force, gathering members even as it undermines agreed-upon political and ethnic borders.
Whether it is in a strictly deliberate, rational process, such as the vote on Scottish Independence, or in the direct (and proxy) war-zones of the Ukraine or Iraq, or even in the nebulous air-identification zones that depend upon contested sovereignty claims in the tense skies over the East China Sea, national borders seem to be in a strange sort of suspension these days. As the refugees flee from the wrath of ISIS, in an already unstable country whose volatility was increased exponentially by my own nation-state’s tragically misguided 2003 invasion and 8-year occupation of Iraq, I feel increasingly that we are living in an era where a historically large portion of the national global map may be rewritten. How odd to have such ethnonational violence undoing borders, even as much of the world population tells itself it is being united by nations fighting other nations on the soccer pitch.