what is the islamic state?

What is the Islamic State?

Elements of a Marxist analysis

Some excerpts from “What is the Islamic State? Elements of a Marxist analysis” by Nicolas Dessaux (translated by me); it seems an accurate and clear analysis – at least to someone like me who’s very far from being an expert and who finds the complexities of the political factions and history in the region over the last 12 years pretty unfathomable. When I say that these are excerpts, all this means is that I’ve missed out a couple of bits which seemed superfluous. The sub-headings are mine

map isis 2

map from March 2015

20th November 2015

The Islamic state – a Western creation?

The genesis of the Islamic State, or Daesh, in 2006 in the context of the civil war in Iraq, though a rapprochement between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other armed groups, is well known to serious analysts. This new movement rapidly set Al-Qaeda free and expanded it onto Syrian territory in favor of the civil war unleashed by the regime of Bashar Assad to crush the popular Arab Spring uprising. This dynamic is inseparable from the occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies. It is also interlinked with international tensions between the US, Iran, Turkey, the Persian Gulf states and Russia. All these elements form the ground on which the Islamic State was able to appear and develop, but that does not explain what it is.

At the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the states opposed to the regime of Bashar Assad supported the opposition forces with money and weapons. In one way or another, part of that support has been taken up by to the Islamic state, not only by the defections of other armed fighters. Direct private funding from Qatar and Saudi Arabia also seems to be recognised as true, as is the case for many Islamist organizations in the world. Daesh especially enjoys the tacit support of the Turkish government in the fight against their common enemy, the PKK and its armed wing in Syria, the YPG [SF note: as a rebuff to the dominant anarchist/leftist support for the the PKK and YPG see this text on the situation in Rojava,  particularly the post by Anti War for November 2nd 2015] ….

To consider the Islamic State as purely a western creation, is to consider Daesh as a mere puppet of those looking to pull the strings. The attenuated version of this way of thinking is to see it as the simple product of circumstances, pointing the finger at the imperialist powers or geostrategic considerations according to the political presuppositions of the author. What is embarrassing in these analyses, even if they can point out interesting determinants of the situation, is that they evade analysis of Daesh as an autonomous actor, as a political subject. Basically, it is a thought tinted with colonialism that sees the Middle East as the passive recipient of imperialist tensions, the only real acting subjects…

The Islamic State in terms of social class

Daesh represents the interests of a definite class, the fraction ousted from two states where the bureaucracy and the army played an essential role in the absence of a true bourgeoisie, a capitalist class within the proper meaning of the term. Its insistence on presenting itself as a real state, as the Islamic state, and to surround itself with all the attributes of sovereignty, are not anecdotal but express its true class nature. This does not prevent it from entering into relations with the international market, either to sell oil, to buy weapons or conduct financial transactions, like other bureaucracies before it, but assimilating Daesh with “the bourgeoisie” in a generic manner, as we sometimes read, is as trivial as to call them “God-possessed loonies” without a social base. On the contrary, the place that the Islamic state has taken as a regional player is linked to its class situation.

The Islamic State is installed straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border. These are two countries in which the economy is organized by the State. The bureaucratic class that dominates the State derives its revenues from tax but also from the capital available to it collectively, and finally from a virtually institutionalized corruption. The Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad had nationalized the bulk of oil, mining and industrial production. They had imposed a state monopoly on foreign trade. The private sector involved less than 10% of economic activity and affected mainly small companies. The Syrian Stock Exchange has only existed since 2009, for example. In the 1990s, during the neoliberal wave, Syria privatized a small part of its economy, but privatization has mainly benefited the children of bureaucrats. It is public office that provides access to capital and not the opposite. This new bourgeoisie is entirely dependent on the state, that is to say, on the bureaucracy and the army. Its political influence is very weak.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, a class of new rich, private entrepreneurs, emerged after the suppression of the uprising of the workers councils in 1991 [SF note: see “Kurdish uprising”]. It is largely formed by former emigrants to the United States or other western countries, who have made a fortune there and returned to invest in their home region in favor of the autonomy that it has known for twelve years, between the two Gulf wars. But it remains closely linked to the apparatus of the nationalist parties that share power, the PUK and the KDP.

In the rest of Iraq, this new bourgeoisie began to develop with the occupation, from 2003 onwards. But the pace of privatization is very slow. Civil war is an impediment to investment, infrastructure is obsolete and decrepid, the most skilled labor has left the country. So that the state remains manager of a large part of the economy. When we speak of the bourgeoisie in these countries, we must be very careful because it is the State which is the principal holder of capital and the principal landowner.

In both countries, the class that holds the reins of the state, the bureaucracy and the army, shattered. In Iraq, from the early years of the occupation the Americans developed the de-Baathisation of the administration and the army. They systematically ousted Ba’ath Party members, including business management. But in this totalitarian regime, the party card had been almost obligatory so as to get a place in the state apparatus or in the economy at any level whatsoever. Purging benefited the clientele of the parties installed in power by the occupying forces, that is to say, essentially the Shiite Islamist parties.

But Baathism had ended, especially between the last two Gulf wars, by turning into Islamo-nationalism. In contrast to the myth carefully maintained in France, Baathism has never been truly secular, but it moved closer to religion when socialism had ceased to be a mobilizing reference after 1991. Sunni-ism had become its ideological base , especially since the Shiites were considered, since the Iran-Iraq war, as the enemies within, a kind of fifth column always ready to betray for the benefit of Shiite Iran. The US military has simply inverted the process, placing the Shiite Islamist parties in power and treating the Sunnis with suspicion, as if they were necessarily supporters of Saddam Hussein. It is on the basis of this ethnic-religious essentialism that the war developed.

For officers and administrators ousted from power, the armed struggle against the occupation and the indiscriminate attacks against Shiites were part of the same process of regaining their lost power. It had been prepared long ago by Saddam Hussein. After all, he had taken his first classes in armed struggle for the seizure of power by the Baath party since the late 1950s. In the civil war, the Sunni armed groups represented the interests of this fraction ousted from the army and administration.

When they realized where their debaathisation policy was leading, the US modified ther political strategy and sought to reintegrate the Sunni armed groups, especially since this policy had been depriving them of many competent administrators. They used, with limited success, some of these groups as mercenaries against Al-Qaeda, playing on the contrast between their Islamo-nationalism and jihadism, which is very hostile to nationalism. But the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda specializes in anti-Shiite attacks, unlike the customs of those international networks which are more favorable to the more unified vision of the Ummah https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ummah. It could therefore appear to be the only one to pursue both the fight against the US and the fight against the Shiites, the only one to really defend the interests of the ousted fraction of the state. When Al-Qaeda had to withdraw to Syria at the end of the civil war, it maintained peoples support for it. Today, the military leadership of the Islamic State is widely assured by former Iraqi Baathist officers, while its control over the cities is based on the administration in place.

In Syria, the process is a little different, but convergent. During the Arab Spring of 2011, the machinery of the state was fragmented all the way up to the highest level of ministries, of the diplomatic sector and of the army. Those who denounced Assad after having served him hoped to regain their privileged place after his fall, which seemed to them inevitable. It was a self-seeking choice, but not irrational. Part of them joined the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups. But unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, the Assad regime resisted by not hesitating to massacre the population. The fraction of the State which had bet on the fall of Assad then began to look for the most likely forces to bring such a fall about. It is in these circumstances that part of them turned to the Islamic State, to restore their position in the state machinery.

This is not the first time a class dresses up its struggle for power in religious ideology. Some themes deployed by the Islamic State are a simple religious copy of late Baathism. The mobilization of crowds by religion replaces nationalist ideology but with the same role. The fight against “Jews and Crusaders” replaces the fight against Zionism and imperialism. The Sunni community replaces the Arab nation. This allows it, like pan-Arabism in the past, to seek bases for achieving political unity in a larger space than in the current national states. This does not mean that the soldiers of the Islamic State do not take their own ideology seriously, literally, but quite the opposite: an ideology is the mental projection of a social form. It cannot be reduced to simple hypocrisy. Moreover, the replacement of nationalism and its socialist or progressive emphasies, by an openly reactionary religious discourse, is not trivial…..

A woman’s place

One of the essential features of Islamist ideology is that it is obsessively against women. In the discourse of jihadists, as in their interviews, it is a recurring motif. When they denounce the West, it is not imperialism that they denounce, but the freedom[sic] that women have conquered there. But feminism is spreading in the Middle East by the most roundabout ways, even in the absence of an organized feminism. Such and such a TV series or Hollywood movie, which may seem hopelessly patriarchal, full of gender stereotypes in the eyes of Western feminists, appears as quite progressive for women in the Middle East. Seeing a heroine drive, performing a traditionally male profession, choosing her clothes or her boyfriend, walking with him without being married – these are inaccessible freedoms for teenage girls from conservative circles, be they religious or not. The social control on women, their lives and their sexuality, is compromised by the massive influx of satellite dishes and mobile phones, which convey a different lifestyle. Religious discourse is a means of restoring the patriarchal order, protecting male domination.

Already, after 1991, the mutation of Baathism into Islamo-nationalism was accompanied by a deterioration in the condition of women and the loss of many rights. From the beginning of the 1990s, in Kurdistan, those who were to become Al-Qaeda called for the killing of feminists, which claimed the lives and the exile and many of our comrades from the Workers’ Communist Party of Iraq. In the civil war in Iraq after 2003, religious militias, Sunnis as much as Shiites, attacked women who worked, who held public office, who refused to wear the veil, and even ladies’ hairdressers.  … It’s a real war on women that they conducted.

The patriarchal brutality of the Islamic State, including sexual slavery of women from non-Muslim minorities is the extreme form, rooted in the context of this patriarchal counter-revolution. The place of women in the armed struggle in Kurdistan, in the Ayn al-Arab victory against the Islamic state, is significant because one of the central issues of this war is the place of women in society. The Islamic State promises to restore to men their dominant position in the family, and multiplies the most outrageously degrading acts towards women, in order to show how. It mobilizes religion to legitimize its practices. This is why, if we want to understand what is happening, we must start from the practice not from religion.

The role of the attacks

The Islamic State has tens of thousands of troops – substantial for an armed organization, but quite weak for a state. It has modern weaponry at its disposal, partly taken from the Iraqi and Syrian armies, partly purchased on the international market. But it must win against regional and global powers of a different caliber. To offset this imbalance, this asymmetry, it can count on two methods: use international and regional rivalries to its advantage, and show that it is capable of retaliation against adversaries. The support of Turkey against the PKK or the more or less discreet funding from Gulf countries are a valuable support for it. Terrorism against France, Germany or Russia, in the case of the plane that exploded over the Sinai, are all signs of its ability to carry out bloody reprisals against the states that make war against it or threaten to do so.

The operational procedure of the latest attacks is to maximize the impact whilst reducing the cost. It takes little equipment: weapons readily available on the black market , small amounts of explosives. Little ability to locate them, so they attack public places. No need to organize their escape in any detail, to have hideouts, to have a network of people to hide them afterwards, or even before, since the authors of the killings had official residences before the operation and die during it. In a way it’s low cost terrorism, with a high performance compared with the much more organized and expensive Al-Qaeda attacks. In this way, Daesh gives itself the means to conduct asymmetric warfare and ensure its survival as a state. Some analyse it as a headlong rush, the result of internal tensions between a more pragmatic branch concerned to organize its state within a territory, and another more ideological branch, which seeks to expand its global combat. This is possible since it is a common contradiction, but it is important to understand that from the point of view of Daesh, these attacks are not irrational. They express its political need to survive as a state in conditions of weakness.

The Daesh attacks have a protean genealogy. To seize power in Iraq, the Baath party had been able to combine a mass movement and terrorism; the young Saddam Hussein had played a role in organizing attacks and visibly during his fall in 2003, he envisaged winning back power in the same way. In Syria, it is rather a series of successive coups d’etat that brought the fraction led by Hafez Assad to power. These two states not only had a political police able to rule by totalitarian terror at their disposal, the so-called “Republic of Fear”, but also to use attacks outside the country as a means of diplomatic pressure . They either performed this directly or via armed groups that they trained and equipped. State terrorism is nothing new for Islamic state officials. Nor is the idea of ​​going to recruit terrorists in the West. It was used in the 70s by some Palestinian movements, linked to the Arab regimes, even if they were recruiting more in anti-imperialist circles than religious ones.

The Islamic State is characterized above all by the importance of the flow of fighters who come to join it from around the world. Suicide bombings were developed by Hezbollah, which today is a privileged ally of the regime of Bashar Assad, in the 80’s before being integrated into jihadist methods by Al-Qaeda in the mid-1990s. All this history plays a role in the development of methods used by Daesh to conduct attacks outside its own territory, either by direct links or by imitation.

Western states are reluctant to officially consider the Islamic state as a state and prefer to consider it as a terrorist group. But we cannot strictly contrast one from the other. At its disposal, it has a territory, an army, an administration, a fiscal policy, a currency, and so on . It was not born as a terrorist group, but as an emanation of fractions ousted from the Iraqi and Syrian state apparatuses in order to regain their position. For this, it relies on a religious version of Baathism, which presents itself as a defender of Sunni Arabs, and an entirely misogynistic practice, intended to fully restore male domination. The external attacks are an instrument in an asymmetrical war, which draws its methods in a genealogy of terrorism in the near and Middle East. All these elements deserve to be developed, analyzed, discussed at greater length, but they provide the foundation for a materialist Marxist reading of the Islamic State and its current role.

Links to other parts of this text:


1st letter: Open letter to the libertarian site  “Beneath the Ashes”

2nd letter: Letter on the attacks, the question of the estates and of religion, addressed to some English-speaking friends

Brief notes on French racism 



One response to “what is the islamic state?”

  1. Sam FantoSamotnaf avatar

    Just been pointed out to me:

    According to an opinion poll, 30% of Americans are in favour of bombing Agrabah. Agrabah is a fictional city out of Disney’s version of Alladin. This is not simply indicative of many Americans’ renowned ignorance of geography but – far worse – that 30% of them are willing to bomb any city that sounds like it might be an Arab city. See this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKxO7Vffxps (about 50 seconds in).

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