Photo Courtesy of PBS

Photo Courtesy of PBS

April 7, 2016


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I have often wondered why the world insists that ISIS is not a state. I understand that there is power in being a state and giving any power to these terrorists seems inherently wrong. Yet, terror seems to be at the heart of many nations’ foundings, and while it seems to be on a new scale, when did we as a world forget our own history? Was it once the fear was gone? The danger of the past becomes more forgivable, especially when you have to live with the product. For instance, the French Revolution utilized a new killing machine to make beheadings more efficient. It created a wave of French refugees fleeing the country and was so awful it is known simply as “the terror.” In Russia, revolutionaries took the entire royal family and shot them like animals. They then proceeded to starve millions of their citizens to death. All of these actions were used to form the modern state, yet we accept Russia and France without question.

Maybe they are easier to forgive because these were internal conflicts. The state-contained terror is frightening, but easier to forgive from an outsider’s perspective. While the French were being terrorized, the average Spaniard wasn’t too bothered. As long as these conflicts did not bleed into the global sphere, outsiders did not do much other than pass judgment on the perpetrators and console the victims once the dust settled.

Then, what about a far-reaching revolution? The United States springs to mind, but the revolution took place when America was still a colony of the British Empire. So technically, it was still an internal matter. It was a disgruntled child rising up against the established parental regime. However, the guerilla tactics of the American revolutionaries were aimed to instill fear among the red coats. Terror was a tool; a British soldier walking from Lexington to Concord would not have hesitated to describe the men shooting at him from behind trees and stone walls as terrorists, if the term was used at the time.

But we don’t call these first Americans terrorists; they are freedom fighters and rebels. Mostly because of the old mantra, “history is written by the winners.” For those Americans to establish a new country, they needed a usable past and a world willing to do business with them. No one in the modern world would benefit from calling the founding fathers of America terrorists, so no one does.

At this point, we have to investigate: what makes a state? Is it the people, a geographical area or something else entirely? With the rise of the nation state in the last 19th and early 20th century, everybody wanted their own country. The empires of Europe smashed into Bulgaria, Croatia, Austria, Serbia, etc. The Balkans seemed to be formed along ethnic lines – a country was therefore determined by traditions, a unifying narrative. Except these very same Balkans fought like wolves over borders, so based on that behavior, a country is determined by geographical features. Yet, other countries, like Armenia and Israel, were formed because of extreme suffering – because their people deserved – a country. There seemed to be no connection between the factors that  prompted states to be created. Nothing that is, except for the fact that, all forming states were either a direct or indirect formation of terror.

If we acknowledge that states are founded, to a certain degree, through terror, then we have to seriously look at what stops ISIS from becoming an acknowledged state. Perhaps it is the difference between using terrorism as a state, instead of terrorism to implement a state. The subtle distinction has incredible repercussions. While the people of France implemented the “national razor” to push change, their end goal was a peaceful regime. ISIS, on the other hand, wishes to extend its violence to eradicate a way of life. Once they are founded, the west will not have to do business with them in the global sphere; they will still be the enemy. There is no easy answer; the concept of a state is still a relatively new one and, it would seem, a very puzzling one. While ISIS seems horrifying in all lights, their claim to statehood reveals the flaws in our own conception of it. Are we hypocrites to deny their claim? I don’t know. But I do know that the question of what makes a state needs to be addressed if we are going to decide who gets a country.
Sarah Palmer is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her spirit animal is President William Henry Harrison, reminding her that even the biggest success can be dampened by the wrong outfit choice. She spends far too much time watching old movies, listening to jazz and trying not to do anything. Pop Culture, Politics and Perception appears on alternate Thursdays this semester. She can be reached at

  • Beau

    The UN, IMF, WTO, and other international organizations’ requirements for benefits explain a lot about what we choose to recognize as “a state.” World leaders do not want to extend these benefits to groups that disrespect other states’ sovereignty or violate human rights–which are abstract concepts that fail to evoke the disgust with which we meet ISIS enslavements, beheadings, censorship, cultural destruction, and perpetual war.

    The ability to control a portion of land no longer justifies statehood, despite what a political science textbook may tell us. World leaders make a rhetorical decision to endorse only states whose example they want other states to follow–sometimes even when those states will undoubtedly FAIL to control its land and peoples (see South Sudan). The power of Western states pursuing a “liberal world order”–i.e., one where democracy, self-determinism, and free trade reign–has made the definition of a state as a group with a monopoly of violence not only outdated, but even vilified, considering that those groups which will produce liberal democracies often are precisely those that will not be violent enough to form a so-called “state.”

    It seems to come down to semantics, but these semantics represent the way we want world leaders to treat their people. Politics and rhetoric remain inextricably combined; we deny ISIS state status only on rhetorical grounds, but perhaps those grounds justify the decision.

    But perhaps not, and perhaps we should argue that we interfere with the natural evolution of sovereignty when we deny groups like ISIS statehood. But that treads close to legitimizing ISIS’s expansion–I believe that explains why world leaders draw the line here.

    The scary part of me losing myself in this rhetorical argument is we may tell ourselves that simply verbally condemning ISIS is enough. But if we truly believe that ISIS should not become a state, perhaps we should interfere. Perhaps the rhetorical pressures from the liberal world order are not enough. Perhaps we SHOULD directly interfere with the “natural” evolution of sovereignty–because the only way to really disincentivize ISIS’s behavior is to punish it, and there’s nothing natural about what they’re doing. So yeah, we make history, we don’t observe it. And you’re right, the groups that are most violent are the groups that become the states–but that’s only if some more violent, or stronger, group doesn’t oppose them–meaning that some other state ought to STOP ISIS’s march to statehood, that the fact that we SHOULD call them a state by the old definition, coupled with the fact that WE DON’T WANT to call them a state by the new one, means that the problem lies in that WE ALLOWED them to gain that kind of strength, and that it’s time to make the two definitions align. Perhaps we have become too fearful of wasted troops that we are missing a chance to fight a just war (or perhaps the anti-interventionists are right–and I’m an anti-interventionist, so how can I possibly be making this argument?…).

    Very much worth a discussion. But the dichotomy between what we WANT to call a state, and what the textbooks SUGGEST we call a state, seems to definitely carry some strong implications about why the liberal world order has not succeeded, but also demands answers to questions about the US’s role as world police.

    The urgency of these issues abhor so much ink spilled over them, especially when these argument have been around years. It’s unfortunate we have not found the answer, but it’s great that we continue to ask the questions.