Lost among all of the hyperventilation surrounding the announcement of the creation of the new Islamic State covering parts of Syria and Iraq, is the fact that we are seeing the creation of a type of political entity that we have not seen for some time now, even though it was once very common. We do not know whether the Islamic State will last, or whether it will be torn apart by its own internal tensions, but what we can say is that it is the first attempt for a very long time to create a state based on a principle other than nationality and ethnicity.
We take the concept of the nation-state so much for granted these days that we forget that it is a relatively recent invention, and one that works quite badly in many parts of the world. (Yes, South Sudan, we’re looking at you). In its original concept, at the time of the French Revolution the nation-state was a free assembly of peoples, all of whom decided on a permanent basis to be members of that nation, and who could leave at any time. Over the generations though, this concept changed from an inclusive into an exclusive one, based on race, genetics and religion, such that some individuals were inherently part of the nation and some were not. As a result, Modern European history has largely been the result of attempts square the circle of the felt need for defined political borders, with the reality of a homogeneous mix of peoples divided by barriers that many of them found, and still find artificial. It is hardly surprisingly that the colonial powers tried to implement the same scheme in their colonies and in the nations that emerged from them. After all, they knew nothing else. And once more it has to be said that most of the real suffering of the world over the last 50 years has been a result of the inability of populations, in all their variety, to conform to the logic of the nation state.
So in fact what the new Islamic State has done in Iraq and Syria is to turn the clock back to a model of voluntary political association association of peoples which has not been seen in Western Europe for 200 years now. It is in this sense, rather than in some fatuous one to do with violence or “terrorism” that the new Islamic state is a threat. Even if it folds quickly, it represents an idea which is unlikely to go away very soon, and which is a fundamental challenge to our nation-state based world, and to our entire system of international relations. Many people, including me, have seen the events in the Arab world since 2011 is the last stage of the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire. But it is also worth considering whether, in the Islamic state, we are not actually seeing the return at least in part of the successful Ottoman model. That model, after all, was based on religious affiliation and not national affiliation. Given the chaos in the Middle East today, who is to say that the Ottomans were wrong then , and who is to say that the Islamic State is wrong now?