CAIRO — Since the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared a caliphate, much has been written about the movement — but still more remains unclear.
How seriously should we take their rise? How does ISIS define Islamic law, and how would it be implemented? There are also more basic questions about the group's origins and its finances.
Some compare its meteoric rise to the ascent of the Taliban, which ideologically and militarily might be true — but there is an essential difference: While the Taliban and most other Islamist movements function in the Westphalian state model defined by national sovereignty, ISIS rejects it, effectively making it the first post-Westphalian entity to arise since the end of colonialism. And the consequences could be dire.
The nation-state as we know it today is a result of the Westphalian peace agreements, signed in what is now Germany in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War. During this war, different states and principalities linked to either the Catholic or Protestant faith would support citizens in other principalities to get rid of their rulers, if those rulers adhered to the other faith. With the Westphalian peace, all states agreed that this was a bad idea, and that each state had absolute sovereignty over all people living within its boundaries, but no sovereignty beyond those boundaries. Additionally, all states were defined as equal, and war was recognized as a legitimate medium of conflict resolution between states.
The key element of the Westphalian system was not borders per se, but the idea of absolute sovereignty. The border at which one sovereignty ends and another begins is a product. If there can be no overlap of sovereignty, and all territory falls under a certain sovereignty, then a border automatically emerges. As a result, the Westphalian system has no problem with borders changing or states emerging or disappearing, as long as the sovereignties in each resulting territory are clear and absolute.
A double obsession
The Westphalian state model stood in contrast to the old empire, which in principle recognized no borders and whose sphere of influence usually would not end at a specific line, but would fade out. Influence would have a varying character, and could include semi-sovereign sub-units, which would pay tribute more or less regularly — a classical example would be the Ottoman Empire.
The real implementation of the Westphalian system has never been as clear as theory would suggest. In a sense, colonialism was a challenge to the Westphalian system as European states turned into empires. But unlike the empires of Tamerlane, Rome or Persia, the new European empires were simultaneously obsessed with expansion and with boundaries — an obsession that eventually stuck us with lots of artificial borders in Africa and the Arab world.
Since then, there were all kinds of countries and groups that wanted to change the colonial borders, or that questioned where the borders really were. As a result, new countries like South Sudan appeared, countries like Libya invaded neighbors like Chad, and territories like the Halayeb triangle remained somehow ambivalent. However, these represented no challenges to the Westphalian system as such, as none of these groups were trying to do away with borders.
But even after the end of colonialism, the Westphalian system keeps being challenged. Firstly, supra-national institutions like the European Union, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court limit the absolute sovereignty of states within their borders. Secondly, international military interventions motivated by the so-called “responsibility to protect,” such as the Kosovo and Libya interventions, claim that the international community can bear responsibility for minorities or civilians in sovereign states, especially if these minorities are threatened with genocide. Thirdly, during the Cold War, communism — at least in principle — wanted to overcome the division into state-units, but even in the communist bloc this never happened. The Westphalian system proved to be rather obstinate.
What's in a name
While all these developments were mere modifications of the Westphalian system, the Islamic State wants to eliminate the system completely. Reflected in its name change from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" to simply "Islamic State," the movement does not aim to establish governance within specific borders, but rejects borders as such. In a video produced by the group, a young fighter called Abu Safiyya declared that “there are no nationalities. We are all Muslims, there is only one country.” He goes on to refer to all national flags as “kafir” (infidel).
Therefore, in its conception of the state, the ISIS has more in common with the empire of Alexander the Great than with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This might be one aspect which makes ISIS attractive for radical Muslims from around the world. They do not propose a particular national vision, but rather an internationalist utopia.
It would, however, be a mistake to assume that ISIS is archaic or medieval. The way the movement quickly spread, the way it was able to make use of its opponents’ weaknesses, the way it uses social media as a tool to advertise and recruit, but also as a tool of strategic warfare, demonstrates that it is clearly adapted to and rooted in the modern world: more Mad Max than Saladin.
Forced to adapt its strategies to spread its governance entity in a world organized by the Westphalian system, ISIS" ambition is a caliphate that is clearly not pre-Westphalian, but post-Westphalian.
The rejection of the modern state as an innovation incompatible with Islamic doctrine is based on the idea of the ummah. In a modern context, ummah would mean nation, or community, but traditionally it refers to the collective of all believers as they were ruled by one governance entity during the time of the Prophet — and then to a greater or lesser degree under the subsequent caliphs.
But with every country that ISIS attacks, it gains new enemies and becomes more vulnerable. Their ability to expand will basically be determined by three factors: the number of fighters who join from around the world, the level of local support and the degree to which the West is ready to get involved.
Either way, a quick further expansion would likely result in overstretch, and the caliphate could collapse as quickly as it appeared.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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