ISIS, Foucault, and Evading the State

By Matt Broomfield

The progressive, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) this week announced its intention to begin trials of the estimated 2000 ‘third-country national’ male ISIS fighters it is currently holding in its detention centres, along with around 8000 Syrian and Iraqi combatants. The mooted trials are commonly represented as ‘unilateral’ – a loaded term, implying the AANES is acting without consultation of its nominal partners in the continued fight against ISIS.

In reality, of course, the AANES and its military wing – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – have long been appealing for foreign powers to either repatriate their nationals, or provide legal, security, financial and humanitarian support for an international tribunal or court for ISIS, and their subsequent detention. These appeals have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears, with Western powers pointing to norms of international law they themselves established – and have repeatedly violated – as self-perpetuating proof of their inability to assist or engage with the AANES.

Liberal commentators and US-linked NGOs like Human Rights Watch regularly castigate the AANES for the conditions in which ISIS are detained, with the result that many casual observers are more familiar with the plight of the West’s bête noire in ISIS than they are with the demands, continued military struggle, humanitarian efforts and political position of their nominal allies in the AANES and SDF. If we consider this apparent conundrum with reference to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power relations, it can be understood that ISIS continue to play a particular role in the cultural imagination and disciplinary politics of the West.

The West needs ISIS to be punished in order to discipline its own citizens. But it also wants to expiate its guilt over this punishment, and so responsibility is transferred onto the SDF and AANES, for which the West can then deny responsibility. Choosing to join ISIS constitutes the upper limit of alienation from Western society. But so too does the spectacle of ISIS in defeat scratch a certain itch for the liberal order ISIS sought to destroy.

This can be best understood with reference to the well-known detention centre al-Hol Camp. North and East Syria is home to around a million IDPs, the large majority of them ordinary Arabs and Kurds, with no connection to ISIS. 65,000 IDPs, commonly perceived to be the families and supporters of ISIS, live in al-Hol, regularly described as a ‘ticking time-bomb’ and breeding-ground for ISIS to recruit and rebuild its caliphate. The camp is home to somewhere around 50,000 Iraqis and Syrians, perhaps half of whom have direct links to ISIS, as well as around 10,000 third-country nationals, all of whom were at the very least married to ISIS members, many continuing to actively implement ISIS ideology. While the camp make up is complex and has also housed people who fled ISIS’ advanced and the ongoing war, all the foreign national women being held in Roj and Hol Camps travelled to join the terror organization.

The environment is undoubtedly complex, but the camp certainly does function as a de facto ‘mini-caliphate’, governed by primarily Iraqi and Eastern European ISIS fanatics, primarily women. There is a cruel irony in the fact that perhaps the largest space on earth populated only by women and children is to be found not in any autonomous women’s village of Jinwar, or ‘Women’s House’ (Mala Jin) like those set up in line with the precepts of the Rojava revolution, but in the prison camp it is forced to operate to hold foreign-national ISIS members on behalf of the world. The more radical jihadist women, who rule the ‘mini-caliphate’ through a campaign of beatings, arson and murder, remain convinced of their impending victory.

For the prison camp in fact serves ISIS’ ends perfectly. When I worked in a media office in North and East Syria, perhaps half the requests we received were concerned solely with the relative handful of foreign ISIS members detained there. As in the well-known case of Shamima Beghum, a young British-born woman stripped of her citizenship after travelling (or being trafficked) to Syria aged just 15, enthusiastically participating in ISIS’ rule as a member of the morality police, and making an ill-judged series of media appearances in which she appeared essentially unrepentant, the West agonizes endlessly over the fate of the ‘ISIS brides’. Some commentators plead for clemency: others imply the women should be carted off to Iraq for show trials and rapid execution. What is more important than the position a given columnist takes is the fascination, the inability to look away. With ISIS’ territorial control over North and East Syria’s oil fields smashed, the reams of ink spilled on their account are the only flows of capital the ailing terror group can now count on.

Seen this way, the women of al-Hol short-circuit the intended punishment technic of the refugee camp. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault theorizes that modern, post-Enlightenment society drives towards the constitution of a “totally useful time” for its citizen-inmates, disciplining them to play their respective roles in a totally-regulated social order. Building on this idea, it could be argued that the IDP camp is supposed to embody society’s reverse, a ‘totally useless time’, boot-camp for the reserve army of labour, disciplining respectable society through the comparison with what awaits should the disciplinary state and its labouring subjects fail in their respective duties. But ISIS have been able to make al-Hol work on their behalf, providing grist to their propaganda mill by presenting their women and children as the victims of Western cruelty against the Ummah, rallying support once more across the globe.

Anti-imperialists blame U.S. intervention in the Middle East for the rise of ISIS, and alienation in imperial cores for international participation in the terror group: others push back, arguing that the theological and eschatological impulse of ISIS reaches back centuries into the deep history of Islam, and cannot be reduced to the violations Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi witnessed while detained by the US at Camp Bucca. In fact, the SDF’s struggle against ISIS provides an exit-ramp to the vampire’s castle which has left some on the left struggling to condemn even the Islamic State, due to a misdirected empathy with the genuine victims of the West’s war on terror. For one, albeit that the SDF is secular, as is the Kurdish movement as a whole, the vast majority of those who fought and died fighting ISIS were from impoverished Sunni Muslim families themselves – a fact often lost in American coverage, particularly, where the Muslim Kurds are reimagined as essentially Christian, Western proxies.

More importantly, the Kurdish movement’s analysis of ISIS recalls an important and often-forgotten point. To the Western powers, the war against ISIS was a war against terror. But to the Kurds and their allies in the SDF, the war against ISIS was rather an anti-fascist struggle against a theocratic state – the state, in fact, as ISIS styled themselves. ISIS’ wickedness was nothing to do with their status as a non-state armed actor per se, but simply that they put into practice a regimen of cruelty only somewhat distinct from that found in, say, Saudi Arabia. That they gained such notoriety was because they presumed to act like a state without being one, that they practised unmasked the unspoken, unspeakable cruelty of theo-fascism.

Given they themselves claim the term, a principled position which recognizes and opposes ISIS as a ‘state’ should be uncontroversial, as should the AANES policy of militarily eradicating ISIS as a fundamentally fascist military and territorial force while also working positively to counter the appalling material conditions and deep-rooted patriarchal mentality which facilitated ISIS’ explosive rise. But here, as elsewhere, Rojava’s representatives often seem to stand alone in articulating a criticism of both imperialist Western intervention and the virulently misogynistic, chauvinistic, authoritarianism Islamism which it helped to birth.

In truth, it is possible to reconcile and move beyond the standard liberal conception of ISIS as primitives refusing progress and modernity, and the countervailing anti-imperialist analysis which prefers to depict the terror organisation’s rise as a catastrophic but inevitable response to neo-imperialist interventionism in the Middle East, the invasion and subjugation of Muslim-majority Iraq, and the repressive technologies brought to bear against dissident, subaltern populations.

As Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish, the Enlightenment inevitably brought with it the Inquisition, and technologies of repression which “have their technical matrix in the petty, malicious minutiae of the disciplines and their investigations.” Disciplinary technologies were developed in order to further a rationalist, positivist ideology of progress, like that used by neo-cons to justify US intervention in Iraq: and if ISIS oppose post-Enlightenment liberal values, they must inevitably oppose this regimen of control as well. The two are inseparable.

Given that their project is the critique of liberal modernity from the theocratic extreme right, the technics of the camp therefore fail to constrain ISIS. In al-Hol as in Mosul and Raqqa before their fall, ISIS have their own morality police, their own hierarchy, their own monopoly of violence. The camp is intended to hold up ISIS as an abject example of failure, to extol the inevitable victory of liberal state capitalism. But it signally fails in this task.

Foucault used the ‘panopticon’, a notional prison system whereby each individual prisoner can see no other prisoner and never knows if they themselves are under observation by the guard or not, as his model of a modern surveillance society in which direct, violent discipline is no longer needed. But again, ISIS short-circuit this disciplinary technology. In al-Hol Camp, and the prisons in which they continue to plot major uprisings and break-outs, the terror group operate as their own panopticon, a self-observing cell, holding one another to an alien moral code. These should be disorderly, abject bodies: but they are ordered, organized, refusing to be cowed below the world’s gaze. Through this continued remaining, as the ISIS slogan has it, the terror-state retains its power.

But ISIS therefore also fulfil a necessary role within the global liberal order. They are what Foucault calls ‘delinquents’ – outlaws produced by a disciplinary, carceral system in order to illustrate its continued necessity, locked in a mutually-parasitic relation. A carceral society needs these ‘bad guys’, who can never actually challenge its foundations, living in an endless cycle of crime-punishment-recidivism. ISIS therefore cannot help but be plugged into circuits of desire, moral outrage and sublimated violence which serve only to feed the system they are supposed to be destroying.

In reality it is Rojava, not ISIS, which represents the truly unseen subject, the truly counter-systemic alternative swept under the carpet as the Islamic and liberal-democratic states feed off one another’s antipathy, providing one another with propaganda material and moral justification for their violent excesses. Denied – or choosing to deny themselves – the state form which would allow them access to forms of hope recognized by international law, the people of Rojava are left beyond the circle of firelight in which ISIS, Turkey, Russia, the USA and all the other states circle with drawn knives.

Rojava can never hope to be a state – if it does indeed start trying and sentencing international ISIS members, its judgements will be not recognised by the international community – and nor should it try to be. Instead, it must follow a harder, more curious path.

It’s true that the bloodshed in the war against ISIS is the cement which holds together the disparate populations of Rojava today – revolutionary vanguard, embattled minorities, and impoverished rural communities all united through the struggle against a common enemy. Concomitantly, there remains a risk of legitimate anger over ISIS’ historic violence deepening fissures between the Kurdish and Arab communities now attempting to form a united polity, producing further resentment and cycles of violence. In private, if not in public politics, it’s common enough to hear ugly sentiments directed at Arab neighbours seen as complicit in ISIS’ crimes.

But is also possible to witness a distinct sense of pride in how well captured ISIS fighters are treated, in distinction to both ISIS’ own practices and those of the nation-states who spent billions to bomb the caliphate into ruins only to cut off almost all support as the bombs stopped falling. These bold, imperfect, underfunded, vital efforts to do things differently, the education programs for Isis prisoners and women’s houses in the refugee camps and managed releases of convicted Isis members back to their tribes, have largely been ignored in the West. It is the Western public who clamour bloodthirstily for ISIS fighters to suffer their fate. Meanwhile, the AANES and SDF have systematically refused to exercise the right to revenge, though with 11,000 dead that right would surely be theirs more than any others’. It is in these moments, when one meets the 20-year-old Kurdish woman responsible for a camp of ISIS detainees, loved by them and loving them though three of her family were slaughtered in Kobane, that it is possible to recognise the extent to which the AANES’ program stands outside the accepted order.

The AANES has spent the past years desperately appealing either for foreign states to repatriate their own dirty laundry; or for the United Nations or International Criminal Court to come to North and East Syria and put ISIS on trial themselves; or, now, to be allowed to try foreign ISIS members themselves in their own courts. But AANES are not a state, and so – the almighty Western states protest – they cannot diplomatically engage with the AANES to solve the crisis themselves, nor permit AANES to run their own legal process. All options are shut down, and the AANES continues to be blamed for the worsening crisis in the camps and jails.

In the West, Foucault writes, “publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence: the execution itself is like an additional shame.” The unstable military stand-off in northern Syria sometimes described as a ‘frozen conflict’. But in terms of the war against ISIS, the situation can be understood as a ‘frozen execution’, enabling Western observers endlessly to live out their shameful punishment-fantasy, devolving their guilt onto SDF and AANES. ISIS are seen, their punishment played out in al-Hol Camp before cameras which will never stop rolling, a living death.

In the shadows, AANES screams itself hoarse, calling for justice, asking only to be allowed to conduct a trial, even a trial conducted on the West’s own liberal-juridical terms. Meanwhile, the West invokes AANES only to dismiss them as a possible solution, knowing that to engage in serious relations with or support for the region would be to entertain an unpalatable challenge to the hegemony of state power, as incarnated in Erdoğan’s authoritarian Turkey and the Syrian regime.

Whether clutching its pearls about how awful ISIS’ treatment is, or quietly hoping for their execution, what is important is that the West focuses its gaze solely on ISIS, and ignores the alternative solutions which the AANES doggedly proposes. Until these proposals are met with the serious response they deserve, the two rival state systems – post-Westphalian liberal and Islamic – will remain locked in a self-perpetuating, endlessly-revitalized circuit of violence.


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