Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

ISIL and the International System

Paul S. Rowe


By Paul S. Rowe

October 20, 2014


The US decision to lead an Arab coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in northern Syria and Iraq and the month-long ISIL siege of the Syrian Kurdish  town of Kobani have seized the attention of the world. Media interest fastens on the dramatic successes of ISIL and its lauded brutality. And certainly ISIL trades on the reputation it has developed over the past few months as a group too violent and radical even to be allied with al- Qaeda. But beyond the violence and disorder fomented by ISIS, there is a deeper reason why the international community must view it as a threat.

When the militant Islamic State movement invaded northern Iraq in the middle of June 2014 and declared that it had restored the age-old Islamic caliphate, it instantly became more than a threat to the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Up until that time, it was a leading faction in the civil war against the Syrian state. Crossing the border into Iraq, it became a far graver threat to the sectarian government of that country. But by unilaterally erasing the border between two states, the Islamic State asserted its intent to exist outside the established norms of international law.

A militant group that threatens one state or another is fairly common. What makes the Islamic State a greater danger is its assertion of an alternative form of legitimacy to the nation-state. In the Westphalian state system that embraces the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (by which state authorities do not seek to impose religion on others through war), a caliphate is an anachronism and an aberration. It challenges the very foundations of the state system that underpin international law and custom.

In a groundbreaking article written in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Daniel Philpott argued that the global Islamist movement presented a “challenge to the Westphalian synthesis.”[1]  Although his point was a salient one, it was relatively easy to ignore that challenge in the years that followed. Al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan were a concern for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but their remit was a relatively small area in the border region between the two states that actually reinforced the border between them and the divergent priorities of their foreign policies. Islamic State has done the opposite: by challenging both the Iraqi government and the Syrian regime, it threatens to disrupt the foreign policy divergences of states by presenting a singular challenge to their very international legitimacy. The erasure of the Syrian/Iraqi border is just a prelude in ISIL’s eyes to the elimination of boundaries throughout the region.

By challenging the secular impulse in international relations, ISIL seeks not only to wrest power, but to return the world to the “religious wars” of past centuries. Not surprisingly, its first actions were to engage in religious cleansing in areas under its authority, extorting, looting, and killing those who professed or belonged to a faith not its own.

Answering this challenge will be very difficult, not least because Western understandings of secularism have gone far beyond the limited aims of the Westphalian synthesis. The secular principle introduced in the Westphalian state system was founded on the conviction that we cannot expunge basic philosophic and religious differences from global society. The same conviction introduced secularism as a guiding principle in Western societies. However, to the extent that a secular international system demands a cleansing of religion, it oversteps its bounds in much the same way that ISIL does. Contemporary secularism runs the risk of demanding that we go to war over those very same questions – demanding new orthodoxies rather than agreeing that some basic divisions will always be with us.

The erasure of the border between Iraq and Syria threatens to erase a much more important border: the limitations of the state in the modern age. Let us not respond merely by reinforcing those borders, but also by reaffirming the limitations of the secular state. Jesus noted that we must “render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Islamic State will only be chastened by a renewed commitment to the simple secular neutrality underlying the Westphalian synthesis. The international community would do well to uphold a secularism that enhances public pluralism when it comes to religion, not one that merely reinforces a different orthodoxy. That is a lesson for the sectarian government of Iraq, other Muslim majority states, and indeed to every state in the world, our own included.


- Paul S. Rowe is Associate Professor of Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada.  


[1] Daniel Philpott, “The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations,” World Politics 55, no.1, (2002), 92.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”