ISIL as total state and pure violence

ISIL and all its state nemesis come together to form the amorphous shape of a “total state”.

National protest against Labor Law reform
For if freedom without safety is chaos, safety without freedom is tyranny, writes Dabashi [EPA]

Yemen, Kazakhstan, Orlando, Istanbul, Bangladesh, Baghdad, Medina, Nice and Kabul

Try to draw even the most recent map of the vicious, premeditated crimes perpetrated or claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), all targeting innocent, defenceless civilians and generating fear and loathing by choosing public spaces and symbolic dates: an airport in Istanbul, a busy market in Baghdad, a crowded promenade in Nice, Eid al-Fitr in Muslim countries, Bastille Day in France.

The map is spreading but the doctrine is constant: “shock and awe”.

This is not blind hatred. This is calculated criminality seeking to destabilise the ruling states ISIL targets: to show them to be inept at protecting civilians.

Whether they actually perpetrate the crime – Istanbul and Baghdad – or claim they did when the crimes are performed by deranged individuals – Orlando and Nice – they tally such barbarities towards a very specific purpose.

The origin of this malignant disease called ISIL was – and remains – in powerful states targeting weak states with massive civilian casualties – hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The result of it is a phantom, abstracted, delusional and fake state waging an asymmetric war against powerful states by deliberately targeting innocent civilians as the primary victims.

Common and constant to both its point of origin and its consequences, ISIL is symptom of a disease that keeps exacerbating the “state monopoly of violence” by targeting innocent and vulnerable civilians at moments and in places where their respective states are unable to protect them.

Citizens become naked lives

ISIL and all its state nemesis in and out of the Muslim world today come together to form the amorphous shape of a “total state” sustained via “pure violence” perpetrated upon innocent civilians: whether by the United States and NATO forces in Iraq or Libya, or by ISIL in Istanbul, Baghdad, Medina, Nice, or San Bernardino.

ISIL is the return of the barely repressed origin of all states, for which all innocent civilians have become what the eminent Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has aptly called “homo sacer” (the accursed person, the bare life).

Unable to protect their citizens – as ISIL intends to show all states to be – all states it targets effectively lose their basis of legitimacy and become, like ISIL, a state without a nation supporting it.

With each cycle of violence, powerful states that are posing to fight ISIL, in fact, become more like ISIL and repressive of civil liberties, more intolerant of democratic criticism, more prone to securitisation and surveillance technologies.


ISIL is targeting the hyphen holding the very idea of a “nation-state” together.

Both the vicious ISIL and all its powerful nemesis fight their battles on the increasingly weakened, vulnerable, frightened, naked, exposed, dispensable, digitised, atomised, subject to systemic surveillance, bodies of innocent civilians. ISIL is the very definition of state on steroid!

With every ISIL – or any other Islamist gang – attack against the defenceless citizens of a sovereign state, that state becomes increasingly more like ISIL: absolutist, militaristic, opting for undemocratic measures to curtail civil liberties.

The attempted military coup and countercoup in Turkey are the most potent example of relentless ISIL attacks pushing the state towards militaristic measures.

So is the rise of the proto-fascist Donald Trump and pro-mass surveillance Hillary Clinton in the US, or the rising popularity of xenophobic and Islamophobic political parties in Europe. The most symbolic version of it is the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

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ISIL is the basest denominator of all state violence, and innocent civilians are the sacrificial sites of exposing that violence.

In the aftermath of the Paris attack the French government banned all public demonstrations and increased its systematic surveillance of its citizens, as did the UK after the July 7, 2005 bombing, or Spain after the March 11, 2004 Madrid railway attack.

And so have Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or any other Arab country from Morocco to Jordan.

The ruling Syrian state apparatus is today almost identical to ISIL in its brutish disregard for civilian lives and liberties.

ISIL is a malignant cell that exposes the naked violence of all other states it touches.

ISIL as a contagious virus

The consistent codification of ISIL as an “Islamic” phenomenon by both the criminal thugs themselves and by the Islamophobia industry conceals and distorts a far simpler and far more urgent explanation. ISIL is the combined consequence of two deadly compositions: US-EU imperial militarism and Arab-Muslim nativist tyranny.

Any assessment that disregards any one of these two complimentary components will misread ISIL.

ISIL is the aggressive transmutation of 20th-century state violence catapulted on to the digital revolution 21st-century spectacle violence.

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There is, therefore, a direct structural link among the narco-state, the deep state, the security state, the garrison state, and now in the case of ISIL, the total state predicated on the pure spectacle of violence.

After each and every ISIL or ISIL-inspired or ISIL-claimed atrocity anywhere in the world, innocent civilian targets are the immediate casualties of their savagery.

After each such attack, they will not weaken but in fact strengthen the resolve of their state nemesis to chase after their shadow.

With each cycle of violence, powerful states that are posing to fight ISIL, in fact, become more like ISIL and repressive of civil liberties, more intolerant of democratic criticism, more prone to securitisation and surveillance technologies. Democracies can easily collapse into tyrannies.

In Turkey now, even criticising the state policies might be considered an act of “terrorism”.


Opposing this systematic securitisation of state, of the expansive surveillance state that Clinton promises or xenophobic fascism that a Trump presidency will unleash, citizens of a free and democratic nation have no choice but organise to protect their civil liberties.

Acts of mourning from Nice and Orlando to Baghdad and Istanbul and beyond must also be acts of civic solidarity, of feeling the palpitations of a collective social consciousness, not just in defiance of those savages who have sought to puncture it, but also against any and all state moves to deny it.

If law enforcement agencies do their work well, they will keep us safe, and if we ordinary citizens do our civic duties equally well, we will keep ourselves free.

Between the two of us we will ensure we are both safe and free. For if freedom without safety is chaos, safety without freedom is tyranny.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.