Under a Schmittian conception of politics, Peter Heft argues that viewing ISIS as a State and not as a terrorist organization is the best way to limit bloodshed.

About a month ago, I wrote a post on Right On entitled “War of All against All” where I analyzed the moralizing discourse of war from a Schmittian perspective while looking at the implications of fighting for what’s “right.” At the end of the post,  I brought up the issue of ISIS – namely, taking a moral stand against them – when I closed with a question that I only paid lip-service to in answering. I said:

[t]he last question is what do we do? Where do we go from here? Continue to let ISIS behead people for the sake of pluralism? (I personally hope not.) But what is the alternative? I’m not entirely sure. I am, however, sure that waging wars for moral reasons, or to eradicate those who “do not conform to the common values of humanity” is a recipe for unlimited and unrestrained violence.

The pithy answer I gave to my own question was “[p]erhaps it might be prudent to pause the synthesis of universal ethics with geopolitics, and instead view ISIS, and other rogue groups, as purely political adversaries and engage them accordingly.” I realized then, as I do now, that that answer is wholly unsatisfactory as it raises too many questions. In light of the recent interview with Polish MEP Andrzej Zapałowski in which it was determined that “ISIS is Already in Eastern Europe,” I feel that it is necessary to go back and more fully answer the question I raised – namely, what should the West do about ISIS?

The State of the Political

Before we dive head first into the question of the West’s response to ISIS, it would be wise to (re)-read “War of All against All”; however I will also give a recap/summary of the article here. In the article, I extended the Schmittian argument against a global conception of humanity citing that once a common definition of humanity is created, an inhuman “Other” is necessarily defined as well due to the fact that the creation of an in-group, so to speak, requires the creation of an out-group, or “Other.”1 Further, in the moralistic discourse inherent to conceptions of global humanity, the Other is not seen as a “just and equal” enemy, but rather as an aberration; a criminal against humanity.2 Following from this is the idea of the “just war”– that is to say, a war for morality – that is waged against the Criminal of humanity “[a]nd of course, when one is fighting for what is ‘right’ or ‘just’, there are no limits on what tactics one can use to achieve one’s end…and thus [a] permanent state of unrestrained violence is unleashed.”3

I ended the article by circling back around to my guiding question – namely “[w]hat happens when a common definition of ‘human rights,’ for example, is universalized, and a group refuses to follow that definition? Should they be destroyed?” As answered, under the liberal mindset of modernity, those who deviate from accepted international norms “must be terminated with extreme prejudice and fought against unto the last man.” This answer, however, is problematic given the Schmittian analysis which precedes it insofar as, as pointed out above, moralizing war leads to unrestrained violence. Does that mean, however, that there can be no ‘good fight’? Most of us are repulsed by the beheadings committed by ISIS, for example, but should we (the West) stand idly by for the sake of preserving pluralism? Should we take no militaristic action against ISIS out of fear of moralizing a war? What should we do?

Although the moral philosophy of pluralism is a topic to be expounded upon at a later date, I hope to, in this article, provide a politico-philosophical answer to the question of ISIS.

My answer to the question of what the West should do about ISIS is simple and yet potentially hard to swallow: change our view of ISIS. We should stop viewing ISIS as a “mere collection of psychopaths”4 or rogue terrorists. In fact, it would be better not view ISIS as a terrorist organization (in the strictest sense) at all. Rather, we ought to view ISIS as a State. A hostile State no doubt, but a State nonetheless. This view will allow us to demoralize conflict and place violence within the domain of the Political where it can be limited and targeted; not used as revenge on the State level.

The question you might be asking right now is “why should I view ISIS as anything other than a bunch of terrorists?” This question is perfectly valid as ISIS sure does not seem like a State in the traditional sense; rather they really do seem like a squabble of terrorists. It is my goal in the following section of the article to convince you otherwise.

The Structure of ISIS

In June 2014, ISIS spokesman Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared that ISIS was no longer a rogue group, but was an official Islamic State. Baghdadi named himself caliph (one who acts in Muhammad’s stead) and the Islamic State a caliphate (an area/political entity under traditional Islamic law).5 This is vitally important not only because of the attraction it had on un-radicalized Muslims in the Middle East, but because it cemented ISIS’ own view of itself as a functioning State. The announcement of the caliphate was a signal to all that Baghdadi had ‘amr (authority), which is principally gained by having “territory in which [one] can enforce Islamic law.”6 The territorial aspect of  ISIS post-June 2014 is important insofar as it, according to Islamic law, legitimized the group as a State as “territorial authority is a requirement [of Islamic Statehood].”This declaration and exemplification of a legitimate caliphate drew formerly un-radicalized Muslims to ISIS-occupied areas.

Following the declaration, ISIS ceased to simply be a radical organization, and instead became a radical State; one that must be examined in the context of the international community.

Further, ISIS is no mere mish-mash of Islamic extremists, but rather is an organization that provides the “whole package” of Sharia law – that is to say, “social and economic justice” – in the form of ‘progressive’ social-welfare programs (namely, free healthcare as a religious obligation).8 In addition to its implementation of social programs, ISIS differs from other extremist groups in that it fundamentally operates like a State by, for example, collecting garbage and providing running water,9 fixing power lines and creating sewage systems, and implementing regulations on the sale of food to prevent expired or contaminated goods from reaching the public.10 These programs, no matter how basic, are signifiers that ISIS is something fundamentally different than we’ve seen before.

If ISIS is viewed from a different angle, namely the angle where it is viewed as a State (a theocracy, of course), then what are the implications?

Rethinking ISIS

Rethinking how we categorize and understand ISIS can allow us to change our mindset towards dealing with them so as to treat them less like an irrational actor that has to be asymmetrically opposed and more like a hostile State whose actions can be predicted (to some extent) and whose influence can be contained. To be more specific, irrational actors – that is to say, terrorist organizations in the strictest sense (e.g. al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, etc.) – are dealt with ‘asymmetrically’. Precision strikes and targeted killings via drones are utilized, underhanded deals are made between ‘opposing’ factions, and arming ‘friendly rebels’ is seen as a viable strategy. In other words, when dealing with ‘traditional’ terrorist organizations, the West (primarily the U.S.) operates like it has since the early days of Bin Laden and the Mujahideen; approaches that have tended to fail. When dealing with declared hostile States, however, the approach is much different. While, of course, sabotage and clandestine operations are conducted, the response is generally to view these States, even if hostile, as more legitimate and worthy of being dealt with formally within the dirty arena of international politics. The result of this view is that, unlike unilateral anti-terrorist operations, the U.S. and other Western nations build coalitions, impose sanctions, and force ideological States to come out of their holes and play the game of politics. While by no means perfect, politically engaging States on an institutional level allows for the possibility of compromise, political conflict (as opposed to moral conflict), and alliances to contain threats – something especially vital in countering ISIS.

The benefit of changing our view of, and subsequently our discourse about, ISIS is that we can stop playing cat-and-mouse games in the shadows where we ship weapons to ‘rebels’ because they’re the ‘good guys,’ drone strike civilian areas because ‘we’re fighting evil,’ and so on. We can instead form alliances to stop the spread of ISIS’ “offensive jihad” (a required part of what it means to be a legitimate caliphate), work with surrounding countries to strengthen borders around ISIS to help contain their acquisition of land, and ultimately work internationally to force them into the international public sphere; a move the current strategy will forever prevent but one that will help undermine ISIS’ legitimacy.

As Graeme Wood says,

Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.


Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.11

Ultimately, by politicizing (as opposed to moralizing) ISIS and viewing them as more than a hodge-podge of extremists, the West has a better chance of predicting ISIS’ next move, dealing with them accordingly, and containing moral and sectarian violence in the Middle East.


1. William Rasch, “Lines in the Sand: Enmity as a Structuring Principle,” South Atlantic Quarterly 104:2 (Spring 2005, pp. 253-262), p. 255-256.

2. Louiza Odysseos, “Iconographies of Enmity: Ethics and Obligation in Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan,” paper prepared for the Second World International Studies Conference, Panel 035 Carl Schmitt and International Relations I: Reflections on Theory of the Partisan (Draft 2008), p. 7.

3. Peter Heft, “Part 4: The Races of Humanity or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Socially Constructed Divisions – Part 2,” Peter Says Stuff, published 1/6/16, accessed 3/1/16, <http://goo.gl/yh6UvM>

4. Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, published in March 2015, accessed 3/1/16, <http://goo.gl/Ub2MQd>

5. Al Jazeera, “Sunni revels declare new ‘Islamic caliphate’,” Al-Jazeera, published June 30, 2014, accessed 3/3/16, <http://goo.gl/1N1hWu>

6. Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” web.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ben Hubbard, “Offering Services, ISIS Digs In Deeper in Seized Territories,” The New York Times, published June 16, 2015, accessed 3/17/16, <http://goo.gl/NG9Jtw>

11. Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” web.

About The Author

Profile photo of Peter Heft

A “closet Conservative” on a liberal campus, Peter Heft is a student of philosophy and political science at Ohio’s Denison University where he mainly focuses his studies on Heideggerian and post-Heideggerian, Nietzschean, and Object-Oriented Ontological thought. He has had a life-long passion for knowledge and has been a national level debater since High School. He has maintained a blog for the past five years, Petersaysstuff, which is devoted to politics and philosophy.