Whether the Islamic State Can Turn On The Lights Is Neither Here Nor There

A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces guards a security point on Bashiqa mountain, overlooking Islamic State (ISIS) held territories of Mosul, 12 km northeast of Mosul City, March 7. When it comes to public services, ISIS is no worse than most Middle East governments, the author writes. Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Ever since the self-declared ISIS overran Mosul in June 2014, virtually everyone has made it fairly clear in mostly unintended ways that we do not understand a lot about the group.

Perhaps that is a bit unfair. There are a number of talented scholars who have done great work on the origins and worldview of the Islamic State (ISIS). Both Will McCants and Dan Byman have new books on the group and Aaron Zelin has long been a terrific resource on all things extremist.

Their work should help Washington understand how to meet the challenge the Islamic State presents, yet I keep hearing the same things about the Islamic State that I have been hearing since everyone discovered it and rediscovered Iraq 15 months ago. One of the most dissatisfying is this, or some variation of it: "The Islamic State cannot provide services in the areas that it controls thereby sowing the seeds of its own demise."

This strikes me as one of those things that makes a lot of sense to those of us here, but seems erroneous in the context of the Islamic State. It is pretty clear to me that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not care about guaranteeing services, that failing to provide things like electricity will not actually undermine the Islamic State and that the inability (or unwillingness) to extend services to people living in ISIS-land does not make it all that different from any number of states in the Middle East.

There may very well be opposition to the Islamic State because electricity is unreliable and fuel is short. People in Raqqa, Mosul, or Ramadi could be seething, but the Islamic State's leaders have a number of other pressing priorities.

The first, of course, is their own security. The United States is hunting from the air and, if reports that have leaked out from Islamic State-controlled areas are accurate, there is significant dissension in the ranks. The spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government claims that al-Baghdadi has had 140 people put to death recently for plotting a coup, though there is no confirmation that this happened.

Then, of course, there are the central goals of the organization: Extending and defending its domain, and recreating what they imagine to be the way of life of the original community of believers—even though we know that the Islamic State more closely resembles a death cult. The claim that they are returning the areas the Islamic State controls to Islam's roots is the ontological basis for the organization.

Finally, there is also, as some claim, the desire to bring about the "end of days." It is unclear where the provisions of services fit when it comes to the theological exigency of these goals.

The funny thing about the assertion that the Islamic State is on the verge of instability because of its failure to turn on the lights completely overlooks the fact that an inability to provide basic services does not make it exceptional in a region where being a diesel-powered generator dealer is a very good thing.

There has long been an erroneous assumption that Middle Eastern states are "strong." Yes and no. It seems obvious that many of them can bring a lot of force to bear on their own populations, but coercion is a crude and distorting indicator. Force alone does not tell analysts all that much about state strength—an admittedly slippery concept.

In many places throughout the region there is scant evidence of the state outside the capital and politically important cities. If you hang out in Cairo or Alexandria, you could reasonably conclude that the Egyptian state is strong, but it is hard to deduce the same in Damanhour, Zagazig, or Edfu.

I remember being in Palmyra in 1993, but I do not remember seeing even a single policeman. There must have been, right? There were security personnel everywhere in Hafez al-Assad's Syria, but outside Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, I cannot recall one. There were even power outages in Damascus then.

Saddam Hussein secured Baghdad, Tikrit and a few other places, but not much else. Even in Turkey, where the state is regarded to be far more capable than in the Arab Middle East, the folks in Uzungol seem to be largely on their own.

Of course, Middle Eastern leaders are concerned with services. Part of the reason why the Justice and Development Party has dominated Turkish politics for so long has been its investment in infrastructure, transportation and health care. This year, Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was apparently quite worried that expected electricity outages during a long, hot summer would prompt large-scale protests. Piles of uncollected trash have recently shaken Lebanon.

Yet these examples seem to be the exception that proves the rule. Aside from the wealthy Gulf states, creaky physical infrastructure and unreliable or nonexistent government services are the norm where most people in the Arab world—including the Islamic State—live. Like the other states in the region, we should stop overstating the Islamic State.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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