A motley band of princes and warlords in the periphery of the region begin a campaign of conquest, declaring that the reigning elite has grown decadent and complacent, falling too far from the precepts of their shared religious ideology. To everyone's surprise the group proves remarkably successful in the ensuing skirmishes, leaving behind them a trail of exceptional carnage and destruction, and as word of their campaigns spread they attract a growing crowd of diverse followers from throughout the region. Their stated goal is to conquer all of the country, as well as neighboring territories, in order to claim an ancient mandate with strong political and religious connotations. As the old regime looks on in horror, unable to muster the necessary forces to defend against this new threat, the capital eventually falls and the last of the old guard are forced into exile in foreign countries. Now faced with the challenge of governing the country they have conquered, the new elite sets about fashioning new institutions and appropriating old ones, while still pursuing a long-term strategy of territorial expansion.
This is the seventeenth century, not the twenty-first, and the setting is China, not the Middle East. But the parallels seem striking. As I have said elsewhere, I think conquest and attempted state formation, rather than terrorism and non-state violence, is the proper historical frame of reference for thinking about ISIS. To further highlight the parallels between the formation of the Manchu Empire and the current situation in Syria and Iraq, here is a quote from Odd Arne Westad's recent book on China in international history, Restless Empire:
"The Qing's announced goal was to rule according to ancient wisdom as set out in the classic works of Confucianism. The Ming had failed, they declared, because its rulers had become lax and equivocal; they had seemed weak and without a sense of direction for generations. Now the Manchus, the outsiders, had arrived in order to rectify China and bring back its greatness."
Other examples from the long history of Asian and European state building and regime change could be mentioned, the Manchus just being the most obvious match in terms of their initial trajectory. The parallel in more recent history would, of course, be the Afghan Taliban. Regardless, it seems clear to me that ISIS has seized upon a for them opportune situation of regional instability in order to embark upon a clear project of state building.
Now, the global order today is quite different from that of previous centuries and it is extremely unlikely that the international community, for lack of a better term, will ever allow a contender state like that of ISIS to get away with such a program, especially considering its stated goal of potentially vast territorial expansion and its disturbing use of extreme violence. A host of concerns have come together, including ones associated with state sovereignty, regional stability and power balances, and human rights, in order to force a relatively strong and at least somewhat collective response to the advances made by the Islamic State. This is a good thing, from both a practical and a normative point of view, since the state proposed by ISIS would no doubt be a disastrous addition to an already conflict-ridden region. But framing the issue solely in terms of terrorism and associated non-state violence, as both academics and politicians have done, is a mistake and does us no favors when attempting to understand the larger historical and social context within which ISIS, or the Islamic State, now operates.