Strife Feature | The Islamic State’s Social Contract: A ‘state’ founded on fear or freedom?

By Kierat Ranautta-Sambhi


A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq, on March 4, 2017. Image Credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic


With the Islamic State’s caliphate crumbling, many in the towns and villages on the brink of liberation fear their post-Islamic State future.  To understand why the group succeeded to such an extent and to establish a lasting end to the conflict, we must look back at how the Islamic State managed to win the hearts and minds of the people, thus allowing the rise of its caliphate.  Whilst the group has attempted to portray itself as a concerned and capable ruler, the reality is that its social contract is built on a foundation of fear.

Annie Barnard and Hwaida Saad of The New York Times write: ‘The Islamic State alternates between terrorizing residents and courting them.  The group succeeded precisely because it realised that there is no single method by which to persuade its target audiences to its cause – in this case, the revival of the Islamic caliphate.  Rather, it carefully constructs its strategic communications so that it resonates with numerous audiences, appealing both to their desires and fears.

The question of whether the basis for the state – the Islamic State or otherwise – is freedom or fear is an old one.  In this regard, the influences of both Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are evident in the Islamic State’s approach to establishing its caliphate.  For instance, Hobbes suggests that the desire for security lies at the heart of the formation of the social contract.  Ultimately, fear lays the foundations of the state.  On the contrary, Rousseau’s approach to the social contract is based on freedom which, in essence, is the right of an individual to pursue his/her will.  And so, the question arises: Does the philosophy of fear or the philosophy of freedom found the basis for the state?  Is fear more powerful than freedom?

Mara Revkin argues that the existence of a social contract goes beyond the theoretical realm in the context of the Islamic State, as evidenced by the Wathīqat al-Madīnah [Document of the City].  The document is distributed by the group throughout territories under its control, defining the rights and duties binding together the residents of the caliphate and the Islamic State.


Excerpts of the Wathīqat al-Madīnah[i]


So, the question remains: what is – or, more accurately, was – it about the Islamic State that resonated with certain individuals?

Hobbes believes that humans are fundamentally governed by our ‘appetites and aversions’ – in other words, our desires and our fears.  The Islamic State has recognised this.  It capitalises on the desires and fears of its target audiences in order to construct the Islamic State, and gain and maintain support for its rule.  Beyond those who are ‘ideologically committed to the goal of establishing a caliphate that is governed according to sharia’, [ii] many of those who support – or, at least accept – Islamic State control are attracted to its claims to be able to provide security and services to its residents.

Consider just one example of a target audience: Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria.

Certain individuals view the Islamic State as the only actor actively addressing its (immediate) desires for a sense of belonging, and fears of continued alienation.  The group claims that ‘There is only one sect here, Sunni Islam […] Here in the Caliphate, there is no room for pluralism’.[iii]  Such claims resonate with many Sunnis who feel marginalised by the relevant non-Sunni ruling sect.  By nature, humans seek power so that they are able to preserve themselves.  It appeals to Iraqi Sunnis’ desires to restore the power lost in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War; and, it appeals to many Sunni Syrians living under an Alawite regime (a minority sect), as evidenced in the accounts given by former Islamic State members.  Peter Neumann observes that defectors’ critiques are ‘framed in jihadist and/or sectarian terms’, with some members deserting as a result of brutality against Sunnis, whom they believed the Islamic State ought to protect.[iv]

Others fear the Islamic State itself, viewing the group as a threat to their self-preservation.  Whilst the role of the government should be to dispel fear, the Islamic State utilises it to consolidate its control in areas it has seized.  William McCants argues that brutality can be a very efficient means with which to ‘subdue a population’ and ‘establish your own state’ – at least, in the short-term.  The Islamic State made clear that violations of its strict understanding of sharī‘a codes of conduct would result in harsh punishments – from lashes to execution.

It could be argued that, as consideration for a Hobbesian social contract, subscribing citizens voluntarily give up their natural rights and pool their liberties, agreeing to live by the rule of the state in return for which the state provides them security.  Yet, at least in the case of the Islamic State, the choice is often taken away from many residents living in areas under its control.  They are often left with little choice but to accept the group’s rule.  In a somewhat twisted version of the Hobbesian state, it could be argued that individuals accept this social contract as a means to avoid a state of war with the state itself.

Those who break the social contract – or, those who the Islamic State deem to have done so – revert to the state of war, and, thus, the state is no longer required to protect them.  Rather, the state is at liberty to protect itself against such a threat to its preservation – an approach followed by the Islamic State.  This is evident when considering its brutal reaction to deserters.  By 2016, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had recorded more than 400 executions carried out by the group on its own fighters and followers, including many whom were trying to return to their home countries.

Whilst many of the arguments Hobbes makes are still pertinent to the construction of a state based on fear, there is an obvious flaw in applying the Hobbesian explanation of the social contract to the Islamic State.  The group is actively seeking the coming of ‘the Major Malhamah’,[v] ‘eagerly awaiting’ the arrival of its opponents’ armies. [vi]  Rather than avoiding war at all costs, the Islamic State invites war, and, thus, the inevitable insecurity that accompanies it.  Moreover, whilst Hobbes argues that the social contract is formed so that man can live together in society without fearing one another, this is not the case with the Islamic State.  Rather, many residents of the caliphate live in fear of their rulers.

Furthermore, contrary to Hobbes, Rousseau argues that the social contract is essentially founded on freedom.  Individuals surrender their natural liberties in the hope that the state can protect the civil liberties that they receive in return.  However, the Islamic State provides very limited rights within its social contract.  It claims to abide by the religious teachings of the ḥadīth which states: ‘The people are as equal as the teeth of a comb’.[vii]

(In theory), most non-Muslims within Islamic State-controlled areas would be protected so long as they paid the jizyah tax.  However, in reality, protection is only afforded to the ‘true believers’, determined by the Islamic State as only Sunni Muslims.  Christians and other religious minorities are the victims of genocide at the hand of the group.  This contradicts the idea that the social contract establishes mutual protection amongst citizens within society, in return for the enjoyment of the same rights as every other citizen.  Thus, it appears as though this protection only extends to certain contracting parties.

The promise of rights, liberties, and security serves as a means with which to entice individuals to accepting Islamic State rule, playing to the fears of those feeling marginalised by national governments.  The Islamic State attempts to construct the perception of being a compassionate, embracing, and capable governing group so that it can demand allegiance in return for the provision of security, public services, and justice – responsibilities typically associated with a traditional understanding of a state.  This is explicitly demonstrated in its social contract: in the Wathīqat al-Madīnah, the Islamic State promises to provide safety and security, rights (albeit limited), and justice in return to those who ‘join the society [the Islamic State] and renounce factions and strife’. [viii]

Yet, as coalition efforts continue, the Islamic State continues to suffer considerable financial and territorial losses, affecting its ability to provide security and services in the caliphate.  With its caliphate crumbling around it, the group seems to rely on fear as a sort of fail-safe.  In reality, the Islamic State seems, first and foremost, based on fear – fear of the alternative and/or fear of the Islamic State itself.

Whilst the group has made attempts to demonstrate its commitment to protecting the rights of the residents of the caliphate, it is its reputation as a strict, authoritative ruler that dominates.  It relies on coercive credibility, leaving residents fearful of acting out of line with Islamic State rule.  Following a somewhat Hobbesian mindset, the group seems to believe that less freedom will lead to less anarchy.

As it fails to uphold the mirage of protector, even those supporting the group begin losing faith in its abilities to govern.  Yet, it remains evident that the Islamic State will follow through on what it says regarding punishment of those who it deems an enemy of the group.  Moreover, Hobbes argues that man is able to connect together his sensory experiences to garner what may occur in the future; consequently, mankind fears not only its present but, also, its future.  Given its high coercive credibility, many residents of Islamic State-controlled areas continue to live in fear for their lives, and those of their family.

Although this has been a somewhat simplistic discussion of the Islamic State’s social contract, it is worth considering in more depth what it is that attracts individuals to the Islamic State: What do they desire? What do they fear?  What made them believe the Islamic State was more able to fulfil the responsibilities and duties of the State?  The Islamic State evidently possessed an answer to these questions.  From its inception, the group has purported to address the disaffection of Muslims worldwide.  It claims that the ‘revival of the Khilāfah [caliphate]’ has allowed each Muslim to ‘satisfy his natural desire for belonging to something greater.’ [ix]  Yet, the rise of the caliphate was largely due to the Islamic State’s ability to play on the fears of its target audience(s).  Rather than Hobbes or Rousseau, the success (at least, initially) of the Islamic State in establishing its State is perhaps more accurately summarised by Niccolò Machiavelli:

‘it is desirable to be both loved and feared, but it is difficult to achieve both, and if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.’


Kierat Ranautta-Sambhi has just completed her MA International Peace and Security at King’s College London.  She holds a LLB Law with French Law from the University of Birmingham, with a year spent studying at Université Panthéon-Assas (Paris II).  Her research interests include strategic communications, counter-extremism and the MENA region.  You can follow her @kieratsambhi


[i] Revkin, Mara. 2016. “The legal foundations of the Islamic State.” Analysis Paper No.23, July, 2016. The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World., 15.

[ii] Revkin, Mara, and Mhidi, Ahmad. 2016. “Quitting ISIS.” Foreign Affairs, May 1, 2016.

[iii] Dabiq #12. 2015. “Just Terror.” Al-Ḥayāt Media Center. November 18, 2015., 47.

[iv] Neumann, Peter R. 2015. “Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors.” ICSR., 10.

[v] ‘Malhamah is the singular of malahim, which are the bloody battles that occur before the Hour.’ – Rumiyah #3. 2016. Al-Ḥayāt Media Center. November 11, 2016., 25.

[vi] Al-Furqan Media. 2014. “Although the disbelievers dislike it.” November 16, 2014., 15:12.

[vii] Revkin, Mara, and Mhidi, Ahmad. 2016. “Quitting ISIS.” Foreign Affairs, May 1, 2016.

[viii] Revkin, Mara. 2016a. “The legal foundations of the Islamic State.” Analysis Paper No.23, July, 2016. The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World., 15, Table 1, Articles 3 & 9.

[ix] Dabiq #7. 2015. “From Hypocrisy to Apostasy: The Extinction of the Grayzone.” Al-Ḥayāt Media Center. February 12, 2015., 57.


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