Whereas Al Qaida posed a threat by trying to disrupt Western culture and ideals, ISIS claims to want only to establish its own territory in order to govern by its own rules. If we strictly follow the principles of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War – with the concept of cuius region, eius religio, each region could have its religion - then we should not interfere. We can surely condemn their violence and blatant disregard for human rights, but how do they threaten us?
My unease with ISIS is more than just over human rights violations. ISIS is a threat to Western ideas about universal values and progress. In moments of well-meaning consensus, various baseline agreements have been reached about what is acceptable in international affairs. Numerous treaties and conventions have been ratified by a large majority of states. While East and West my disagree about the importance of economic, social and cultural rights, for example, beheadings and selling women into slavery are universally condemned. Even beyond this, disagreements are voiced in legitimate forums, such as the United Nations.
It is that process of negotiating that is an important part of the Peace of Westphalia, as important perhaps as the concluding right of self-determination and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries. The peace negotiations lasted several years, with few formal proceedings. Representatives of European states, Imperial States, and interested parties met at different times and in different places before the final agreements were reached.
What makes ISIS so unusual is that they are outside rules, any rules and beyond any process of negotiation. They have declared that they will behave in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs but outside of any accepted norms or procedures. Their message, delivered by impressive modern techniques, is that they are not bound by anything hitherto universally accepted.
Even in bloody conflicts like the one between the FARC rebels and government of Colombia there are negotiations. Negotiating differences, just like arbitrations in courts of law, are an integral part of resolving conflicts. Palestinians and Israelis do negotiate, as do Russians and Ukrainians. While the negotiations are often unsuccessful in definitively ending hostilities, there can be smaller agreements about humanitarian aid or pauses in fighting. In other words, even wars have certain rules. ISIS has only its own rules.
One of the most profound arguments about international norms is their universality. Do human rights, humanitarian law and international law in general reflect only Western values or are they truly universal? Were they part of a hegemonic colonialism or do they reflect the international community’s agreement on how societies should be organized? ISIS seems to be questioning any form of universality. They have taken the disruptive, protesting activities of Al Qaida to another level. ISIS is not only protesting; they are attempting to establish a type of society unlike anyone we have agreed to accept.
Am I unduly worried about ISIS? Yes and no. I don’t think they will directly threaten my safety in Switzerland, as Al Qaida might have done. But I do think they have opened up a Pandora’s box of doubts about universality. The international system is at a fragile moment. Multilateralism and negotiation are having an uphill battle. Until there is a universal condemnation of ISIS and all it stands for, the withering of an international consensus will continue, with the entire multilateral system and all it stands for at risk.
ISIS is much more of a threat than only in Iraq and Syria. It threatens to undermine our concepts of acceptable behavior and its progression, and that is something to be afraid of.