Brookings Paper: “The Legal Foundations of the Islamic State”

Abstract: This report, based on interviews with 82 Syrians and Iraqis from areas governed by the Islamic State, a collection of 279 punishments administered by Islamic State courts and police, and other primary source documents, describes the legal foundations of the self-proclaimed “caliphate.” Part I provides a comprehensive overview of the Islamic State’s legal system, including its laws, police apparatus, courts, and prisons. Although this legal system is frequently characterized as medieval, the Islamic State’s courts routinely punish modern day offenses—for example, traffic violations—that were not present at the time of the original seventh century caliphate that the group claims to be emulating. Such examples illustrate how the Islamic State’s legal system has instrumentally supplemented the original text of the Quran with the modern rules and regulations that are needed to govern a twenty-first century state. Part II explains how the Islamic State uses its legal system to advance three state-building objectives: (1) establishing a legal basis for territorial sovereignty and expansion; (2) enforcing internal discipline within Islamic State’s own ranks; and (3) justifying taxation, which has become an increasingly important source of revenue for the group. The paper concludes with a discussion of two emerging vulnerabilities of the Islamic State’s legal system— its susceptibility to corruption and propensity for extra-legal violence—which are increasingly under- mining its ability to obtain the trust and cooperation of civilians.

PDF available here: iwr_20160718_isis_legal_foundations


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