Contending Futures in the 21st-Century Middle East: Ideology and the Emergent Political Formations of ISIS, Kurdistan-Iraq and Kurdistan-Syria

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Adams, Julia


This dissertation examines three state-building projects emerging out of the connected political crises in Syria and Iraq in the early 21st Century: Kurdistan-Syria, Kurdistan-Iraq, and the Islamic State. Despite rising to significance within the same time and space, these political formations pursue widely different projects. While the Kurds in Northern Syria are attempting to establish a new federation based on direct democracy, feminism, and anti-capitalist cooperatives, the Kurds of Iraq, just across the border, are engaging in the construction of a nation-state that favors representative democracy, patriarchal values, and a neoliberal capitalist system. Both of these contrasting Kurdish formations have battled ISIS, which sustained a fundamentalist religious and fascist system to their south. Why have such different formations emerged out of the same political crucible? Drawing upon the analyses and debates in the social science history literature on state-building, I classify these political formations - entities that seek to exist separately in the political realm, as either autonomous or independent – along three dimensions: (1) patrimonial to rational/bureaucratic structure, (2) exclusive to inclusive system, and (3) vertical to horizontal organization. Arrayed in this three-dimensional space, Kurdistan-Iraq is patrimonial, organizationally vertical, yet relatively inclusive along ethnic, religious, and gender lines. Kurdistan-Syria, on the other hand, is partially patrimonial but strives toward a democratic rationality. It is also highly inclusive and comparatively horizontal. Finally, ISIS represents a patrimonial, genocidally exclusive, and violently vertical system. What explains this variation? The prevalent bellicist, materialist, and rational choice approaches to state-building are inadequate. Instead, I argue, actors’ ideological frameworks are a critical explanatory factor in a more comprehensive answer. More specifically, ideology shapes the political character of a formation by informing which relations, institutions, and practices actors pursue and by mediating the impact of other dimensions of social life. I adopt a materialist-institutionalist understanding that conceptualizes ideologies as having autonomous power while being embedded within material/institutional complexes. My approach, therefore, is Marxist-culturalist. I draw upon a variety of empirical sources collected during fieldwork in Iraq, the U.S., and Germany from 2016 to 2019. The U.S. and Germany were selected due to the sizable Syrian Kurdish refugee communities they hosted. During this period, I conducted over 40 in-depth interviews with civilian, political, and military figures. I was also able to observe insider dynamics among movement members and interactions between members and ordinary civilians. These interviews and observations have provided invaluable insights about the movements’ ideological positions, and the structures and institutions being built in the region. During my research, I also gathered original party programs, ideological writings, and movement statements for textual analysis. Chapter Two develops a model of ideology involving three dimensions: (1) an image of an ideal society, (2) actions prescribed as appropriate, and (3) institutions to be established in an ideal society. The next three empirical chapters use this model to analyze Kurdistan-Syria, Kurdistan-Iraq, and ISIS, showing that the variation in their political character is directly informed by their different ideological articulations of image, actions, and institutions. In an effort to sublate the insights of the prevalent approaches into a broader framework rather than simply discard them, the chapters also focus on the impact of a group’s position within power/property relations and geopolitical configurations. The first empirical chapter, Chapter Three, focuses on Kurdistan-Iraq. Analyzing the ideological articulations of the two dominant parties in the region, the KDP and PUK, I show that the political character of Kurdistan-Iraq is a result of a non-racist framework of secular nationalism, a decades-long commitment to a republican form of government, and increasingly Western-aligned commitments to “modern” values and parliamentary democracy. Nonetheless, monopolization of power/property relations by the parties and persistent reliance on great and regional powers amplify tendencies toward patrimonialism, centralization, and vertical organization. Chapter Four analyzes ISIS, demonstrating that its brutal rule was shaped by its commitment to an ideological framework that delegates entire groups of people to subhuman status and sanctions stomach-turning forms of violence on these groups. ISIS’s deliberate efforts to monopolize power/property relations and to engage in conflict with virtually everyone exacerbated the exclusive and vertical power structure. The final empirical chapter, Chapter Five, focuses on Kurdistan-Syria, arguably the most intriguing and puzzling of the three cases. This unique formation has resulted from an ideological framework that seeks women’s emancipation, autonomous power for ethnic and religious groups, and horizontal economic and political relations while still assigning a space for vanguardist action. The concluding chapter puts all three cases into comparative perspective and suggests abstract ideological mechanisms that are potentially at play in other cases/situations.

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