aNewDomain commentary — “Predatory Islamic State Wrings Money From Those It Rules.” That’s the headline for an article by Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Kulish and Steven Lee Myers in today’s New York Times.
It’s a fascinating survey of how ISIS generates revenues from the population under its control and from the people and goods that pass through its territory.
It’s even more interesting as a case study in the phenomenon of how we judge The Other. According to this piece ISIS, America’s latest Worst Enemy Ever, collects taxes much the same way that older nation-states do. In many ways, it’s indistinguishable from the United States.
The framing is what’s different.
Here is the opening:
“Three times a month, Mohammad al-Kirayfawai hands $300 to fighters from the Islamic State for the privilege of driving his refrigerated truck full of ice cream and other perishables from Jordan to a part of Iraq where the militants are firmly in charge.
The fighters who man the border post treat the payment as an import duty, not a bribe. They even provide a stamped receipt, with the logo and seal of the Islamic State, that Mr. Kirayfawai, 38, needs for passing through other checkpoints on his delivery route.
Refuse to pay and the facade of normality quickly falls away. ‘If I do not,’ Mr. Kirayfawai explained, ‘they either arrest me or burn my truck.'”
Surely the Times has heard of customs duties.
Most countries slap tariffs on imported goods. For example, the United States charges travelers a 3 percent customs duty on products brought in from other countries. U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement probably wouldn’t stop Mohammad al-Kirayfawai’s truck if he refused to pay customs duty at the Canadian border — but he might get arrested and hit by a big fine. They’d almost certainly confiscate his truck and its contents.
Alternatively, you could look at the $300 ISIS fee as a type of highway toll. In many jurisdictions, you can be jailed for dodging tolls.
Across wide expanses of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State, with the goal of building a credible government, has set up a predatory and violent bureaucracy that wrings every last American dollar, Iraqi dinar and Syrian pound it can from those who live under its control or pass through its territory.
Interviews with more than a dozen people living inside or recently escaped from the Islamic State-controlled territory, and Western and Middle Eastern officials who track the militants’ finances, describe the group as exacting tolls and traffic tickets; rent for government buildings; utility bills for water and electricity; taxes on income, crops and cattle; and fines for smoking or wearing the wrong clothes.
ISIS may well be “predatory” and “violent” — but, if you read the article, the tax and tariff practices it describes are essentially cut-and-pasted from those of countries like the United States.
“Tolls and traffic tickets; rent for government buildings; utility bills for water and electricity; taxes on income, crops and cattle; and fines for smoking or wearing the wrong clothes” are all standard here.
Remember Cliven Bundy? The Nevada rancher didn’t want to pay grazing fees to the federal government. Smoking in a non-smoking hotel room (which is almost all of them) and you could be fined $250.
Wearing the wrong clothes — a hoodie — got a kid killed in Florida. Oklahoma City is considering a $500 fine for hoodies.
A town in Louisiana wants to fine women $200 for wearing that most classic of Southern garb, Daisy Dukes.
Wear the wrong clothes to court and you risk incurring the wrath of an angry judge acting as his own Ministry for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
By American standards, ISIS taxes are a bargain. “Although the norm would be 2.5 percent of a person’s wealth under typical interpretations of Islamic law, the militants are taking 10 percent, justifying the high rate by saying they are a “nation in a time of war,” the Times piece reports. But 10 percent isn’t bad. And it’s certainly true that ISIS, being bombed relentlessly by the United States, France, Russia and other countries — and unable to defend itself with its own air force — is a nation at war.
By the way, the U.S. increased taxes to pay for World War II.
“The group has taken over the collection of car-registration fees, and made students pay for textbooks. It has even fined people for driving with broken taillights, a practice that is nearly unheard-of on the unruly roads of the Middle East.” College students in the U.S. routinely pay hundreds of dollars a semester for textbooks.
Look. ISIS beheads as if heads were going out of style. It keeps slaves. It destroys archeological treasures. But ask yourself: Has it ever sunk as low as American law enforcement, who use twisted “asset forfeiture” policies to steal hundreds of millions of dollars in cars, cash and other private property from people who are never even charged with a crime? No. Not yet, anyway.
For aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.