Thursday, October 23, 2014
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A New Caliphate?

PRINCETON – The recent declaration of a caliphate by the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an unprecedented event in modern times. Regardless of how it turns out, one thing is clear: violent jihadism is now an entrenched feature of the Arab political landscape.

Not since the Turkish Republic abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 has any Muslim group in control of territory made such a bid. Even Al Qaeda and the Taliban have limited their demands to the creation of statelets (emirates), which they hope will eventually coalesce into a caliphate.

This hesitation can be explained, at least partly, by the fact that neither Osama bin Laden nor Mullah Omar (the Taliban’s leader) can fulfill the conditions for being a caliph, one of which is proof of descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh. The new caliphal claimant, the Islamic State’s emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, can.

As conceived in Islamic political thought, a caliphate, unlike a conventional nation-state, is not subject to fixed borders. Instead, it is focused on defending and expanding the dominion of the Muslim faith through jihad, or armed struggle.

The statement announcing the new caliphate, entitled “This is the Promise of Allah,” was issued on the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and lays out a radical vision for reconfiguring the Arab world. First, it declares that ISIS will drop its titular reference to “Iraq and Syria” to become simply the Islamic State, implying that it has its sights set on other countries, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Lebanon.

The rest of the statement is replete with injunctions from the Koran, several of which refer to God deputizing the “true believers” as his regents on earth, empowering them to humiliate and defeat his “enemies,” who now include Shia Muslims, democrats, nationalists, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jews, and Christians. These believers are now operating, the statement continues, under the banner of the Islamic State, which currently controls the territory between Aleppo in Syria and Diyala in Iraq, where it has already established the structures of a proto-state: courts, a tax system, and security and social services.

The Islamic State argues that all Muslims, including all jihadist factions, must acknowledge the caliph as their leader if they are not to live in sin. Though this notion of a collective religious obligation is largely consistent with traditional Islamic law, most Muslims consider such injunctions irrelevant in the modern age.

Nonetheless, with al-Baghdadi at its helm, the Islamic State is convinced that its new caliphate will – indeed, is supposed to – flourish. Al-Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, is a 40-something Iraqi from Samarra, north of Baghdad. A fairly enigmatic figure, he has a higher degree in Islamic studies, and is a gifted strategist and orator.

Al-Baghdadi has managed to strike numerous deals with the Sunni tribes of Iraq, without whom he could not have conquered so much territory so quickly. And, in the few recorded statements that have been released, he displays a mastery of classical Arabic. All of this will help him to achieve his goal of succeeding Osama bin Laden as the leader of the global jihad against the forces of nonbelief.

Whether the announcement of the new caliphate turns out to be politically significant, however, remains to be seen. Its enduring influence will depend on two factors.

The first is the Islamic State’s continued military success, and its ability to maintain and consolidate its control of territory. So far, jihadist success has depended largely on the divisions within Arab countries and the weakness of their governments, particularly the five – Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – that have lost control over significant portions of their territory. And these countries are showing no signs of stabilizing. While it is unlikely that national borders will be redrawn, the fact that large jihadi-controlled territories are becoming the norm will only make it easier for such forces to augment their financial resources and attract new recruits.

The second factor is the Islamic State’s ability to secure sufficient support. Today, jihadism is more fundamentally divided than ever before. Even Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s current leader, views al-Baghdadi as an extremist, and has taken steps to distance his group from the Islamic State.

But many jihadi groups and individuals, particularly young people, have signaled their support for the caliphate. The Islamic State’s statement has already been viewed more than 187,000 times on YouTube, and has been posted innumerable times on Twitter and Facebook, attracting positive comments. A more ominous development is the emergence of a group called the Supporters of the Islamic State in Jerusalem, which has claimed responsibility for murdering – as a gift to the new caliph – the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers whose bodies were recently found in the West Bank.

Jihadism is clearly alive and well across the Arab world. After decades of unjust and ineffective rule, not to mention tragic foreign interventions, there is no shortage of disenfranchised and frustrated citizens for organizations like the Islamic State to recruit. Whether this new caliphate succeeds or not, religious violence in the Arab world will likely get worse before it gets better.

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  1. CommentedSeyfeddin Kutuz

    Who are the most Muslim that consider "such injunctions irrelevant in the modern age"?

    Any reference polls, research data etc?

  2. CommentedÖmer Aytaç

    2 faults with this article: 1)Caliphate has always been a political seat, not a religious one although this article makes it sound like the latter. At least much less so than what the Vatican once was. 2)During the last Caliph, many Arabs sought to take his place, from Libya to Damascus, calming that they'd be the next caliph. But nations were formed, and no state ruler wanted such a competitor and so it was nulled. And a note: once (if) formed, "islamic state" will turn into another arab country and the terrorists" or "jihadis" will turn back into simple arabs.

  3. CommentedCam Jennings

    Cole raises some valid and interesting points and his conclusion is the important part, because the conflict will indeed become worse before it gets better.

  4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Messrs Haykel and Bunzel, the "caliphal claimant, the Islamic State’s emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi", is Middle East's modern day Joseph Stalin. Although he invokes "the Promise of Allah", the caliphate he aims to build is not going to turn the clock back to a bygone era in the Middle Ages. Instead it is based on a vanguard of modern terrorism in a chaotic Middle East. What is unprecedented is that he rules a 21st Century totalitarian state under the banner of Islam.
    He may have in mind grassroots movements and anarchism that history had seen during the French and Russian revolutions. The ISIS militants remind of Robespierre's Jacobins, Lenin's Bolsheviks, Pol Pot's death squads or Mao's Red Guards. They justify their systematic violence as a means of cleansing believers from "sin" and decimating infidels.
    Under al-Baghdadi his caliphate is a regime of terror and it will probably be even more oppressive than the Taliban in Afghanistan before 2001. He firmly believes that his utopic realm would "flourish". In fact he is trying to recruit technocrats to run the territory for him. There are conflicting interests among the disparate elements ISIS has recently assembled. It is doubtful whether it can govern a state on any long-term basis.
    Baghdadi's claim to speak for all Muslims has been widely rejected as absurd by the entire Muslim world. Since he is trying to eradicate every trace of Islamic tradition, he will not win support from meanstream Muslims, despite the appeal he has on "young people", who are tech-savvy and "have signaled their support for the caliphate". He is already facing strong opposition from many sides - not only from Shia militias but also rival Sunni jihadists like Al Qaeda, from which it split.
    "Jihadism is clearly alive and well across the Arab world". Yet the US-led invasion in Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein had provided the ISIS a chance to emerge. While Saddam was in power, there were no jihadists operating in Iraq. The "decades of unjust and ineffective rule" had prepared a breeding ground for "disenfranchised and frustrated citizens for organizations like the Islamic State to recruit" The demise of the autocratic regime had unravelled a secular state and the Iraqi state itself.
    "Whether this new caliphate succeeds or not, religious violence in the Arab world will likely get worse before it gets better". No doubt ISIS poses a real danger - and not just in the Middle East. Let's hope that Al-Bagdhdadi's dream of a caliphate may just be a mirage.

  5. CommentedKen Presting

    The deepest question in Middle East studies today is a dichotomy: Is violent jihadism entrenched in the Arab world, as Bunzel and Haykel say. or rather, is racism an entrenched feature of Western studies on the region. While both theses have vocal advocates, I would argue that both are extreme minority views.

    Here we read the bizarre assertion that al-Baghdadi can claim some legitimate spiritual authority, apparently due to a tribal descent. This is as absurd as claiming that Anders Brevik is a significant representative of Norwegian political opinion. Fortunately, it's not hard to find Mideast scholars who compare al-Baghdadi to Charles Manson, which Is a much more informative analogy. Bunzel and Haykel, on the other hand, are highly impressed with degrees and oratory. Shouldn't we be asking what separates al-Baghdadi from Ted Kaczinski and Ted Bundy? And didn't Bernie Madoff have a brilliant strategy? That does not change the fact that the proper action is simply to arrest him.

    Hykel and Bunzel do agree with the consensus view that failed states and fragmented populations have provided opportunities for smaller groups to create and exploit chaos. But the essence of chaos is that no coherent ideology can become endemic. They are attempting to impose a coherent explanation on a region which is inherently chaotic.

    It is all too easy for us in the West to forget that when our part of the world was engulfed in the Dark Ages, the Islamic world was preserving and expanding the heritage of classical culture. "Algebra" and "alkaline" are Arabic words, and we use them because Arabs invented those sciences.

    The problem today in the Arab world is no different from the drug cartels of Latin America, the tribal violence of Africa, the bribe-happy bureaucrats of India and Chine, or the wolves of America's Wall Street. It is clear from the works of Rousseau and Hobbes - wherever the central authority is weak, local bullies will exploit those weaker than themselves.

    Barack Obama laid out the answer last spring at West Point - what this world needs is law enforcement, not military strategy. Fortunately, there is a significant movement in the US military to think the same way.

  6. CommentedStock Soup

    Prof Haykel,

    If the Islamic State gets settled in it's new territory, can we expect a new wave of international IS sponsored terrorism in places like Egypt, Saudi and especially Israel?

    I thank you in advance for your response!

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