Caliphate: Hysteria or history in the making?

By Ameen Izzadeen
On the first day of Ramadan as Muslims worldwide began their month-long fasting period, the Islamic State (IS) which was until then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the formation of a khilafah or caliphate, an Islamic state in territories conquered in Iraq and Syria. The group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself Khalifah or Caliph, urged every Muslim to swear allegiance to him and invited Muslims around the world to migrate to the new state.
Although al-Baghdadi’s declaration is derided by moderates and extremists alike as a lopsided vision of an extremist, the world stopped and took notice of it as has been evident in the debates and discussions it has created in the West.
But as days passed by, the threat perception of the so-called caliphate began to fade. There are no long queues in the new Islamic State for the people and groups to take the oath of allegiance. Neither are any signs of Muslims around the world catching the next flight to migrate to al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. The announcement of a caliphate was apparently too ambitious and too early.
The caliphate was abolished in 1924 when the last Ottoman Caliph, Abdul Medjid was sent into exile after the modern secular Turkey was established on its ruins. The caliphate is a powerful institution, the protection of which is the duty of every Muslim. The Ottoman caliphate was still a formidable force even during its waning stages because Muslims from Xinjiang in China to Sarajevo in Bosnia rushed to its defence with the first call of the Caliph for a holy war. The only time it did not happen was when the Arabs betrayed the caliph at the outset of World War 1. Despite their oath of allegiance to the caliph, the Arab leaders rebelled against him in return for the British promise of an Arab kingdom.
It is no secret that most Muslims dream of the restoration of the caliphate. This is because they feel they are being battered and none of the present day leaders of Islamic countries has the charisma or the vision to unite the Muslim world and the courage to liberate Palestine, which has been under Israeli occupiers for the past six decades. The Muslims believe that the concept of nation state only serves the West to divide and weaken them. The present day Middle Eastern countries, they say, are a result of the Western conspiracy hatched at the 1916 talks between Britain and France. The two European powers shared between them the Arab provinces of the crumbling Ottoman Empire which sided with Germany in the First World War. Today’s Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and several other Arab countries owe their existence to the 1916 Syke-Picot talks – so named after the two British and French diplomats. Their borders were drawn by British foreign office spy Gertrude Bell.
Ever since, no Muslim country has emerged to emulate the glorious days of the caliphates of the Abbasids, the Fatimides and the early Ottomans – the caliphates during which the Muslim world experienced a knowledge revolution that gave the world the zero and algebra, astronomy and Avicenna, Plato and Gazzali, reason and Renaissance.
The Muslims and global movements such as the Hizbut Tahrir yearn for a caliph who will emulate the Khulafa-ur-Rashideen or the rightly-guided caliphs who governed the nascent state in the early years of Islam after the death of Prophet Muhammad. It is “a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim,” the Islamic State said in a statement.
The first caliphate was established days after the death of the prophet. The first caliph was Abu Bakr Siddiq — the Truthful. The first man to embrace Islam, Abu Bakr was an ascetic, kind hearted, philanthropist and the closest friend of the prophet. Al-Baghdadi shares the name with Islam’s first caliph. But the comparison perhaps ends there, for the new claimant to the caliphate is not seen to be emulating the noble qualities of the first caliph, who was not a terrorist.
Upon assuming the caliphate reluctantly, Abu Bakr made a famous speech that is regarded as the Magna Carta of the Islamic state. He said:
“O people, I have been elected your leader, although I am not better than anyone from among you. If I do any good, give me your support. If I go wrong, set me right. Listen, truth is honesty and untruth is dishonesty. The weak among you are powerful in my eyes, as long as I do not get them their due, Allah willing. The powerful among you are weak in my eyes, as long as I do not take away from them what is due to others, Allah willing. …. Oh people, you must obey me as long as I obey Allah and His Messenger. If I disobey Allah and His Messenger, you are free to disobey me.”
Caliph Abu Bakr also codified the Islamic laws of warfare. He advised his soldiers to fear God under all conditions and fight the enemy only after the overtures for peace were rejected. He told them: “Do not mutilate anyone; do not kill the aged, the children and the women. Do not set fire to date palms. Do not cut down fruit trees. Do not slaughter a goat, or a cow or a camel, except for purposes of food. You will come across people who have given up the world and living in monasteries. Leave them alone.”
But al-Baghdadi, who claims to be a descendant of the Prophet’s family, has apparently chosen to ignore Islam’s humanitarianism and its laws on warfare. The ISIS is known to have executed captives and set off bombs in civilian areas in defiance of the teachings of Islam. In interviews following the declaration of the Islamic state, ISIS commanders have said they would destroy Islam’s holiest monument, the Ka’ba in Makkah as many pilgrims have turned it into an object of idol worship. They also dream of conquering Rome. “This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills,” al-Baghdadi who now goes by the title and name ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ said in a statement.
Some analysts believe that the declaration of the caliphate is a political stunt or gamble which could eventually lead to the downfall of the Islamic State after its significant success in as short a period as less than two years. Others call it the romanticisation of their astonishing victory, which the Islamic State tries to equate with the victory at the valley of Badr in 624 AD when the prophet and a few hundred poorly armed Muslims in Madina defeated a mighty army from Makkah — and also with the conquest of Iraq in 633 AD and the subsequent defeat of the Sassanid and Byzantine empires during the caliphates of Abu Bakr and his successors Omar, Osman and Ali.
But al-Baghdadi’s caliphate has only drawn rejection from a large majority of the Muslim ummah (nation) and even radical groups have dismissed the declaration as void of legitimacy, divisive, and damaging to their causes that include the war to oust the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria. Even in Palestine’s Gaza Strip which has come under Israel’s airstrikes following the deaths of three Israeli teenagers, there is hardly a whimper in support of al-Baghdadi’s caliphate call.
Azzam Tamimi, an academic who writes on Islamic movements, says it is unlikely anyone except “some frustrated youth” would be receptive to al-Baghdadi’s declaration.
“Such fanatic and desperate movements emerge usually in response to a profound crisis. Yet, their demise is usually rapid because of their tendency to be nihilistic,” Tamimi said. They “fail miserably when it comes to winning over the normal and decent”, he added. (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/07/baghdadi-vision-new-caliphate-20147184858247981.html)
However, despite the lack of enthusiasm among the world’s Muslims for al-Baghdadi’s caliphate call, the new Islamic State is likely to remain until such time as the United States and its West Asian allies feel it no longer necessary to achieve their geo-strategic goals. As things stand today, Iraq is on the verge of being split into three. Apart from the Islamic State in Sunni areas in Iraq’s West, the Kurds in the north are likely to declare an independent state in weeks or months, leaving the south for the Shiites as the country’s political turmoil continues with the newly elected parliament unable to come to a consensus on appointments to the key posts of Speaker, president and Prime Minister.
The US and its allies probably want to see the creation of a Sunni state carved out of parts of Iraq and Syria as it could be used against the Assad regime or to deal a blow to Iran’s rising power by severing the territorial continuity of the so-called Shiite crescent comprising Iran, Iraq (a Shiite majority country), Syria (a Sunni majority country ruled by a president belonging to the minority Alawite group, a sub sect of Shiite Islam) and Lebanon’s powerful militia group Hezbollah.
The Barak Obama administration’s reluctance to put boots on the ground in Iraq even after Russia has sent pilots and fighter jets to help the beleaguered Iraqi government is seen as a move where the policy of deliberate non-intervention achieves the results of intervention. In other words, the US lets the balkanisation of Iraq happen while making perfunctory statements on a unity government as a solution to the present crisis. It may be a US scheme. It indeed is a long-term project of Israel, whose leaders in recent weeks have spoken in support of the Iraqi Kurds’ call for independence.
But ironically the Balkanisation project has given rise to a movement that seeks to create a mega Islamic state incorporating not only parts of Iraq and Syria, but also Jordan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, which now shares a border with al-Baghdadi’s Islamic state. But this is where the IS will dig its own grave as the US will not stay idle when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are threatened and the global supply of oil is disrupted. The developments of the next few weeks or months will indicate whether the Islamic State or the new caliphate is an aberration in Iraq’s history or history in the making.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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