by Jonah Shepp
Graeme Wood isn’t the first writer to touch on the significance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a “caliphate”, but his substantial exploration of the meaning of the term gets to why it’s so weird that Baghdadi has chosen it to describe his so-called Islamic State when other radical Islamist groups have steered clear of such declarations:
Mostly … caliphate declarations have been rare because they are outrageously out of sync with history. The word conjures the majesty of bygone eras and of states that straddle continents. For a wandering group of hunted men like Al Qaeda to declare a caliphate would have been Pythonesque in its deluded grandeur, as if a few dozen Neo-Nazis or Italian fascists declared themselves the Holy Roman Empire or dressed up like Augustus Caesar. “Anybody who actively wishes to reestablish a caliphate must be deeply committed to a backward-looking view of Islam,” says [University of Chicago historian Fred] Donner. “The caliphate hasn’t been a functioning institution for over a thousand years.”
And it isn’t now, either. The designation of the ISIS “caliphate” still smacks of delusional grandiosity more than anything else. There is no downplaying its brutality or denying that it would do great violence to the West if given the chance, but the Islamic State is no superpower: more than anything else, its sudden rise owes mainly to the fact that Syria and Iraq are fragile states, and its savagery has alerted the sleepwalking states of the Arab world to the threat of jihadism like never before. The enemies it is making on all sides, especially among other Muslims, would seem to suggest that ISIS may burn out nearly as quickly as it caught fire. Could the madness of ISIS be the final fever of a dying ideology?
What seems most promising to me in the backlash against ISIS is the extent to which that backlash relies on the genuine principles of Islam itself. We know that some of the fighters traveling from the West to fight alongside ISIS know next to nothing about the religion. We have evidence that jihadist movements like Boko Haram and the Taliban are widely despised in their spheres of influence. Here, Dean Obeidallah takes a look at how leaders of Muslim countries and communities are more or less unanimously condemning the false Islam of the jihadists:
The religious and government leaders in Muslim-dominated countries have swiftly and unequivocally denounced ISIS as being un-Islamic. For example, in Malaysia, a nation with 20 million Muslims, the prime minister denounced ISIS as “appalling” and going against the teachings of Islam(only about 50 have joined ISIS from there). In Indonesia, Muslim leaders not only publicly condemned ISIS, the government criminalized support for the group. And while some allege that certain Saudi individuals are financially supporting ISIS, the Saudi government officially declared ISIS a terrorist group back in March and is arresting suspected ISIS recruiters. This can be a helpful guide to other nations in deterring ISIS from recruiting. A joint strategy of working with Muslim leaders in denouncing ISIS and criminalizing any support appears to be working. And to that end, on Monday, British Muslim leaders issued a fatwa (religious edict) condemning ISIS and announcing Muslims were religiously prohibited from joining ISIS.
This all has me wondering if ISIS, the reductio ad absurdum of radical Islamism, doesn’t herald the downfall of that ideology altogether. Bear in mind that political Islam hasn’t always been exclusively reactionary: the first avowedly Islamic politics of the modern era, first articulated before the Muslim Brotherhood’s founders were even born, was the Islamic Modernism of Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Here were pious Muslims arguing that Islam was fully compatible with rationalism and making arguments for universal literacy and women’s rights from the same Muslim revivalist standpoint from which Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb would later espouse a more conservative vision of Islamic politics in modernity.
The illiberal strain of Arab Islamism, its Iranian counterpart, and the more radical jihadist movements that grew out of these movements (or alongside them, depending on which historian you ask) have been the major representatives of political Islam in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There’s no reason, however, to believe that this condition is permanent or that a less reactionary form of Islamic political thought, or even an Islamic liberalism after the model of the Modernists, could not take hold in the Muslim world given the right set of circumstances. Islamism, particularly in its more extreme varieties, has long articulated an Islamic state operating under a “pure” interpretation of Islamic law as a utopian vision. Now, here is an Islamic State, a “caliphate” no less, that claims to do just that, and the outcome is rather dystopian. Torture, gang rape, slave brides, beheadings, crucifixions, and child soldiers are not what most Muslims have in mind when they imagine the ideal Islamic society. I would wager that these horrors will turn more Muslims against radical Islamism than toward it.
This is all by way of saying, as a reminder, that “Caliph Ibrahim” (Baghdadi) represents Muslims about as thoroughly as Tony Alamo represents Christians. The fact that he has attracted enough funding and followers to run roughshod over northern Iraq and eastern Syria is nothing to brush off, but it’s not winning him any friends, and it doesn’t make his ideology any less ridiculous. It’s certainly not “Islam”, at least not as any Muslim I know practices it. That’s why I suspect it will fail, like most grandiose visions of world domination do. And by radicalizing the Islamic heartland against radicalism, as it were, perhaps ISIS will take the entire edifice of radical Islamism down with it.