Thursday, July 3, 2014

The new 'caliphate': Power plays and the lure of nostalgia

Jul 03, 2014

An Al-Qaeda breakaway group declared on June 29 a "caliphate" in territories it controls in Iraq and Syria. Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was named the "caliph" and "leader for Muslims everywhere". This excerpt, from an analysis by strategic security intelligence service Soufan Group, looks at the impact of this move on the Middle East and extremist movements.

A CALIPHATE is essentially an administrative unit, but the caliph - as amir al-mu'minin, or leader of the faithful - also has religious authority as both the actual and symbolic leader of all Muslims.

The declaration by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may seem far-fetched and even counter-productive in terms of maintaining and securing the secular alliances that it needs to continue its accretion and control of Iraqi territory, but it also plays to deep emotional strands within the Middle East, particularly in extremist circles.

The failure of leadership in much of the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and abolition of the Caliphate by Ataturk in 1924, has meant that a sense of national identity has been slow to grow.

The concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the few, and a lack of confidence in the rule of law, added to a strong need to belong, have been significant factors in the rise of militant Islam.

The desire for change has become intense, but there is no general agreement on what new system of government the change should bring. After all, no one outside the disliked ruling cliques has had any experience of politics to build on.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the ISIS have tapped into this lack of political maturity by evoking the romantic simplicity of times past, and by claiming that under their leadership, it is possible to restore the glory days of the Islamic world.

ISIS has seen a way to corner the market in nostalgia while, at the same time, claiming the fulfilment of prophecies that legitimise its acts.

Apart from the sayings of Prophet Muhammad and his followers as recorded in the hadith that predict an end-of-times battle between two Muslim armies in the area of Al-Sham (Greater Syria), ISIS has hinted at the parallels between the Prophet's famous victory over vastly superior forces at the Battle of Badr, and its own victory in Mosul.

It has reminded people of Baghdadi's tribal claims to be a descendant of the Prophet in order to increase his legitimacy - a claim that is widely contested.

It has demanded the loyalty of all Muslims everywhere and announced that all groups, organisations and associations are dissolved, and their leaders should pledge allegiance, or baya, to Baghdadi, as is his right as caliph. It has issued this directive in many languages to stress the universality of Baghdadi's role.

This last point is perhaps the most important. Not only is Baghdadi asserting his authority over all violent extremist Islamists, but he is also challenging the authority of the rulers of every part of his putative caliphate, which includes the whole Muslim world and then some.

His move marks the end of the Al-Qaeda/Afghan jihad and shifts the focus to the Middle East; it demands the allegiance and obedience of all groups that have a relationship with Al-Qaeda; it has displaced both Al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri and Afghan Taleban's Mullah Muhammad Omar and given them no role.

Baghdadi has claimed the right to regard anyone who does not pledge allegiance to him as an enemy. There is no middle ground.

Even some of Baghdadi's followers will question both the political wisdom and the legitimacy of declaring a caliphate. Baghdadi's cohorts prompted a public debate on social media about the idea of a new caliphate in the months following the announcement of ISIS, and the majority opinion seemed to go against it.

But the quick advance into Iraq, along with the capture of border posts on the road to Jordan as well as Syria, have at least reinforced Baghdadi's claim that the divisions of the region are just meaningless relics of colonialism.

Plots in Lebanon and threats to Jordan and Saudi Arabia will give further momentum to the idea of a pan-Islamic, Sunni-dominated state.

In defence of its legitimacy, ISIS has claimed that it had no option but to establish the caliphate because the conditions existed for it to do so, and that it could not consult the wider community because of the urgency of the situation.

Time will tell whether the Caliphate of Ibrahim (al-Baghdadi) lasts, but the declaration has moved the global movement started by Al-Qaeda into a new phase.

All other extremist groups will now have to declare their position and the ISIS is certain to try by whatever means to live up to its aspirations. This will be an inspiration for some and a challenge for others, but it will certainly cause an enormous amount of debate and divisions within the extremist movement.

Al-Qaeda will have to make a counter-move, possibly in the form of an attack; the Taleban will retire still further into its own national struggle for power, and other extremist groups are likely to find the fault lines within them exposed.

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