The ISIS Challenge to Moderate Islamism

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Ahmed Meiloud

Mr. Meiloud is a senior fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC) and a teaching assistant in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. He is a former Fulbright Scholar, with an MA in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona, and an MA in American Studies from the University of Wyoming.

Months before the Arab uprising, al-Jamaa al-Libiyya al-Muqatila (the Libyan Fighting Group) published a 400-page monograph declaring its renunciation of violence against the Libyan regime. This work, the fruit of negotiations involving the Qadhafi regime, its Islamist prisoners and influential Islamist personalities around the world, marked the climax of a series of jihadist revisions that had begun in the 1990s with the Egyptian al-jamaa al­-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group).

For over two decades, a process of transformation into what I call the ikhwanization [referring to the Muslim Brotherhood] of political Islam was spreading across the Muslim world. By this time, most Islamist groups had renounced violence, shown interest in parliamentary politics or withdrawn from the scene.

The ripple effect of this trend even reached al-Qaeda. Its second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said they would offer the United States a truce should it withdraw from Afghanistan. Bin Laden himself had started by this time to look critically at the harshness of jihadist methods in Pakistan and elsewhere. He called for his followers to work toward revolution through political systems, focusing on local concerns and providing services to the people — rather than attempting to realize their aspirations primarily through violence or the imposition of their idiosyncratic interpretations of the sharia.

Some analysts (Robert Hefner, Ihsan Yilmiz and, most recently, Fawaz A. Gerges) saw this as a part of a rising trend of moderation they called civil Islam. Others (most notably Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel), debated whether this heralded the dawn of a post-Islamist era or, rather, a deceptive move by the Islamists to lull their opponents into complacency.

With the advent of ISIS and its stunning victories over the Iraqi army, especially at Mosul in early June 2014, that conversation was all but over. The questions about civil Islam and post-Islamism appear to have been abandoned, at least for now. The threat that ISIS poses to the West and its allies (the ruling elites in the region) took center stage. However, little light has been shed on the greater challenge ISIS represents to Sunni intellectuals, in general, and, more specifically, to mainstream Islamists’ attempt to master modern political processes.

ISIS presents a competitive template for religious political activism at a time when other Islamists’ efforts have largely been punished, rather than rewarded. Even today, critics allege that “moderate Muslims” must do more to challenge the growth and narratives of ISIS, apparently oblivious to the intense intellectual and propagandistic wars among Sunni intellectuals.

Most important, Western intelligentsia and media fail to understand how the alliances being forged to fight ISIS actually grant the group greater legitimacy. The fact that the “coalition” comprises the United States, the region’s former colonial and imperial occupiers, and the Arab world’s surviving dictators and monarchs grants ISIS credibility. Simultaneously, those viewed as aligned with these powers or their campaign are perceived as collaborators. Therefore, not only does the ongoing campaign bolster the ISIS position; it also shrinks the space for civil Islamists to combat them ideologically.

The future of the political landscape and the fate of the war on ISIS depends to a large extent on which template wins the hearts and minds. This hinges on two uncertain variables: which template seems to represent a genuine, if partial, Islamic project, and which one offers a pragmatic attempt to address the worsening conditions of the Sunni Arab world.

Unlike the secular elites, who may see in the limited success of a group like ISIS a blessing in disguise (proof of the danger of religious movements and then as a pretext to clamp down on dissidents), the Islamists have learned to fear these intransigent groups. Their increased success undermines the mainstream Islamists’ image (and self-image) as clear-headed conservatives guarding their political and intellectual heritage. Even in the event that the insurgents are defeated, a secular triumph would render the Islamist public presence severely restricted or suspect. So the civil Islamists lose either way.

It was no surprise that, as soon as it became clear ISIS was gaining ground within the Syrian revolution, Sunni intellectuals began their propaganda was on ISIS. Most of this predates the fall of Mosul and the declaration of the caliphate, when ISIS really started to catch people’s attention. In their attempt to foil the rise of ISIS, Sunni intellectuals first resorted to political conspiracy theories, but eventually they had to debate ISIS on the less comfortable terrain of religious-political principles.

ISIS as a Foreign Implant

For almost 10 months prior to the fall of Mosul, regional press (save that backing the Syrian regime) had shifted its generally sympathetic portrayal of all Syrian groups; with one exception: Daesh, a mysterious, bloodthirsty and power-hungry movement. Since all groups and countries in the region have painted their endeavors in the Syrian meat-grinder as Islamic, the new group was thought to have found its motivation elsewhere. Daesh’s objectives had to be diametrically opposed to the pure Islamic projects of the various other militias, whether assembled by foreign patrons or organically grown in response to the carnage unleashed by the Syrian dictator.

State-sponsored and independent Saudi clerics, a consortium of Qatari-based Arab intellectuals, and ikhwani-leaning jurists across the Muslim world started to debate the origin of Daesh. For a while one theory appeared to gain currency: Daesh is an organization propped up by the Syrian regime to internally fragment the Syrian uprising. From the outside, Daesh, the construct, appeared to fight everyone but the regime, and the regime seemed to reciprocate; its planes and tanks would bypass Daesh’s conspicuous pick-up convoys to bomb other groups. In return, Daesh would wait for towns and cities to fall into the hands of the Syrian Free Army to put them on its “to do” list.

But the Syrian-intelligence theory gradually lost appeal. It was demonstrably clear that ISIS is rhetorically, at least, an equal-opportunity excommunicator. On the ground, it also appeared to target Syrian weapons depots to arm itself, and the Syrian army wasn’t as reticent when it came to bombing Daesh as was first publicized.

The initial theory wasn’t completely abandoned, but it is no longer able to stand on its own. Two alternative theories have emerged to support the increasingly feeble Syrian-intelligence theory. Daesh moved from being a creation of Syrian intelligence to having multiple fathers. For instance, in the post-Saddam Hussein Middle East, no conspiracy outline is complete without reference to Tehran. In this case, the Iranians’ supposed objective is to fragment the Sunni camp and deflect attention from their own expansionist policies by providing a spectacle of Sunni jihadist atrocities. In the process, they shore up the position of their Syrian proxy, the Assad regime.

Another popular theory is that ISIS was created by the CIA. The Americans supposedly wanted to make sure that the Syrian groups, which rejected any leadership endorsed from the outside, were punished for their defiance. Creating a group as brutal as Daesh would put further strains on the local militias and soften their stance toward negotiation as Geneva II approached. They would therefore yield to the authority of the U.S.-sponsored rebels.

Advocates of this theory cited the precedent of Iraq. It was through a cruel and sectarian group like Daesh (specifically, its forerunner, the ISI) that the Iraqi resistance was discredited and the Sunni position in Iraq irreparably damaged. This forced many to make their peace with the U.S.-sponsored government in Baghdad. Daesh, was an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers. And so these groups came to be viewed as spoilers for, rather than agents of, Sunni resistance — and at the behest of Western powers, no less. The messiness and rapid disintegration of earlier jihadist ventures, from Afghanistan to Chechnya, was invoked to lend further credence to this theory.

Geopolitics as Legal Argument

Ultimately, with the stunning victories of ISIS in Iraq and its mass executions of Iraqi soldiers, and the subsequent intervention of the Americans and Iranians against ISIS, these two theories became a rhetorical liability. Daesh itself was neither silent nor crippled. Its media arm went on the offensive, showcasing its dedication to defending the interests of the Syrian Sunni population in the face of what it depicts as an international Shia conspiracy.

To make things even worse for Sunni intellectuals, the declaration of the caliphate introduced civil Islamists to juridical challenges that were unprecedented in the modern history of jihad. Instead of who manufactured ISIS, the warring Sunni elites, intellectuals, rulers, secularists and Islamists were all pushed into a very uncomfortable corner: having to address ISIS on the legal and theological fronts.

For the past two decades, the debate pitting Arab rulers and secular intellectuals living under their aegis against the Islamists had centered on whether there could be a moderate religious political agenda. The Islamists insisted that such an agenda is both possible and necessary. The rulers paid Islam lip service in their official statements, while using all their resources to transform the presence of religion in public life into meaningless formalities. Secular intellectuals, running out of camouflage for their agnosticism, were gleeful that the bureaucratic structures, the international political order, and the apparent moderation of mainstream Islamism all seemed opposed to the religious state they so despised.

But then Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and associates declared a caliphate in the heart of the Arab world. Suddenly these actors had to debate not whether a caliphate has been something good in the past or something to fear in the future, but how to deal with one in the present. This is an unnerving conversation, especially for “moderate” Islamists. Secularists can dismiss the caliphate as reactionary politics gone mad; their benefactors can call on world powers to provide bombs. The Islamists, however, can ill afford to be seen to side with a secular world order, undermining an idea whose collapse a century earlier is still nostalgically mourned by the majority of their support base.

The heads of secular states could justify calling on their superiors in the West to intervene on a score of cons, not least of which is the infringement on the now-sacred national border. The Islamists must legally undo the caliphate of ISIS, to carve out a space on the margin of the epic battle about to be fought around them. Although they have come to accept borders as geographical demarcations of their national Islamism, in their ethos and in Muslim legal discourses, borders between Muslim states have only a transitory legal status. Invoking the violation of borders drawn by colonial powers to delegitimize ISIS could only embarrass these civil Islamists in the eyes of their audience, never ISIS.  

What these actors, especially the Islamists, had all along tried to escape has become unavoidable: a legal refutation of the ISIS methodology. Thus, before the dust of the bulldozed Iraqi borders settled, scholars affiliated with the most popular Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a communiqué outlining their legal opinions about ISIS.

On July 5, the International Union of Muslim Scholars (led by Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi) declared the ISIS caliphate “legally null and void,” adding that it does not serve the Islamic project. While the IUMS stated that it “would like to see the establishment of a caliphate today rather than tomorrow,” it was keen to stress that the real conditions for appointing a caliph are not currently present. Long-term planning is required.

Unlike that of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the real caliphate, according to the IUMS, “means the process of selecting a representative …for the entire Muslim nation. This representative’s status doesn’t acquire a legal, rational or customary legitimacy until the entire umma (nation) grants it to the caliph through its representatives, ahl al-hal wa al-aqd (those who loosen and bind). As to who has this legitimacy, IUMS emphasized the primacy of religious scholars such as those who formed their union. And because the IUMS and other unions of the same caliber were not consulted, a declaration by ISIS or any similar group has “no legal effects.”

The IUMS declaration has some interesting features, however. The two central points were 1) “not yet there” and 2) “not very wise.” The caliphate shouldn’t be declared now; the political atmosphere is not yet conducive to accept such a system. In addition, this step will fragment the various Syrian groups and complicate their uprising. It is also unwise because it will unite the enemies of the Iraqi and Syrian revolutions and thus maximize the chances of victory for these counter-revolutionary forces.

The IUMS criticism of ISIS thus revolves around a claim of procedural error and a lack of due diligence. The communiqué pointed out the failure of ISIS to consult with the true representatives of the umma (ahl al-hal wa al-aqd), and the political analysis invoked the concept of maslaha (public interest). Neither of these concepts translates into concrete ratio legis. Due to the discursive ikhtilaf (normative pluralism) characteristic of Islamic law, the two are nebulous.

Has the notion of umma always meant leaders recognized by all Muslims in all lands, as the IUMS appears to suggest? Or has it meant some Muslim notables in one or several regions, as the ISIS appointment of Baghdadi implied? Precedents support both. Public interestsoccupy a far hazier legal ground. Even when Muslims were masters of their own destiny and those of others, jurists debated not only what constituted these in a given case, but whether maslahacould constitute a sufficient legal ground independent of, or in apparent conflict with, the text.

The uncertain nature of these concepts was highlighted not just by the various refutations from Salafi clerics (such as the Mauritanian, Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqity) supporting ISIS, but from within IUMS itself, which staunchly opposes ISIS. The IUMS vice president, the Moroccan legal scholar Ahmad al-Raysuni, was astounded that IUMS considers the establishment of a caliphate a key objective for all Muslims. Raysuni pulled no punches, rebuking the IUMS for contributing to the propagation the idea of the caliphate, which he insisted has no textual proof whatsoever. He maintained that even the concept of the ahl al-hal wa al-‘aqd (those who loosen and bind) is a juridical invention lacking any reference in the Quran or prophetic tradition.

More troubling, the concept’s history doesn’t warrant its defense either, according to Raysun; it has mostly been deployed to deny the masses the right to choose and appoint their leaders. Raysuni went even further: “Islam didn’t require of Muslims to establish something called an Islamic caliphate, or a caliphate state. Neither did Islam impose any specific form or structure to this caliphate or state, nor did it order them — not even with a single sentence — to call the governor a caliph or to call the system a caliphate.”

Raysuni’s argument seems on the surface reminiscent of Ali Abd al-Raziq’s controversial work, al-Islam wa usul al-hukm (Islam and the principles of governance), in which the latter argued that Islam never mandated a state. But that would be a misreading of Raysuni, who critiqued Abd al-Raziq. Raysuni and Islamists of his ideological inclination believe Islam does envision a state. The question for Raysuni is whether it should be a caliphate. But here lies one of the central weaknesses of the moderate Islamists’ response to ISIS. Beyond the clear contradiction between the stances of Raysuni and his team at the IUMS, the reliance on the absence of textual proof to delegitimize the ISIS caliphate undermines these Islamists’ own political project.

If indirect textual references and arguments for the public interest constitute sufficient legal grounds to pursue an Islamist political agenda, and if that is adequate to justify adopting secular arrangements with neither textual proof nor legal precedents, why shouldn’t the same legal grounds be enough for ISIS to declare its caliphate? After all, it claims to model it after a known historical precedent. This central legal weakness is just one dimension of the problem that moderate Islamists have faced since the arrival of ISIS.

Realities over Rhetoric

The deteriorating political conditions in the Muslim world, and the fruitless sacrifices made by moderate Islamism to placate local liberals and cajole the West, leave very few options for Muslim youth. The bloody collapse of democratic experiments in Egypt, Yemen and Libya, and the failure of the Islamists to secure a win in Tunis, undercut all rhetoric about the public interest, which Raysun and the school of the Muslim Brothers generally use to justify their opposition to violent alternatives.

The position of these scholars appears to garner support in its reproof of clearly un-Islamic conduct by ISIS, such as the immolation of the Jordanian pilot, mass killing of captured soldiers, and abduction and enslavement of noncombatants. But it remains to be seen whether decrying ISIS’s egregious acts would be enough to disgrace it. Moderate Islamists have been unable to do anything about repression in Egypt, Emirati and Egyptian bombs in Libya, the Egyptian siege of Gaza, or Iranian expansion into Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Even though a great many Islamist youths may be persuaded to see the conduct of ISIS as loathsome, scores of them appear to find its current tactics, especially the use of military means against existing regimes, tempting. All else has failed them. The longer the conflicts drag on, and the more ISIS appears to be the key defender of Sunni interests on the ground, the greater this temptation grows.

In the present state of affairs, where Sunni political leaders are unable to chart an innovative approach outside the U.S.-led coalition — which is heavily dependent on the work of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria — the Islamists don’t have many options. The current Saudi intervention in Yemen is likely to bring some fresh support to secular Arab rulers, but not to the civil Islamists. Increasingly, the main players in the Sunni world would seem to be ISIS and Arab autocrats, united in their disdain for “moderate” Islamists and democratic change.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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