What to Make of the ISIS “Caliphate”?

  • 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.

Middle East Policy Council

Last week’s announcement of the creation of a Caliphate by the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has sent shockwaves across the region. Even though there are few, if any, credible voices that have lent support to Al Baghdadi’s claims, the erasure of the old Sykes-Picot mandated borders has raised concerns of the setting of a dangerous precedent. No wonder, then, that so many are calling for greater cooperation among the regional powers interested in the status quo.

Immediately after the self-declared caliph announced the creation of the Islamic States, establishment voices came out to weaken any momentum. One of the first and most important voices was that of Qatar-based Egyptian Muslim cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi who, according to Al Arabiya, “said on Saturday that the declaration of an Islamic caliphate by the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) violates sharia law….Sheikh Qaradawi, seen as a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in his native Egypt, said in a statement that the declaration ‘is void under sharia.’”

Perhaps even more damning has been the reaction from the people on the street. Reporting on some of these reactions, the Peninsula staff note “the surprise public appearance of Al Baghdadi has shocked many in the Arab world, who have expressed doubts and fears about the intentions of the militant movement, which was previously known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant….’Beware of ISIS, it is a hostile movement. They want to gather all Sunnis in place to kill them together. If you believe or not, this is the fact. You will see it. Muslim brothers, please do not be cheated by the false media propaganda by ISIS to carry out a sabotage. Please listen to Islamic scholars and groups who are known to you,’ read a comment posted on alarabia.net….Most commentators said the ISIS was the outcome of a conspiracy to destroy the Arab and Islamic world.”

Taking a decidedly more academic point of view, Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Ghilan presents a critical view on whether Al Baghdadi’s caliphate could lay claim to the Prophet Mouhammad’s mantel: “For Muslims, it is not a radical idea to dream of a reunified Islam, and as such, a great many are nostalgic for such unity. The Islamic State exploits this nostalgia in their recent declaration, and dedicates a great deal of it to citations from various Muslim scholars and passages in the Quran to give religious legitimacy to their caliphate. But it is all a facade….The pronouncement of a caliphate led by the Islamic State is not a fulfilment of an Islamic injunction, nor is it in the methodology of the Prophet Muhammad, as they claim. It is the success of horrifying violence, exercised by an extremist group who seems to be going about its terrorist activities without much organized military opposition. This is highly problematic because it provides the Islamic State with what could possibly be the most alluring recruitment tool for Muslims eager to live under a caliphate, even if it is a mirage of one.”

Beyond the limits of its ideological appeal, there are those who also believe that the Islamic States has most likely reached its limits, with the likelihood of growing further being very low. For example, Arab News’ Gwynne Dyer suggests that “even if ISIL gets very lucky, it is unlikely to get farther than that. Egypt blocks its expansion to the west, although the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis extremists who are active in the Sinai Peninsula undoubtedly have some ties with it. Even its direct rivals — the original Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab in northeast Africa, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and their lesser brethren are unlikely to accept the ISIL leader as caliph…. the sheer radicalism and intolerance of ISIL members make it unlikely that their project will survive unaltered for more than a year or so even in the territory that now makes up the Islamic State. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary that the 7th Century caliphate has reappeared even fleetingly in the modern world. Bush and Blair have a lot to answer for.”

But not everyone agrees with Dwyer’s argument, with Asharq Alawsat’s Huda Al Husseini warning that ISIS must be taken seriously: “ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi must be taken seriously, and his declaration of an Islamic State must also be dealt with in a serious manner. If there is no decisive reaction to this, this putative Islamic State will represent a threat to the entire Middle East….The declaration of an Islamic State may be the boldest step taken by ISIS, but it could also be the turning point where the militant group has stretched too far too fast and has thrown away all its previous gains and victories….Let us be clear, Baghdadi’s declaration of an Islamic State must be taken seriously; he declared the annulment of the Sykes-Picot agreement which drew up the borders of the region, not just the borders of Iraq and Syria, but also Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. While ISIS is now focusing on Iraq, their objectives surely go far beyond this.”

And even if ISIS itself might not be able to take advantage of the current instability, writes Eyad Abu Shakra in a recent op-ed for Al Arabiya, there are other state and non-state actors that instrumentalize the rise of the Islamic State to further their own objectives in the region: “The declaration by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq should not go unremarked. Such a development should not be considered in terms of the presence, or lack thereof, of the elements necessary for the establishment of such a caliphate, or the timing of this, but rather in light of the general circumstances surrounding this announcement….The region faces the threat of being partitioned and parceled out in the name of containing ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate, which, had it not been announced, would have been fabricated to create just such a response.”
The creation of the caliphate provides cover for others who might have ulterior motives

What these recent developments also do, argues The National’s Nikita Malik, is underscore the importance of cooperation among the various actors in the region. Some of this has already taken place, with Israel, the United States, and Jordan keen on keeping ISIS’ influence from reaching into Jordan: “As supporters of the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) raise their black flags over the Jordanian city of Ma’an, both Israel and Jordan are increasingly subject to the threat of the caliphate. To respond to this risk, the partnership between Israel and Jordan, co-signers of a peace agreement in 1994, is likely to strengthen in time to come….The Hashemite Kingdom is also home to the United States’ strategic intelligence partner, the General Intelligence Department (GID), Jordan’s intelligence agency. The United States, Jordan and Israel already share military intelligence, with roughly 6,000 US troops taking part in this year’s ‘Eager Lion’ military exercise in Jordan. As a result, Jordan has an important role to play in the regional fight against terror, one that is likely to intensify in the months to follow.”

But according to Al Ahram’s Hussein Haridy, much more needs to be done, especially among the Arab neighbors to address their domestic instabilities that seem to have fed regional ones: “The military gains made against the Iraqi army last month are not solely the work of ISIS. Many officials and experts around the world believe, and rightly so, that what we are witnessing in Iraq is a large Sunni uprising against Al-Maliki and both his sectarian and authoritarian style of rule….Recent events in Iraq and the growing threat of ISIS to the security and territorial integrity of Arab countries should encourage the Arabs to move towards rethinking their strategic priorities for the years to come. In this context, it should be obvious by now the linkages between the various crises that have undermined the stability and security of Middle Eastern countries in the last couple of years. It is high time for Arab diplomacy to get into high gear and start finding long-term solutions for deep-seated Arab crises.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • 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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