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OPINION: ISIS Appeals to a Longing for the Caliphate

In this column, Farhang Jahanpour – former professor and Dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, who has taught for 28 years in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford – examines the historical background to the emergence of ISIS and argues that it is basing its appeal on reinstatement of the caliphate.

OXFORD, Sep 24 2014 (IPS) - When, all of a sudden, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) emerged on the scene and in a matter of days occupied large swathes of mainly Sunni-inhabited parts of Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second city Mosul and Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and called itself the Islamic State, many people, not least Western politicians and intelligence services, were taken by surprise.

Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour

Unlike in the Western world, religion still plays a dominant role in people’s lives in the Middle East region. When talking about Sunni and Shia divisions we should not be thinking of the differences between Catholics and Protestants in the contemporary West, but should throw our mind back to Europe’s wars of religion (1524-1648) that proved to be among the most vicious and deadly wars in history.

Just as the Hundred Years’ War in Europe was not based only on religion, the Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Middle East too have diverse causes, but are often intensified by religious differences. At least, various groups use religion as an excuse and as a rallying call to mobilise their forces against their opponents.

Ever since U.S. encouragement of Saudi and Pakistani authorities to organise and use jihadi fighters following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, to the rise of Al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks on Sep. 11, 2001, followed by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and military involvement in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, it seems that the United States has had the reverse effect of the Midas touch, in the sense that whichever crisis the United States has touched has turned to dust.

“Now, with the rise of ISIS and other terrorist organisations, the entire Middle East is on fire. It would be the height of folly to dismiss or underestimate this movement as a local uprising that will disappear by itself, and to ignore its appeal to a large number of marginalised and disillusioned Sunni militants”

Now, with the rise of ISIS and other terrorist organisations, the entire Middle East is on fire. It would be the height of folly to dismiss or underestimate this movement as a local uprising that will disappear by itself, and to ignore its appeal to a large number of marginalised and disillusioned Sunni militants.

In view of its ideology, fanaticism, ruthlessness, the territories that it has already occupied, and its regional and perhaps even global ambitions, ISIS can be regarded as the greatest threat since the Second World War and one that could change the map of the Middle East and the post-First World War geography of the entire region, and challenge Western interests in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

When Islam appeared in the deserts of Arabia some 1400 years ago, with an uncompromising message of monotheism and the slogan “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God”, it changed the plight of the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula and formed a religion and a civilisation that even now claims upward of 1.5 billion adherents in all parts of the world, and forms the majority faith in 57 countries that are members of the Islamic Cooperation Organization.

Contrary to many previous prophets who did not see the success of their mission during their own lifetime, in the case of Islam not only did Muhammad manage to unite the Arabs in the name of Islam in the entire Arabian Peninsula, but he even managed to form a state and ruled over the converted Muslims both as their prophet and ruler. The creation of the Islamic umma or community during Muhammad’s lifetime in Medina and later on in the whole of Arabia is a unique occurrence in the history of religion.

Consequently, while most religions look forward to an ideal state or to the “Kingdom of God” as a future aspiration, Muslims look back at the period of Muhammad’s rule in Arabia as the ideal state. Therefore, what a pious Muslim wishes to do is to look back at the life and teachings of the Prophet, and especially his rule in Arabia, and take it as the highest standard of an ideal religious government.

This is why the Salafis, namely those who turn to salaf or the early fathers and ancestors, have always proved so attractive to many fundamentalist Muslims. Being a Salafi is a call to Muslims to reject the modern world and to follow the example of the Prophet and the early caliphs.

When, in 1516-17, the armies of Ottoman Sultan Selim I captured Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Muslim holy places in Arabia, the sultan assumed the title of caliph, and therefore the Ottoman Empire was also regarded a Sunni caliphate.

Although not all Muslims, especially many Arabs, recognise Ottoman rule as a caliphate, the caliphate nevertheless continued in name until the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War when the caliphate was officially abolished in 1922.

The fall of the last powerful Islamic empire was not only traumatic from a political and military point of view but, with the end of the caliphate, the Sunnis lost a unifying religious authority as well.

It is very difficult for many Westerners to understand the feeling of hurt and humiliation that many Sunni Muslims feel as the result of what they have suffered in the past century. To have an idea, they should imagine that a mighty Christian empire that had lasted for many centuries had fallen as the result of Muslim conquest and that, in addition to the loss of the empire, the papacy had also been abolished at the same time.

With the end of the caliphate, Sunni countries were left rudderless, to be divided among various foreign powers which imposed their economic, military and cultural domination, as well as their beliefs and their way of life, on them. The feeling of hurt and humiliation that many Muslims have felt since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the strong longing for its reinstatement, still continues.

To add insult to injury, before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Western powers, especially Great Britain, had promised the Arabs that if they would rise up against the Ottomans, after the war they would be allowed to form an Islamic caliphate in the area comprising all the Arab lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

Not only were these promises not fulfilled, but as part of the Sykes-Picot_Agreement on 16 May 1916, Britain and France secretly plotted to divide the Arab lands between them and they even promised Istanbul to Russia. Not only was a unified Arab caliphate not formed, but the Balfour_Declaration generously offered a part of Arab territory that Britain did not possess to the Zionists, to form a “national home for the Jewish people”.

In Winston Churchill’s words, Britain sold one piece of real estate (to which it had no claim in the first place) to two people at the same time.

The age of colonialism came to an end almost uniformly through military coups involving officers who had the ability to fight against foreign occupation. From the campaigns of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, to the rise of Reza Khan in Iran, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the military coups in Iraq and Syria that later led to the establishment of the Baâthist governments of Hafiz al-Assad in Syria and Abd al-Karim Qasim, Abdul Salam Arif and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on, practically all Middle Eastern countries achieved their independence as the result of military coups.

While the new military leaders managed to establish some order through the barrel of the gun, they were completely ignorant of the historical, religious and cultural backgrounds of their nations and totally alien to any concept of democracy and human rights.

In the absence of any civil society, democratic traditions and social freedom, the only path that was open to the masses that wished to mobilise against the rule of their military dictators was to turn to religion and use the mosques as their headquarters.

The rise of religious movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, FIS in Algeria and Al-Dawah in Iraq, were seen as a major threat by the military rulers and were ruthlessly suppressed.

The main tragedy of modern Middle Eastern regimes has been that they have been unable not only to involve the Islamist movements in government, but they have even failed to involve them in the society in any meaningful way.

This is why after repeated defeats, divisions and humiliation, there has always been a longing among militant Sunni Muslims, especially Arabs whose countries were artificially divided and dominated by Western colonialism and later by military dictators, for the revival of the caliphate. Even mere utterance of ‘Islamic caliphate’ brings a burst of adrenaline to many secular Sunnis.

The failure of military dictatorships and the marginalisation and even the elimination of religiously-oriented groups have led to the rise of vicious extremism and terrorism. The terrorist group ISIS is making use of this situation and is basing its appeal on the reinstatement of the caliphate. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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