On June 29, 2014 at the beginning of the Holy month of Ramzan (Ramadan), a group called the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) (also known as ISIS), declared the establishment of an Islamic ‘Caliphate’ in the areas controlled by it in Iraq and Syria. The Caliphate was subsequently rechristened ‘Islamic State (IS)’ and their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed ‘Caliph’. Questions are being asked as to why it was the ISIS which proclaimed the Caliphate and not Taliban or Osama-bin-Laden? This is more intriguing considering the fact that the avowed goal of the Al-Qaeda (reading its literature) is the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the Muslim lands.
Here is my take on the issue.
Timing of the proclamation of Caliphate
As to the question of timing of the proclamation of Caliphate by Al-Baghdadi, I would like to draw the attention of the readers to the writings of the Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein. He spent time with Al-Zarqawi (the mentor of Al-Baghdadi) in prison and soon gained access to the Al-Qaeda inner circle of which Al-Zarqawi was a part then. Al-Zarqawi paid nominal allegiance to the Al-Qaeda, though the relationship was difficult from the outset. He was later disowned by the Al-Qaeda for his ruthless ways. Fouad Hussein brought out a remarkable book in Arabic called “Al Zarqawi- Al Qaeda’s Second Generation.” (This unfortunately has not been translated into English). Loretta Napoleoni in her book “Insurgent Iraq- Al Zarqawi and the New Generation” has made references to Fouad Hussein’s work.
Based on Fouad Hussein’s book Yassin Musharbash, writing in the German newspaper SPIEGEL Online (The Future of Terrorism, 12 August 2005) states that the ‘insurgent network hopes to establish the Islamic Caliphate’ in seven steps;
- The first phase from 2000 to 2003 was characterised as the “Awakening Phase”. The aim in this phase was to provoke USA into declaring war on the Islamic world, thereby awakening the Muslims. 9/11 was a part of this strategy.
- The second phase from 2003 to 2006 was defined by Hussein as the “Opening Eyes,” whereby Muslims of the world would be made aware of the western conspiracy against them. The insurgents believed that their organisation would develop into a movement in this period.
- The third phase from 2007 to 2010 was described as the “Arising and Standing up” phase. During this period there was to be increased focus on Syria and attacks on Israel.
- The fourth phase from 2010 to 2013 was when the insurgents would aim to bring about the collapse of the hated Arabic governments. The power vacuum so created would strengthen the hands of the insurgents.
- The fifth phase from 2013 to 2016 was the point when “Islamic Caliphate would be declared”. They believed that by this time the Western influence on the Islamic world would have reduced and no resistance would be feared.
- The sixth phase from 2016 will be a period of “Total Confrontation.” With the declaration of the caliphate the “Islamic army” will instigate a “fight between believers and non-believers.”
- The seventh or the final phase will be completed by 2020 and will lead to “Definitive Victory” and the success of the Caliphate. The rest of the world would be beaten down by “one and a half billion Muslims.”
Going strictly by the seven phases described above the proclamation of the Caliphate coincides with the time period as provided by Al-Zarqawi and his followers. Al-Baghdadi who proclaimed himself the Caliph was a close confidant and follower of Al-Zarqawi.
Al-Qaeda led by Osama Bin Laden and Al-Zawahriri instead believed that the caliphate could only be declared only when certain criteria are met, the most notable of them being the liberation of all Muslim lands. In its latest newsletter Al Nafir, Al Qaeda details the occupied Muslim lands to be liberated before the caliphate can be declared. These include Palestine, Chechnya and the Caucuses, Kashmir, Spain, East Turkestan, Afghanistan, Arab World, Pakistan and Afghanistan. So the capture of some rump territory cannot be the basis for the proclamation of the caliphate in the eyes of Al-Qaeda.
Modalities of the choosing the Caliph
Al-Qaeda believes that post the liberation of the Muslim lands, the Caliph would be chosen by a ‘Shura’ or thru a consultative decision making process. This process of consultative decision making process has been prescribed in the Quran and has been practiced by the Prophet (PBUH) himself. Upon the Caliphs selection by the ‘Shura’, the Muslims would proclaim their allegiance (bay’a) to him, thus making him the legitimate Caliph. In the eyes of Al-Qaida, Al-Baghdadi is a pretender for he was not elected by a ‘Shura’, instead he self-proclaimed himself as Caliph. In his sermon at Mosul Al-Baghdadi said, “I have been appointed caliph over you, even if I am not the best or the most morally excellent amongst you.” This goes against the grain of not only of how Caliphs were selected but the hallmarks of the rightly guided Caliph’s i.e. their high standards of humility, wisdom and morality.
In 1996, his followers did proclaim their allegiance (bay’a) to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar after he donned the cloak of the Prophet (PBUH), but he took upon himself the title of Amir-ul-Mu’minin (Commander of the faithful) and not the Caliph. The reason in my view was that his vision was limited to the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan and the Taliban had no global jihadist ambitions. It is worthwhile to mention here that Taliban rule in Afghanistan was based not only on the Islamic Sharia but also on the Pashtun code of conduct called ‘Pashtunwali,’ a unique tradition prevailing only in Afghanistan.
Further, the first four caliphs called rightly guided caliphs all claimed descent from the Quraysh tribe. Neither Bin Laden nor Mullah Omar could either claim kinship to the Prophet (PBUH) or the Quraysh tribe. It is no surprise then that to reinforce his claim as the Caliph, Al-Baghdadi has assumed the title of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Al-Husseini Al-Qurashi, reiterating his descent from the Quraysh tribe.
Establishment of a proto-state
The establishment of the Caliphate in Iraq in my view is not only a religious exercise but also a political enterprise. The ISIS, which subsequently renamed itself as the IS and proclaimed itself as the Caliphate seeks to establish a proto state in the western and northern Iraqi areas captured by it. By proclaiming itself as the Islamic State it seeks to establish legitimacy in the eyes of the Sunni Muslims around the world. This also helps in establishing its identity as distinct from other Muslim ‘movements’ like the Al-Qaeda and hopes that groups proclaiming allegiance to them would switch loyalties to the IS. In The Hindu (Battling for the Islamic Space, Imagination, 9 July 2014), Talmiz Ahmad wrote “As of now, ISIS enjoys several advantages over al-Qaeda: while the al-Qaeda leadership is located in the remote inaccessible areas of Afghanistan, ISIS has placed itself at the heart of the Arab world.”
Reports from the areas controlled by it indicate that the IS is a pragmatic exercise. Mushreq Abbas wrote in Al-Monitor (Why Al-Qaeda is no Islamic Clone, 23 July 2014) that the IS is “striking alliances with Baathist groups and tribal factions. Some former Baathist figures have been appointed also to managing posts in the city. The invasion of Mosul and most of the other Sunni cities entails economic and managerial plans, including the provision of fuel, food supplies, distribution of land and the search for funding resources from oil wells — the newly exploited and operating ones and those that remain under geologic studies.”
Many disparate groups like the ex-Baathists, Salafists, Naqshabadis, ex-Iraqi army of Saddam Hussain came into a coalition of convenience against the sectarian policies of Noori al Maliki and joined hands with ISIS to create the IS. They have different ideological orientation and affiliations. Also it should be noted that Iraqi nationalism is pretty fragile. Unlike Afghanistan where despite ethnic differences, there is a general consensus amongst all ethnic groups be it Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks or the Hazaras that Afghan state should remain united, Iraqi territorial nationalism (created by Sykes Picot agreement) has been under challenge from various ethnic groups like the Kurds and now the Sunnis. In my opinion Al Baghdadi probably believes that the proclamation of a Sunni caliphate is the glue that would hold these groups together. Mullah Omar faced no such challenges in dealing with Afghan nationalism.
I would conclude by saying that while scholars may argue about as to why Al Qaeda and the Taliban did not declare the Caliphate early and why did the IS declare it now, the need of the hour is to see the clear and present danger that these organisations pose to both the Muslim and non-Muslim world. The videos of IS brutalities are blood curdling and destruction of Shia holy sites has the potential to fan a wave of sectarianism around the world. IS provides safe havens for terrorists with dangerous ramifications for global peace and security. The need of the hour is a unified response by the global community to meet the challenges posed by these forces.