Some Muslim scholars and imams have rebuked the recent declaration of the Islamic caliphate by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in the newly captured areas of Iraq, as well as in those parts of Syria which the group has seized in a bloody fight against the other Syrian fighting groups. They have argued that the declaration of a caliphate has to be on the basis of some consultation, as was practiced in the Islamic tradition, and as is mentioned in the sacred text. However, since this process was followed, in most cases, within a small circle of elite ruling members, then it is not clear whether this argument has any purchase with the ISIS. After all, this group sees no need for consultation not only with excommunicated secularists, but even with other Islamic groups who consider this declaration of an Islamic caliphate false.
What makes the ideology of ISIS appealing to its members and young recruits, especially those who travel from Europe and desperately want to join the fight, is actually the global message that this group tries to address to its Muslim audience. It has declared its determination to go beyond the parochial nationalist discourse and to establish a sovereign Islamic caliphate that aspires to global jihad. By this means it hopes to win the hearts and minds of all those who consider such an entity a dream that was lost for generations. However, their acts of collective and sectarian punishments, including those of beheading and practicing Hadd (cutting the hand of thieves and stoning women) have made them deeply unpopular within the wider Muslim community.
The recent military success that enabled ISIS to control large swathes of territory in Iraq is, one should argue, not in any way due to their ideological success in gaining wider popularity among that part of Iraq; they are simply not the vox populi. The lack of resistance and the support they have enjoyed in these areas are, to a large extent, due simply to the vacuum of legitimacy in the region. The dismal aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq undermined the credibility of the occupiers, and coupled with the exclusionary and domineering politics of the Iraqi government, helped create the conditions for ISIS’s success. On the other hand, the violent direction that the Arab Spring took, especially in Syria, contributed to the creation of conflicting interests and players who helped empower and popularise these groups to serve their political ends.
If some have initially dismissed ISIS as a terrorist group that operates on the basis of causing the maximum damage in their assaults, without considering longer run gains, they might have missed the point. What ISIS has been trying to do is to consolidate its power and establish itself as an Islamic state by stripping part of Iraq and part of Syria and establishing new institutions, such as a police force and Sharia courts. The radical move of declaring an Islamic caliphate and installing an ISIS leader as the caliph comes as a shock to their extremist rivals who never considered to initiate such a move.
It is not only that the gains of ISIS in Iraq are a huge blow to the future of Iraq as a country. The most catastrophic consequence of the military success of ISIS in Iraq (it is yet to be seen whether they can hold the territories which they have controlled in Syria) is the fact that it consolidates and perpetuates the cycle of the sectarian war and politics, most likely, in the region as a whole. Needless to say, the media coverage of this destructive war and politics is, in most cases, based on a single-sided view of how sectarianism is characterised in Iraq and the region; it is a view which depicts this politics in a comprehensive way and suggests that every single individual is immersed in this politics of hate and elimination of the other, as if it is the war of all against all. Although the sectarian war is fundamentally based on theological differences and tensions, it is deep down a war for regional power alliances and supremacy.
The group’s claim that they want to establish an Islamic state or caliphate in the region is in itself a sectarian claim based on an ideologically-oriented view that intends to wipe out differences including other faiths and doctrines. What is at stake under such a fundamentalist group is not the endangering of the relation between religion and politics, but the complete annihilation of any possibility for such a relation. The only form of politics that can be envisaged under the rule of such groups is theological politics in its most dangerous form, that is to say, whatever view or practice goes against a certain theological interpretation, it is then considered to be anti religious and, therefore, condemned and punished. The destruction of many religious shrines (considered to be non-Islamic) in Mosul, the expulsion of its Christian population from their homes and the ruthless attack on the whole of the Yazidi community are evidence of this radicalism, as are the rise of public show punishments, which cultivate the pleasure of tormenting victims (reminiscent of the Taliban era in Afghanistan). These represent dangerous precedents that could throw the country into intractable political and religious conflicts, and set a dark example for other radical groups in the region that might seek to emulate ISIS’s practices.
Dara Salam received his PhD from the Centre for Ethics and Global Politics at LUISS University, Rome. He was a visiting researcher at King’s College London. He completed his MA and MPhil in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. He is a fellow member of the International Research Network on Religion and Democracy. He has published in Political Studies Review and Public Reason.