by Ahmed Humayun
Islam has a new caliph, at least if the Iraq-based militant organization that calls itself the Islamic State is to be believed.* In what was touted to be his first public appearance, self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spoke about the necessity for implementing Sharia and using war to defeat the enemies of God, the obligation incumbent upon all Muslims to choose a leader, and issued a call for Muslims to join the jihad under his tutelage. While Bin Laden was fond of holding forth wearing commando jackets in rugged terrain, Baghdadi wears resplendent black robes and delivers his incitement to war in the form of a Friday sermon from a grand and stately pulpit in a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
The media-savvy proclamation of Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi is not a response to popular grassroots clamor in the Muslim world. Nor should we overstate the success of the Islamic State – twenty thousand fighters, at the most, will not suffice to restore a transnational global caliphate. Polls conducted in different Muslim majority societies certainly indicate strong support for Islam in public life—and in particular, for the role of Islamic law in delivering justice and organizing society. Yet there is no indication that Muslims yearn for the return of the caliphate, an institution that was already moribund at the dawn of the 20th century before its abolition by Turkey in 1924.
As with any fledgling movement, militants assert their ideological claims to be natural and inevitable, rooted in history and justified by theology. The truth, however, is that there is little consensus among Muslims on the specific role that Islam should play in contemporary state and society. While this ambivalence has limited the moral and political resonance of militant proclamations, it has also created an opportunity to exploit the general ideological appeal of Islam. This is why militant ideology matters.
Yet we will have to look beyond religious debates in order to understand the growing strength of militant groups such as the Islamic State across large swathes of Muslim majority societies. A key factor has been the growing weakness of the political status quo and the perception of its illegitimacy for various reasons that might include failing authoritarianism, the corruption of ruling elites and the dysfunctional governance they impose, and the force of kinship bonds that disdain the boundaries of modern nationalisms.
As importantly, however, the direct destruction of political authority in societies as diverse as Pakistan and Iraq has led to opportunities for Islamist militancy. In Pakistan, a separate and colonial-era system of laws and regulations that governed the northwestern tribal regions could not withstand a prolonged assault by militant groups produced by decades of war next door and the state's flirtation with asymmetric warfare. In Iraq, on the other hand, an American invasion destroyed a Sunni dictatorship without replacing it with a sustainable political dispensation, leading to the rise of an authoritarian Shia state. The political context differs as are the precipitating events but in both instances the status quo was shattered.
Such events create the potential for political opportunism as much as religious fanaticism. Militants may be bigots but they are also entrepreneurs – extreme, brutal, and reactionary ones – defined by an agenda bent on disrupting the status quo that prevails in their societies and on the international stage. They have shown themselves to be adaptive and resilient, identifying and exploiting opportunities to undermine and overturn the current political system. So far, distracted by their religious blood lust we have tended to overlook their political cunning.
Seen in this context, Baghdadi's declaration has more to do with the politics of militant competition in the context of a breakdown of state authority than anything else. There is after all little unity among the motley assortment of insurgent and terrorist factions fighting in Iraq today. Baghdadi's organization is trying to garner legitimacy through religious appeals designed to exploit deep Sunni disaffection in Iraq and Syria and beyond, and take advantage of the wider disintegration of order in the Arab heartland. Pretensions to the caliphate are meant to gain ascendancy in this stiff race for recruits, guns, money and legitimacy.
This is after all a group obsessed with branding, just as Al Qaeda was before it, and whom it seeks to displace as the premier militant organization in the world today. The name of the organization alone has gone through endless iterations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and the State of the Islamic Caliphate – this last one is a particularly nice touch, combining ancient forms of religiously sanctioned authority with the modern state system.
It remains to be seen whether such appeals will advance Baghdadi's cause against his competitors. Regardless of whether this particular gambit is greeted by success or failure, however, the broader problem will remain: wherever in the Muslim world political authority splinters, unless some version of the old authority is reconstituted or a new order is established, militants will hold and press their advantage in war and politics.
*among innumerable other names.