by Graham E. Fuller
The fall of the primary ISIS stronghold in Mosul in Iraq represents a turning point strategically, politically, ideologically and even religiously in the Muslim world. Mosul has been the largest symbolic center of the ISIS “Caliphate” over which the ISIS “Caliph” ‘Abd-al-Rahman al-Baghdadi presided.
The fall of the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa in Syria will not be far behind. That puts an end to ISIS’ claim that it had begun the physical elimination of all colonial borders starting with that between Iraq and Syria. In short, It will mark the end of the territoriality of ISIS, perhaps the “Caliphate’s” most striking claim-to-fame.
The institution of the Caliphate has been one of the important historical and symbolic features of Muslim history, embodying the ideal of a universal Islamic state—even though such a thing has never quite fully existed. The Caliphate is roughly the equivalent of the Papacy—once a major territorial concept, and still today a concept of the living religious community of Catholicism. Both Caliphate and Papacy symbolize a vision—the religiously-founded state as an ideal.
Unlike its caricatured image in the West, in the eyes of most Muslims the concept of the Caliphate is quite positive—a symbol of the Muslim world’s historic power, culture, civilization, and geographical reach. Today, however, few Muslims believe that a Caliphate could ever again be practically reconstituted. Yet the idea of having a single seat of religious authority makes just as much sense for Islam as it does for other religions. But today an effort to recreate a meaningful and responsible Caliphate raises near-insoluble questions: where would it be located, who would the Caliph be, how would he be elected, what qualifications would be required, what would his authorities be, what political power he would exercise if any, and what issues could he address authoritatively. And finally, how binding would his pronouncements be. (The Pope still faces some similar problems).
Contemporary schemes for the reestablishment of a modern-day Caliphate go back to the abolition of the office of Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey in 1924. (Turkey had a right to expel the Caliph but not to abolish the office, any more than an Italian prime minister can decide to abolish the Papacy; it is an issue for global Catholics to decide).
The unique feature of ISIS was not so much that it declared a contemporary Caliphate but that it provided it territoriality—the closest thing in a century to establishing a meaningful Caliphate possessed of political, administrative and military power. Tragically it was established by individuals brutally intolerant in their vision, violent and cruel in their administration, and willing to employ terrorism against opponents. Yet all these ugly features did not necessarily have to come with the turf—any more than all Popes necessarily had to be brutal. But unspeakable acts became the hallmark of the ISIS brand—and its primary victims were overwhelmingly Muslim—both Shi’a and Sunni.
Equally baleful was the ISIS practice of takfir, declaring individuals—even Muslims—to be non-Muslims or “infidel.” For ISIS the penalty was usually death. But the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia also practice theological takfir, as do many other Salafis or ultra-traditonalist Islamists, even if not necessarily calling for the death penalty. Indeed, Saudi Wahhabism is not directly terrorist —but indirectly its preachings and massive financing have led to the propagation of large numbers of intolerant and extreme movements and individuals around the world, many of whom are indeed violent or even terrorist.
For most Muslims, as well as for the West, the fall of ISIS will be welcome. Yet we should not believe that terrorism conducted in the name of Islam will automatically come to an end. Such terrorism is widely recognized by specialists as basically stemming not from theology—but rather the product of politics, sociology, disadvantaged minorities, or even troubled individuals seeking ideological justification to express the rage of their personal pathology.
But a sober reality remains: the virtually non-stop wars promulgated primarily by the US in the last two decades across large parts of the Middle East, have decimated the region, with upwards of one million Muslims being killed in the wars and resulting anarchy. Vast material devastation and social and psychological dislocation have occurred whose effects are far from over; they still arise daily in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria among other places. Such violent conditions are hotbeds for the emergence of rage, hatred, despair and psychological derangement. If American soldiers suffer in large numbers post-stress traumatic disorder—leading to high suicide rates—why should the PSTD among Muslims not be one hundred times greater?
Thus as long as radical conditions exist the conditions for further terrorism will also continue to exist. Even in the West there will always be a handful of psychologically and socially alienated Muslim youths ripe for recruitment into acts of terrorism. In most cases it comes down to cases of abnormal psychology then dressed up and dignified as a religious act. One wonders how such cases will ever completely cease. Nor is psychotic violence limited to Muslims in the West by any means.
But the destruction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is still of major importance. The once dramatic claim to have established a Caliphate on physical territory is no longer there to dazzle and tempt many. For most the bloom is off the rose. Revelations about the brutality of life in ISIS territories are well known in the Muslim world and the overwhelming majority of Muslims are horrified by it. They do not condemn the concept of a Caliphate in Islamic history, but they certainly condemn this vicious expression of it.
Thus today, if some aspiring Muslim radical says “I have a great historical vision, how about creating a Caliphate?” there will likely to be very few takers willing to resuscitate such conditions of violence. By now most Muslims have “been there and done that.” The idea of a Caliphate as a shining new idea ready to attract angry, adventuristic, or idealistic youth has lost its gloss. Others may yet try to proclaim some ramshackle Caliphate in one remote area or another, but it will likely have little attraction except through brute force.
Parallels in the communist movement are instructive. The theoretical foundation of communism—a high degree of state socialism—will never die. But the experiment with communism in the Soviet Union created a fairly miserable society that even Russia’s admirers could no longer accept. Many doctrinaire leftists will still make the case that Russia simply carried out the communist experiment exceptionally badly, that it did not have to be like that, and that the Swedish model of society and governance is closer to the communist ideal.
Still, the present iteration of ISIS as “Caliphate” is now drawing to a close. There will inevitably be some who will try to exploit the power of the idea again—as with authoritarian state socialism— but it becomes mostly an exercise in brutal imposition of power, not an exercise in Islamic political thought. The US can help by sharply curtailing its campaigns of military destruction in the region; they gave birth to ISIS in the first place and remain a key wellspring of radicalization.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) Reprinted, with permission, from grahamefuller.com. Photo: Iraq army convoy in Mosul (Wikimedia Commons).