By Doğu Ergil
July 08, 2014
A little while ago the jihadist militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared a caliphate in the occupied territories of Syria and Iraq. It claims to be the only true Islamic state. Its founders removed the “Iraq and the Levant (Sham)” from its name and announced that the caliphate had been restored.
This development requires analysis of the concept “caliphate.” It is a term that emerged after the death of Prophet Muhammad and as a noun “caliph” means successor. The person who holds the post of caliph has the authority to preside over and manage the affairs of the Islamic community. The first caliphs that followed Prophet Muhammad were called “Rashid,” meaning the rightful, wise and mature and showing the right way.
After the fourth caliph, Ali, the pressures of statehood and managing a community that was growing in terms of both population and geography led to political in-fighting that ended the system of having a caliphate as the unofficial head of state. It was during the second phase of the caliphate that it became an official post, the head of the state, unlike its predecessors, who were the unofficial leaders of the community.
The Islamic caliphate was taken over by the Ottoman sultans in the 16th century until 1924, when it was abolished by the Turkish Parliament.
The debate over the third phase of the caliphate resurfaced with al-Qaeda. Islamic militants that had detached themselves from national allegiances wanted to revitalize a purely Islamic political entity. They wanted a state from where judgments could be passed on all Muslims, wherever they are.
ISIL is an off-shoot of al-Qaeda. Once they finally had enough land they declared their own statehood.
The declaration of a “caliphate” is exciting news for all the downtrodden and excluded Muslims who are ready to believe that a purely Muslim state run by Islamic principles would bring justice, equality and welfare to all believers. This utopian vision justifies all the sacrifices and extremism deemed necessary to achieve it.
Rootless Muslims from all over the world dedicated themselves to holy causes, the last being the deliverance of Syria and Iraq from the West -- the nemesis of Islam --- and its local abettors. Having a state they can rule without having to be accountable to anyone, where they have unquestioned authority over the life and death of others and a state that is rich in natural resources is more than they could have imagined.
The spiritual leader of the organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is now the presumed caliph of all Muslims, the only legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad. He has already started riding a car with the insignia of the caliph.
Declaring a caliphate which has jurisdiction over all Sunnis will undoubtedly have some effect on the Islamists who have yearned for their own brand of government.
This development poses serious challenges to both moderate Muslim societies with dis-satisfied lower classes who believe that Islam offers the best ethical and civic standards as well as other Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda's affiliates.
It seems there will be a long battle within Muslim communities and states to earn or reclaim their legitimacy.
Whatever the readers' views may be about the Islamic State, its tactics have been thought through and skillfully executed. This necessitates a sophisticated strategy and a concerted effort against this dangerous entity which is predisposed to projecting its prolific ideological power. This is far more dangerous than the Islamic State's military capacity.