By Prem Anand Mishra
April 12, 2016
Whether it's last year’s brutal attack at the office of Charlie Hebdo, or the Paris attacks in which more than 100 people died, or the more recent Brussels attack, Islamic State (IS) has become a potent threat to global peace in the last three years.
Since September 2014, ISIS has taken lives of over 1100 people in different terrorist attacks world over. Even now these attacks are far from over as ISIS remains a potent force and holds key positions in Middle-East despite the NATO as well as Russian forces claiming victory against the IS fighters.
Much like Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations, Islamic State aka ISIS too is an offspring born of nefarious imperialist intentions of the West and the Islamic world’s perpetual fear of Islam being in danger.
Daesh, as it is called in Arabic, is a phenomenon which propagates the idea of Islamic rule or the Caliphate over the world - where power would flow from the sanctum-sanctorum of Mecca itself.
Whether it was the USSR’s misadventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s which gave birth to CIA’s once-upon-a-time blue-eyed boy - Al Qaeda, or America’s attempt to annihilate Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussain in Iraq post September 11 - every time a Western country ventured into the Islamic World, it cemented the age-old notion of ‘Islam in Danger’ and provided the very idea of ISIS with the legitimacy it was eagerly waiting for.
Currently, this Frankenstein’s monster has become the face of global terrorism and no matter how hard the West tries to disown it, it always comes back to haunt and torment.
‘The Rise of The Islamic Caliphate Or Islamic State’
In 2001, America was attacked by Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. It was an attack on temples of American capitalism and headquarters of the world’s only superpower’s military might. The then US President, George W Bush took refuge in the Old Testament and came out with theory of ‘Either with us or against us’.
It was the revival of a new dark phase and Islam became the most potent enemy the world had seen.
The neo conservatives who shaped Bush’s policies asked him to go to war. The first casualty was Afghanistan, and the second was Saddam’s Iraq, perhaps the most secular of all Arab states.
The attack on Iraq in 2003 was different from Operation Desert Storm of the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam was ousted, hanged and Sunni-ruled Iraq was replaced by Shia Iraq.
The Islamic world was shaken. Saddam was lauded as a hero by the Sunni Islamic world against the Americans, and its trusted partner Israel.
Before the rise of the IS, the West in general was hypnotised with political scientist Samuel P Huntington’s notion of the clash of civilisations - a prescription of war between Islam and the West.
The unsolved question of Palestine was unfathomable for the Islamic world, which produced generations of Muslim jihadists who believed Islam was in danger.
In short, terrorist outfits like Hezbollah, Hamas, and later Al-Qaeda, came into being.
But only Hamas stood against the might of Israel and grabbed the eyeballs of the Islamic World. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed group, tried to take on Israel but failed to acquire the status of Islam’s saviour from the wrath of the Zionists.
Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who happened to be the godfather of IS patron Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the self, proclaimed Caliph and heir of the last prophet, was the one who first formed Al Qaeda in Iraq, which later became the Islamic State.
Unlike Laden who never wanted a sectarian divide among Muslims, Zarqawi wanted a Sunni Caliphate in which even Shias wouldn’t be allowed to practice their faith. But his ambitions didn’t materialise due to heavy American presence in the country. Before he died in an ambush in 2006, he laid the foundation of the self-proclaimed Sunni caliphate which we today know as ISIS.
ISIS and Geopolitics - The Shaping Of A New ‘Middle East’
When Baghdadi rose to the self-proclaimed Caliphate in June 2014, the world reacted sharply. The Sunni pride had taken a great beating during the Arab Spring in which scores of Sunni dictators like Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Saleh were dethroned. Sunni Islam looked for refuge and, Baghdadi with IS, provided it with one. The Syrian conflict which today seems to have engulfed the whole world also stemmed from the hatred between the Shia and Sunni sects.
Bashar Assad of Syria is an Alawite, a sect of Shia Islam, and his family has been ruling the majority Sunni state for more than four decades now. That’s why ISIS, in order to restore the lost Sunni pride, unleashed the offensive against the Syrian regime.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the two citadels on which Islam was born and functioned helped IS to grow and flourish. Both supported IS forces to dethrone Assad in Syria. But IS, like Al Qaeda, became a Frankenstein’s monster. It expanded its base from Iraq to Syria and soon wreaked havoc on other neighbouring Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey did not fathom the extent of the threat from IS and the refugee crisis started taking a toll on Turkey and Europe.
Most of Western Europe already has a population of 6 to 10 per cent Muslims, who have always felt alienated. Once IS was in place, they looked up to it as the saviour of Islam. For them, Islamic State was the new knight.
Islamic State: the idea of a new caliphate!
The idea of a caliphate has been an enduring part of the early phase of Islam and remained a bone of contention throughout Islamic history. Except Abu Bakr (AD 632-34), the other rightly guided caliph (companions of Prophet) Umar (AD 634-44), Uthman (AD 644-56), and Ali (AD 656-61) were assassinated. The period of the Ummayads (AD 661-750), and the Abbasisds (AD 750-1258), and lastly, the Ottomans till 1925, had always seen the multiple claims of caliphates.
Islam was expanding and so was the claim. But the question of legitimacy always remained at the core. The current idea of the caliphate though has a legitimacy of some sort. Most of the new research surveys suggest that Islamic State has a profound acceptance to an extent that 92 per cent of Saudi citizens endorsed this idea.
Islamic State seeks its idea from Abbasids. The black flag is a signature to that, but unlike the Abbasids period which was a period of many contributions from philosophy to music and art, Baghdadi’s caliphate seeks refuge in the idea of Ibn Taymiyyah and Abdul Wahhab, the reformers who called for puritanical Islam.
The Salafist/Wahhabist ideologies are ultraconservative revivalist ideas that believe even Shias are heretics like polytheists or pagans. Sign and symbols provide the idea of the importance of their legitimacy. The selection of an orange suit before beheading and burning people alive is a strategic act to remind the Muslim world how Americans carried their rendition mission against Muslims at Guantanamo Bay.
The IS’s in-house magazine Dabiq has an important message. Dabiq is an ancient place in Syria near the Turkish border, where Muslims believe they will have their final war against their enemy. And they will win.
Will The Islamic State Survive All Challenges Ahead?
The threat of IS, despite being a global challenge, hasn’t found a common consensus. The West was initially reluctant till incidents of Charlie Hebdo, and the Paris and Brussels attacks, came to haunt them. President Obama earlier remarked that IS isn’t a great threat, but soon his own convictions died out.
But there are certain important scenarios that have arrived that paint a grim picture. Turkey still believes the Kurds are a bigger threat than IS, despite the number of attacks in Ankara, and other cities openly challenged their position. Saudis and other Sunni states, especially monarchies, who initially helped the IS grow suddenly, find their position in quagmire. They believed the only threat was Assad, a proxy ruler of Iran by helping Free National Army and Al Nusra front against his regime. But this didn’t bring much success as Assad is still strong.
Now with Iran in a post-nuclear deal situation and direct engagement of Russians, Assad is going to stay. But meanwhile, IS has become a problem for Saudi and other monarchies in the region. IS’s notion of monarchies being anti Islamic has given Saudi Arabia cold feet.
Russian intervention is another important aspect. What America couldn’t achieve in years, the Russians did in months. Assad's regime was strengthened, IS forces lost key positions including many world heritage places like Palmyra.
A Kurdish force also advanced its position in Iraq where they have dented IS positions significantly in recent times.
But ISIS is still strong, and it will remain a potent force to reckon with. The only silver lining out of this chaos is that the West seems to have learnt a lesson - creating monsters is an easy job, but controlling them is an utterly difficult task.
Prem Anand Mishra is a research scholar in the Centre for West Asian studies in School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi. His area of interest is Islam, and he is currently working on Islam in Western Discourses. He is a freelancer and writes for various websites and magazines on geopolitics. He has also worked as a journalist at Business Standard, Chennai, and as a consultant to UNICEF Bihar.