When Jihadis Win Power

Owen Bennett-Jones

  • The Inevitable Caliphate?: A History of the Struggle for Global Islamic Union, 1924 to the Present by Reza Pankhurst
    Hurst, 280 pp, £18.99, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 84904 251 2

After the Islamic State astonished its enemies by sweeping through Iraq’s second city, Mosul, the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appeared in a mosque to give a victory speech. When he raised his right arm to emphasise a point, the sleeve of his black robe fell back to reveal what some on social media identified as a Rolex watch. Online satirists taunted Baghdadi’s supporters: their caliph was like all politicians, claiming virtue in public while enriching himself in private. The Islamic State’s spin doctors countered that the watch was actually an Al Fajr wa-10s Deluxe, the preferred choice of true Muslims: it has a built-in compass that indicates the direction of Mecca and can be programmed to alert wearers to the correct time for prayer in hundreds of cities around the world. The sceptics responded with mock Rolex ads; taglines included ‘Death Watch’.

Whatever the barbs, these are heady days for supporters of the Islamic State. It’s not just that the caliphate has abolished the border between Iraq and Syria and controls an impressive amount of territory. Elsewhere other jihadi groups are in the ascendant. In Nigeria, Boko Haram controls around 5 per cent of the country and the government in Abuja is either unable or unwilling to confront it. In Libya, the town of Derna has declared allegiance to the Islamic State, as have some Pakistani Taliban leaders. The God-given victories just keep on coming.

To many in the West, the arrival of the caliphate came as a shock. But, as Reza Pankhurst describes, there is a long tradition in Islamic thought that views the Islamic State as an ideal, final fusion of religion and politics that will restore Muslim prestige. Ever since the Ottoman caliphate was dismantled in 1924 a continuous line of intellectual and political activity has kept the flame alive. At first the debate among religious and political leaders was mainly confined to a series of conferences that called for the selection of a new caliph; nothing much came of them. Then in 1928, Hassan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood emerged in Egypt. Banna supported the idea of the caliphate but he was also a pragmatist: given that he was operating in colonial Egypt the restoration was relegated to a long-term goal. In the meantime, Banna suggested, Muslims would do well to concentrate on improving their personal morality and religious practice. Even in the midst of the Arab Spring the Brotherhood remained gradualist: a caliphate is still its ultimate objective but it shows no sign of advocating the use of force to get there.

Other groups have been more single-minded. Hizb ut Tahrir, created by Palestinians after the establishment of Israel, argued that a new caliphate was the only way to unite Muslims to fight their oppressors. Hizb ut Tahrir set up branches all over the world, but was eclipsed after 9/11 by al-Qaida. At this point the word ‘caliphate’ began to be more widely used, both in the Middle East and by George Bush, for whom it emphasised the scale of bin Laden’s global ambitions. Pankhurst points out, though, that a caliphate was never bin Laden’s top priority: most of his references to it were attempts to attract support by evoking an emotive historical symbol. Bin Laden spent more time and energy on what he considered urgent tasks: the liberation of occupied Muslim lands and the reform or overthrow of authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes. Pankhurst suggests that most Muslims weren’t as frightened by the idea of a caliphate as Bush hoped. In 2007 a poll conducted across Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan found that 65 per cent agreed with the goal of uniting all Islamic countries into a single state. Now that everyone can see what a contemporary caliphate actually looks like it would be interesting to see a rerun of the poll, though many of the 65 per cent might argue that even if Baghdadi is out of control the idea of a single Islamic entity is still valid: there is deep attachment to the notion. Of course, many of those who have lived in the Islamic State would take a different view: the people who most strongly oppose Islamic clerical rule tend to be those who have direct experience of it. When jihadis win power they govern badly.

It’s difficult to know exactly what is going on in areas held by the Islamic State, besides the beheadings. But documents the organisation has published, as well as material captured by the Iraqi military, suggest that the caliph has largely decentralised power: governors and deputies run departments responsible for everything from taxation to roadside bombs. This isn’t out of any desire to follow constitutional best practice but merely good strategy, given the damage that can be done by US air strikes. At first Isis had two military headquarters in Iraq; there are now as many as twenty, each responsible for a relatively small geographical area and run by only three or four commanders. Since the stalemate at Kobani there are signs that the Islamic State’s power is close to its peak, especially now that it’s fighting no fewer than five enemies: the Iraqi and Syrian armies, the US air force, the Kurdish peshmerga and the Free Syrian Army. But even if it remains a force it won’t be able to satisfy the demands of those it governs. When one Mosul resident complained about power cuts the Islamic State administration told him that if people could live without electricity in the seventh century then he should be able to as well. And as all jihadi administrations over the last decade have discovered, relentless violence alienates people.

But for all that, as Pankhurst argues, the Western concept of liberal democracy seems to have limited appeal in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa – as the widespread support for Islamist parties in the elections held after the Arab Spring demonstrated. Some, such as the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, stated that their objective of bringing religion into politics was to be achieved only through persuasion, but overall the results indicated that many Middle Eastern voters don’t want Western-style secularism of any kind. All the parties that did best had a religious element. Some explain this as merely an emotional, popular rejection of the secular leaders who had fallen from power; but that would be to overlook the long history and deep roots of organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which aren’t just attracting protest votes. In the early days of the Arab Spring it was assumed that the upheavals demonstrated the depth of support for the West’s way of life; in fact they have shown the opposite. Given the extent of the caliph’s cruelty, and the murder and mayhem in areas under his control, you might think that the West would be in a strong position to persuade the young recruits heading out to Syria and Iraq that they’re on the wrong track. But much of the Western commentary on the ascent of the Islamic State has been strikingly defensive. In both the US and in Europe the burgeoning government-funded deradicalisation industry has relied on counter-narratives in which former jihadis warn young Muslims that the online preachers gloss over the Middle East’s complexities. ‘Be careful,’ their argument goes, ‘when you reach Syria or Iraq you may end up killing Muslims.’ True enough, but it’s hardly a clarion call. Obama and Cameron have condemned the Islamic State’s barbarity but – in contrast to the rhetoric of Bush and Blair – they haven’t spoken passionately about the virtues of the West. Why? What has changed?

Surely the West should be able to articulate confidence in its precious values of tolerance and equality before the law. After all, Western democracies still attract people from all over the world, some of whom hand over all their worldly goods to traffickers and travel at great risk to their lives. It isn’t just caution after the Bush-Blair adventure in Iraq that has led to Western leaders’ apparent lack of self-confidence. There are longer-term factors at play. After the Second World War most developing countries signed the United Nations human rights conventions in part because they had to fall in line with the big powers to avoid being ostracised as pariah states. Today such calculations look rather different. The emergence of Asia’s economic powerhouses means that small economies can look east as well as west. Many African governments, to their relief, are now able to stop chasing Western money: instead they can accept Chinese investments that have no human rights strings attached. There is a widespread perception in many developing countries that the West is hypocritical and arrogant. For more than a decade now, the one-party states of China and Vietnam have challenged the notion that democracy is a precondition for economic progress. The protests in Hong Kong may prove to be an early sign of a trend that will gather momentum, but for the vast majority of people in China and Vietnam being lifted from poverty is still more important than securing political rights.

The transformation of Vietnam has taken just 25 years. In 1988, after the French, American and Chinese invasions, the country was exhausted and in ruins; three million Vietnamese faced starvation because of acute rice shortages. Today, Vietnam has very low unemployment, 5.4 per cent economic growth and a literacy rate of 94 per cent. A few years ago I asked the US embassy in Hanoi if they kept a list of the country’s dissidents. They did: it had just seventy names on it, mostly people who objected to communism on religious grounds. The model of Vietnam inspires people across the region, and internationally.

Similar trends are emerging in Europe, where Putin’s assertiveness is finding resonance. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has been remarkably frank about his vision of the future. He believes that the global financial crisis has shown the weakness of the liberal democratic model: ‘I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.’ His government talks about Christian roots, patriotism, the benefits of hard work, and claims that NGOs are used to infiltrate foreign spies. Russia, Turkey and China, Orbán argues, are all successful nations, ‘none of which is liberal and some of which aren’t even democracies’.

The challenges to the West’s power and ideas have arrived with remarkable speed. In 2003 no one thought the US would have any difficulty in toppling Saddam and replacing him with someone more amenable to Washington: the debate about the Iraq war concerned legitimacy, not capability. Now the West is less sure of itself. As Parliament recognised when it voted against a war in Syria, even if the UK and the US had the power to remove Assad, there was no guarantee they could put someone better in his place. In fact, if you looked at Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there was every sign they couldn’t.

The West’s diminishing ability to shape the world extends to international commerce. Western governments’ control of which companies sell which products to whom has been an important foreign policy tool for decades. The fact that no international bank can function without money passing through the United States at some point has given American financial authorities immeasurable clout. When a few years ago a Lebanese bank did business with Hezbollah the mere threat of US countermeasures was sufficient to force its collapse. More generally, nations that have stepped out of line have faced Western economic sanctions. Much of this economic power remains firmly in place. But thanks in part to the current instability in the Middle East and North Africa there are signs that the West won’t enjoy this influence indefinitely. It’s clear that imposing sanctions on a government that barely exists, as in Syria, is futile; imposing them on Russia simply drives it into the open arms of China.

Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa has changed the oil sector too. Once all major trade deals went through national capitals on which the West could exert pressure. Now non-state actors have been able not only to produce oil but to sell it too. And businesses have shown ever greater willingness to bypass governments. In Libya in 2011 anti-Gaddafi rebels sold hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil through a Swiss trading company to various users. The US – not realising the trend it was setting – encouraged these sales and even purchased some of the oil; the revenue helped the rebels overthrow Gaddafi. So once again the US had apparently used its economic muscle to get its political way.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Today, the internationally recognised Libyan parliament is holed up in a hotel in Tobruk and its authority barely extends beyond the check-in desk. Various militias control the rest of the country, some seeking to establish clerical rule, others allied to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, along with tribal-based forces defending their own areas. One group has tried to copy its rebel predecessors and sell oil on the international markets. Earlier this year, with letter-headed documentation from the ‘Government of Cyrenaica’, they managed to load a tanker and break through the Libyan naval blockade. US Navy Seals were able to seize the ship south of Cyprus but on other occasions the US has been less successful. Despite Washington and Baghdad’s objections, the Kurdish authorities in Erbil have transported significant amounts of oil by truck and pipeline to Turkey and from there delivered it by tanker to Israel, Malaysia and Croatia. The government in Baghdad insists it has sole authority to export oil from the country but no one, other than the US, seems to be listening. The Kurds say oil sales raised $1.3 billion between February and September this year. Even the Islamic State has been able to get oil to market from the dozen or so fields it currently controls. Smugglers purchase it, at a heavy discount, and move it across the Syrian-Turkish border in plastic barrels and irrigation pipes. Oil industry estimates suggest that the Islamic State raises between one and three million dollars a day from Iraqi and Syrian oil.

Oil sales by Syrian rebels began in much the same way as those in Libya. In 2013 the EU lifted its oil embargo on Syria and agreed to supply equipment to the rebels to help them extract it. Given that Jabhat al-Nusra is in many places fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army, this opened up the extraordinary possibility that the EU was steering funding to places where it would benefit al-Qaida-affiliated fighters. Presumably, now that the Islamic State has taken over the oilfields, the EU has backed off, but Brussels isn’t alone in doing dodgy deals. There are reports that, although it’s at war with the Kurds, the Islamic State takes protection money from Kurdish businessmen and in return guards pipelines taking Kurdish oil through Syria to Turkey. The caliphate, it seems, isn’t so pious as to be above war profiteering. The Afghan Taliban has depended for years on the drugs trade; for the Islamic State, it’s oil.

It isn’t only Western powers that are suffering from a steady erosion of their ability to shape the world. It’s often assumed that Saudi Arabia funds the Islamic State and other jihadi groups – in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere – as a way of extending its influence across the Middle East and South Asia. In fact the export of jihad shows how weak the Saudi government is. The royal family staves off opposition at home by giving religious conservatives the freedom to do what they want abroad. It is rattled enough to be negotiating a deal that would bring the Pakistani army to its rescue whenever it might be needed to suppress internal dissent. In Pakistan itself, militants have been encouraged to mount attacks in Kashmir, Afghanistan and India but to stay quiet at home. Western policy-makers try to persuade the authorities in Islamabad and Riyadh to face up to the severity of the internal threat. But it isn’t a failure to understand the severity of the threat that causes these governments to export jihad. It is precisely because they do understand the threat that they would rather channel it elsewhere. Their policies are driven by fear.

Even if the traditional big powers, the UN, the IMF and the World Bank pretend that old certainties, such as international borders and government ministries, still exist in the Middle East and North Africa, increasingly they do so only on paper. In some places, such as Syria and Afghanistan, national armies can’t hope to match the jihadis and other local militias. In others, such as Pakistan, battle has been joined. And then there’s Egypt, where the army is effectively back in power and facing the question: can it contain the criminals and Salafis who now cross freely through Sinai? While the generals, not only in Egypt but also in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Nigeria, try to push everything back into some sort of recognisable shape the facts on the ground have already left them behind. The Middle East and North Africa is now a region of small fiefdoms controlled by militiamen, clerics, warlords, tribal or ethnic leaders and mafia-style crooks. And the ones that call themselves caliphates, such as those in Nigeria, Libya and the Levant, won’t form anything like the cross-continental, harmonious Islamic union that Pankhurst envisages. They will be regressive and violent, and fighting along with everyone else. If you’re planning to travel through the Middle East and North Africa you’ll need to keep your wits about you.