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.

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