Iraqi women at the Khazair displacement camp for those caught-up in the fighting in Mosul. Photo: Getty
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The hand-choppers of Isis are deluded: there is nothing Islamic about their caliphate

Have we gone back in time? The era of Muslim caliphates came to a close in 1924, when the Ottomans were toppled in Turkey.

I have a new leader, apparently. As do the rest of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. His name is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and he is the caliph and “leader for Muslims everywhere”. Or so say the blood-drenched fanatics of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Isis). On 29 June, an Isis spokesman declared that the group had set up a caliphate in the areas under its control, from Diyala in eastern Iraq to Aleppo in northern Syria.

Have we gone back in time? The era of Muslim caliphates came to a close in 1924, when the Ottomans were toppled in Turkey. Over the past nine decades, several Muslim leaders have tried to set themselves up as caliph-type figures (think of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran or the Taliban’s Mullah Omar in Afghanistan). Yet, crucially, none of them has tried to claim political authority over Muslims outside the borders of his respective state. Al-Baghdadi wants Muslims across the world to fall at his feet.

The Isis declaration has come as a bit of a shock. In recent years, most Islamist groups (think al-Nahda in Tunisia or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) have tried to take power through the ballot box, with only fringe groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir agitating for a medieval-style caliphate. (I remember arguing, as a teenager, with members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. “Brother, we need to reject western democracy and have a caliph,” they would say to me. “And how will we decide who the caliph is?” I would ask, feigning both innocence and interest. “Well . . . um . . . He’ll be elected,” they would invariably reply, shifting in their seats.)

There are four points worth considering in any discussion of Isis or its “caliphate”. First, there is nothing Islamic about a state. I have argued before on these pages that: “There is not a shred of theological, historical or empirical evidence to support the existence of such an entity.” Yes, we Muslims have a romanticised view of Medina, under the rule of the Prophet Muhammad between 622 and 632AD, but it had none of the trappings of a modern state – no fixed borders, no standing army, no civil servants – and was led by a divinely appointed prophet of God. Unless the shadowy al-Baghdadi plans to declare his prophethood, too, the Medina example is irrelevant.

Incidentally, the caliphate (from the Arabic khilafah, or “succession”) that came after Muhammad was plagued by intrigue, division and bloodshed. Three of the first four “rightly guided caliphs” were assassinated. By the 10th and 11th centuries, there were three different caliphates – Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid – which were constantly at war with one another. Not quite the golden age of the Islamist imagination.

Second, the Islamic faith doesn’t require an Islamic state. I have never needed to live in such a caliphate in order to pray, fast or give alms. And, as the great Muslim jurist of the 14th century Imam Shatibi argued, sharia law can be boiled down to the preservation of five things: religion, life, reason, progeny and property. I’d argue that the UK, despite rising Islamophobia, does preserve these five things and therefore allows us, as Muslims, to live “Islamic” lives. By contrast, the authors of a recent study at George Washington University found: “Many countries that profess Islam and are called Islamic are unjust, corrupt and under­developed and are in fact not ‘Islamic’ by any stretch of the imagination.”

Third, most Muslims don’t want an Isis-style state. In their book Who Speaks for Islam? – based on 50,000 interviews with Muslims in more than 35 countries – John L Esposito and Dalia Mogahed record how: “Majorities in many countries remarked that they do not want religious leaders to hold direct legislative or political power.”

British Muslims aren’t keen, either. As many as 500 British Muslims are believed to have gone to fight for Isis, which is 500 too many but less than 0.02 per cent of the UK’s 2.7 million Muslims. A recent YouGov poll found that Muslims as a group are more patriotic Britons than Scots.

Fourth, time and again, politicised Islam has proved to be a failure. Violent Islamists have discovered, after the shedding of much blood, that you cannot Islamise a society by force – whether in Afghanistan, Gaza, Egypt or Iran. Rhetoric is easy; running public services and state institutions much harder. The hand-choppers and throat-slitters of Isis, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and the rest have no political programme, no blueprint for government. Theirs is a hate-filled ideo­logy, built on a cult of victimhood and sustained by horrific violence.

In his book The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda, the Lebanese-American academic Fawaz A Gerges recalls interviewing Kamal al-Said Habib, a former member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Gerges asked whether the group had been “truly prepared to establish a viable Islamic government”. “Thank God, we did not win, because we would have constructed a state along the same authoritarian lines as the ones existing in the Muslim world,” Habib replied. “We had no vision or an intellectual framework of what a state is or how it functions and how it should be administered . . . While I cannot predict that our state would have been totalitarian, we had little awareness of the challenges that needed to be overcome.”

Let me make a prediction. The so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria will be totalitarian, won’t be Islamic and, in the words of the former US state department spokesman Philip Crowley, “has as much chance of survival as an ice cream cone in the desert”. By declaring statehood, Isis may have sown the seeds of its own destruction. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.