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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.