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