The recent declaration of a caliphate by the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) [also known as ISIL] is an unprecedented event in modern times. Regardless of how it turns out, one thing is clear: Violent jihadism is now an entrenched feature of the Arab political landscape.
Not since the Turkish Republic abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 has any Muslim group in control of territory made such a bid. Even al-Qaida and the Taliban have limited their demands to the creation of statelets (emirates), which they hope will eventually coalesce into a caliphate.
This hesitation can be explained, at least partly, by the fact that neither Osama bin Laden nor Mullah Omar (the Taliban’s leader) can fulfill the conditions for being a caliph, one of which is proof of descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh. The new caliphal claimant, the Islamic State’s emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, can.
As conceived in Islamic political thought, a caliphate, unlike a conventional nation-state, is not subject to fixed borders. Instead, it is focused on defending and expanding the dominion of the Muslim faith through jihad, or armed struggle.
The statement announcing the new caliphate, titled “This is the Promise of Allah,” was issued on the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and lays out a radical vision for reconfiguring the Arab world.
First, it declares that ISIS will drop its titular reference to “Iraq and Syria” to become simply the Islamic State, implying that it has its sights set on other countries, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Lebanon.
The rest of the statement is replete with injunctions from the Quran, several of which refer to God deputizing the “true believers” as his regents on earth, empowering them to humiliate and defeat his “enemies,” who now include Shiite Muslims, democrats, nationalists, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jews and Christians. These believers are now operating, the statement continues, under the banner of the Islamic State, which currently controls the territory between Aleppo in Syria and Diyala in Iraq, where it has already established the structures of a proto-state: courts, a tax system, and security and social services.
The Islamic State argues that all Muslims, including all jihadist factions, must acknowledge the caliph as their leader if they are not to live in sin.
Though this notion of a collective religious obligation is largely consistent with traditional Islamic law, most Muslims consider such injunctions irrelevant in the modern age.
Nonetheless, with al-Baghdadi at its helm, the Islamic State is convinced that its new caliphate will — indeed, is supposed to — flourish. Al-Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, is a 40-something Iraqi from Samarra, north of Baghdad. A fairly enigmatic figure, he has a higher degree in Islamic studies, and is a gifted strategist and orator.
Al-Baghdadi has managed to strike numerous deals with the Sunni tribes of Iraq, without whom he could not have conquered so much territory so quickly. And in the few recorded statements that have been released, he displays a mastery of classical Arabic.
All of this will help him to achieve his goal of succeeding Osama bin Laden as the leader of the global jihad against the forces of nonbelief.
Whether the announcement of the new caliphate turns out to be politically significant, however, remains to be seen. Its enduring influence will depend on two factors.
The first is the Islamic State’s continued military success, and its ability to maintain and consolidate its control of territory. So far, jihadist success has depended largely on the divisions within Arab countries and the weakness of their governments, particularly the five — Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen — that have lost control over significant portions of their territory. And these countries are showing no signs of stabilizing. While it is unlikely that national borders will be redrawn, the fact that large jihadi-controlled territories are becoming the norm will make it easier for such forces to augment their financial resources and attract new recruits.
The second factor is the Islamic State’s ability to secure sufficient support. Today, jihadism is more fundamentally divided than ever before. Even Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s current leader, views al-Baghdadi as an extremist, and has taken steps to distance his group from the Islamic State.
But many jihadi groups and individuals, particularly young people, have signaled their support for the caliphate. The Islamic State’s statement has already been viewed by more than 187,000 times on YouTube, and has been posted innumerable times on Twitter and Facebook, attracting positive comments. A more ominous development is the emergence of a group called the Supporters of the Islamic State in Jerusalem, which has claimed responsibility for murdering — as a gift to the new caliph — the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers whose bodies were recently found in the West Bank.
Jihadism is clearly alive and well across the Arab world. After decades of unjust and ineffective rule, not to mention tragic foreign interventions, there is no shortage of disenfranchised and frustrated citizens for organizations like the Islamic State to recruit. Whether this new caliphate succeeds or not, religious violence in the Arab world will likely get worse before it gets better.
Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Cole Bunzel is a doctoral student at Princeton University. © 2014 Project Syndicate