And so yesterday the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham committed another barbarity.
A captured American journalist, Steven Sotloff was beheaded on camera as a “message” to America.
Presumably this atrocity was ordered by Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, self-styled “Caliph of all the Muslims and Prince of the Believers”. The Caliphate is, for a certain strain of hyper-backward looking Muslim, the holy grail.
The use of this term in it’s presentation of itself to the world and in its propaganda is purposeful; it’s entire approach is to emulate the early leaders of Islam at a time when Islam was still united and had not yet split between Sunni and Shia . Even his first name, Abu-Bakr, fits this approach. Abu-Bakr was the father in law of the Prophet Mohammad, one of his first supporters and the first of his successors as Caliph.
Sunni Muslims consider that period, the time of the first four successors to the Prophet, a golden age and some, called Salafis, believe the military and political practices of its statesmen and warriors—barbaric by today’s standards but acceptable at the time—deserve to be revived. Hence ISIS’s taste for beheading, stoning, crucifixion, slavery, and dhimmis, the practice of taxing those who refuse to convert to Islam.
Al-Bagdadi is a monstrous historical re-enacter. Dynasties of Sunni Caliphs ruled out of Damascus (the Umayyads, 661–750), Iraq and Syria (the Abbasids, 750–1258), and Istanbul (Ottomans, 1299–1924). As Islam aged, the Caliph receded from view. The last Ottoman Caliph was ousted by the secular Ataturk and retired to a quiet life in Paris. There was no Muslim zealot uprising on his departure.
Al-Bagdadi, who apparently rules under his given name, Caliph Ibrahim, is emulating the Abbasids. He was educated In Baghdad in Islamic Law and has selected Raqqa (in Syria) as his current capital. The greatest of the Abbasid Caliphs, Harun al-Rashid had moved his capital from Baghdad to Raqqa.
Caliph Ibrahim even wears all black – the color the the Abbasid Caliphs. Speaking in the florid rhetoric of classical Arabic in the Mosul Mosque, after executing a number of local clerics, it was as if the last 800 years never happened.
Now to declare an Islamic State one must control territory. ISIS now occupies portions of Iraq and Syria, considered by millions as Sunni patrimony. The borders don’t mean anything when you have a tenth century world view – besides the borders were drawn by French and British colonialists and are therefore meaningless. The romance of an Islamic State in the Sunni heartland is something that Bin Laden could never dream of – and a rightly established Caliph can demand the support of all Muslims. Even Osama never called himself Caliph.
When Bagdadi’s movement was just another Islamist organization fighting Assad it would have been ludicrous to declare a Caliphate. Such a declaration would have been perceived as though a terrorist organization of Italian Fascists called itself the New Roman Empire and starting dressing in togas. It would have drawn howls of laughter at the delusions of grandeur. Bin Laden knew that his wandering group of hunted men could not declare a state without ridicule.
ISIS however controls territory and has controlled it for over a year. Thus its pull on young Muslims looking backward to the golden age. The claim now looks far more credible – the mass executions and public crucifixions have also done much to erase any lingering aura of comedy. No one laughs at Caliph Ibrahim’s tenth century pretensions.
How to fight ISIS? The more time Bagdadi reigns the more credible he becomes and the greater his allure. On the other hand a massive invasion by US / Western troops instantly converts a squalid army into the undisputed terrorist kings of the world.
Alternatively, there is no shortage of Shia and Kurds who want to kill him. And if ISIS wants to continue it’s pretension that it is a “state” it dare not attack the West as a state without risking instant and massive retaliation on its capital city Raqqa.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Saudi monarchy and its Wahabist allies yet perceive the risk the Caliph poses to them – the longer the Caliphate exists the greater the danger to the Saudi royals as the guardians of Islam.
Caliphs come and Caliphs go. The last Abbasid Caliph faced the Mongol hoards, who sacked Baghdad and, it is said, slaughtered about one million souls with blade and club. Genghis Khan’s grandson believed that spilling royal blood on the ground was bad luck however – so he wrapped the last Abbassid Caliph in a carpet and had his stable horses trample him.
The Ottomans, tiring of Wahabis and Sauds in Arabia considering them not Muslim enough, sent an army to crush the revolt and carried one of the Saud ancestors off to Istanbul and hideously executed him; they finished off by firing his severed head out of a cannon on the battlements. And that, as they say was the end of that – until the fall of the Ottomans and the resurgence of the Sauds and their Wahabi allies.
If ISIS wants to remain a state they had better have a Caliph successor in mind.
And for all of this, for Syria, for Libya, for Iraq, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Al-Bagdadi, it was reported this morning, is dead. Certainly his killing was the result of Kurdish sources of intelligence received over the last 4 or 5 months. I never celebrate or rejoice in the death of anyone, though he beheaded innocents, burned people locked in cages, crucified Christians and sold Yazid women into sexual slavery.
I do not celebrate – but his death is just.