The False ‘Caliph’ May Be Dead, but What About the Ideologу of Caliphism?

Some days ago, the Americans announced the liquidation of “caliph” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, head of ISIS . Donald Trump made an emergency televised address, and thanked everyone for their help: Russia, Turkey, Iraq, and the Kurds. The Russian Ministry of Defence, in response, stated that it did not know what it was about. Although there is no fully verified evidence of Al-Baghdadi’s death, and there have been reports of his murder before, it is nevertheless possible to summarise the stage in the evolution of Islamic political extremism which is associated with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and ISIS.

Actually, the main question is whether the assassination of Al-Baghdadi means the end of the ISIS caliphate or simply the death of the first caliph: it could be contended that others will follow, and that the evolution of this line of caliphism in political Islam will continue.

Earlier, on the Valdai Discussion Club website, we already addressed to the main trends in the development of radical Sunni political Islam in recent history and modernity. This movement has its origins mainly in two different areas of the Islamic world. One of them is connected with Muslim British India and later with Pakistan (mainly the Deobandi movement). Its ideological heritage was then partially shifted during the “jihad” against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, and later in the genesis of the early Taliban. Another area is originally associated with Egypt and the activities of Sayyid Qutb. Out of the circle of his supporters and followers, a powerful transnational movement was formed: the Muslim Brotherhood.

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One of the main goals of political Islam was the call for the reorganisation of society and the state to comply with the principles of Sharia (a kind of domestic policy) and the spread of Islam outside in the context of an appeal for radical forms of Islam (and jihad as part of it: a kind of foreign policy). Moreover, a certain part of Sunni political Islam opposed not only (and often not so much) the “infidels”, but also the “hypocrites” within the Muslim Ummah itself. At first, it pitted itself against secular progressive regimes in Islamic countries, but later, more and more, against traditional Arab monarchies. The supposed “hypocrites”, the rulers of these countries, offered words in defence of Islam, but in fact departed from its true principles, wallowed in undue luxury, communicated with infidels, etc. In order to confirm this interpretation, the group implemented a dogmatic interpretation of parts of the Qur’an and Hadith.

As a result, the “completeness” of Sharia and the “completeness” of the appeal to the Sunni version of political Islam were quickly and logically applied to the question of restoring the caliphate as the natural and only ideal possible form of the Sunni Ummah’s existence. This caliphate movement was perceived by many leaders of Islamic states, primarily in Saudi Arabia, as an extremely serious challenge to their own power. The title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (Mecca and Medina), taken by the Saudi King in 1986, can partly be seen as an answer to this challenge of caliphism. It is no coincidence that the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which at first enjoyed the support of the Saudi authorities, later fell out of favour, and in recent years the Saudis announced that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization.

In the late 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century, the situation seemed to have calmed down. The Muslim Brotherhood and other similar movements seemed to have faded into the shadow of Al Qaeda’s  new global project. In the political practice of al-Qaeda, the issues of caliphism occupied a subordinate role in relation to jihad and various local projects (in Afghanistan, in the countries of the Sahara, the Sahel, etc.). But caliphism once again came to the fore.

There is much debate about the real and imaginary role of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in supporting the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (through Qatar and partly Turkey), which led to the transformation of ISIS from a local Iraqi project into a structure with global caliphate ambitions. In any case, Donald Trump spoke about this almost directly. The logic of the global strategy attributed to Obama brought about the creation of an arc of instability in continental Eurasia as an entropy background for the two stability “zones” planned by him: the Trans-Atlantic and the Trans-Pacific. So these actions would look quite explainable. Another aspect of Obama’s policies in the region – restraint toward Saudi Arabia as a traditional ally and a shift to Qatar in a more dynamic and revisionist Middle East context – could also help the abovementioned project. In any case, no matter which world leaders were responsible for ISIS caliphism, it has become a reality.

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In this regard, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s historical role (such a definition is appropriate even for criminals) was that he not only fought for the caliphate as an ideal future, but proclaimed it here and now. In 2014, a caliphate was created on territory controlled by ISIS, and Abu Bakr himself became its first caliph. This led, among other things, to the extremely dangerous dogmatic duality of supreme power in the Sunni Ummah; there was the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (the Saudi king) and an ISIS caliph. The issue of whom among them should be worshipped by faithful Muslims has become a kind of temptation for many local movements of radical political Islam, and the chain of oaths of various structures in support of Abu Bakr was evidence of this. In many ways, this temptation of the implemented caliphate caused a sharp deterioration of Saudi-Qatari relations, starting as soon as later in 2014. It also led to a rivalry and sometimes armed confrontation between various local affiliations of non-caliphate Al-Qaeda and ISIS structures (in Syria, in Afghanistan, etc.). We wrote more about these dynamics in the abovementioned article on the Valdai Club website.

And now, the question of key interest is whether the caliphate died with the death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and if ISIS will again become a small local project, as it was originally, or whether the caliphate movement shall find existing or new forms for its restoration. This is very important, both for the global fight against terrorism, and for the Sunni Ummah, which needs stable and consistent paths for development.
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