Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi welcomed this Ramadan by declaring the formation of the Caliphate, with him as the Caliph — namely the successor of the Prophet Mohammad. It is the first return of a Caliphate since Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish National Assembly abolished it in 1924. Al-Baghdadi, the nom de guerre for the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has now announced that borders inside the dar al-Islam, the world of Islam, are no longer applicable. He has been able to make this announcement because his fighters have now taken large swathes of territory in northern Syria and in north-central Iraq, breathing down on Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258).
Al-Baghdadi’s declaration comes after ISIS threatened to make its presence felt outside the territory it now controls. Bomb blasts in Beirut, Lebanon, hinted at ISIS’ reach. Jordanian authorities hastened to crack down on “sleeper cells” for ISIS as soon as chatter on social media suggested that there would be a push into Zarqa and Ma’an. Private Kuwaiti funding had helped ISIS in its early stages, but now Kuwait hinted that it too is worried that ISIS cells might strike the oil-rich emirate. When ISIS took the Jordan-Syria border posts, Saudi Arabia went into high alert. There is no substantive evidence that ISIS is in touch with al-Qaeda in Yemen, but if such coordination exists (now that al-Baghdadi has fashioned himself as the Caliph) it would mean Saudi Arabia has at least two fronts of concern. “All necessary measures,” says the Kingdom, are being taken to thwart the ISIS advance.
The West has been consistently naive in its public assessment of events in West Asia. U.S. policy over Syria was befuddled by the belief that the Arab Spring could be understood simply as a fight between freedom and tyranny — concepts adopted from the Cold War. There was a refusal to accept that the civic rebellion of 2011 had morphed quite decisively by late 2012 into a much more dangerous conflict, with the radical jihadis in the ascendancy. It is of course true, as I saw first-hand, that the actual fighters in the jihad groups are a ragtag bunch with no special commitment to this or that ideology. They are anti-Assad, and they joined Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar ash-Sham because that was the group at hand with arms and logistical means. Nevertheless, the fighters did fight for these groups, giving them the upper hand against the West’s preferred, but anaemic, Free Syrian Army. The Islamic State’s breakthrough in Iraq has inspired some of these men to its formations in Syria. They want to be a part of the excitement.
An ISIS billboard in Mosul depicts the flags of the states in the region. All are crossed out as being traitorous regimes. Only the ISIS black flag stands as a sentinel for justice. Among the regimes to be overthrown is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has used its vast wealth to influence the region, and to outsource its own problems with extremism. In 1962, the Kingdom created the Muslim World League as an instrument against secular Arab nationalism and Communism. Twenty years later, the war in Afghanistan provided the opportunity for the Kingdom to export its own disaffected youth (including Osama bin Laden) to fight the Afghan Communists rather than their own royal family. The 1979 takeover of the Mecca mosque by jihadists was an indication of the threat of such youth. Saudi policy, however, did not save the Kingdom. Al-Qaeda, the product of this policy, threatened and attacked the Kingdom. But little was learned.
No age-old conflict
The fact is that both the West and the Gulf Arabs are doing more. They continue to finance the jihadi rebels in Syria (all promises of vetting by the U.S. are comical), and they continue to see the Assad government as an obstacle to peace in the region. Both the West and the Gulf Arabs suggest that the terrorism that they dislike against themselves is acceptable to others. The history of their policies also suggests that Western and Gulf Arab intervention leads inexorably to the creation of police states (as in Egypt) and terrorist emirates. A lack of basic commitment to people’s movements — anchored in unions and in civic groups — will always lead to such diabolical outcomes.
Meanwhile, sectarian lines are being hardened in the region. The battle now does not revisit the ancient fight at Karbala. This is not an age-old conflict. It is a modern one, over ideas of republicanism and monarchy, Iranian influence and Saudi influence. Shadows of sectarianism do shroud the battle of ordinary people who are frustrated by the lack of opportunities for them and by the lack of a future for their children. What motivates these fights is less the petty prejudices of sect and more the grander ambitions of regional control. Al-Baghdadi has announced that his vision is much greater than that of the Saudi King or the government in Tehran. He wants to command a religion, not just a region. Of such delusions are great societies and cultures destroyed.
Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. This article first appeared in The Hindu, one India’s largest dailies. Click here to go to the original.