IS’ surprise move
By: Gwynne Dyer
Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day, said Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani, announcing the rebirth of the Caliphate in the broad territory between Aleppo in northern Syria and Diyala province in eastern Iraq. It hasn’t actually grown much more in the past couple of weeks, but it certainly intends to go on expanding.
The radical organization that conquered almost half of Iraq in a whirlwind week at the beginning of June has changed its name. Before, it was ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (the old Ottoman province that used to include Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel). But now it wishes to be known simply as the Islamic State for there can only be one such state, and it should include everywhere that Muslims have ever ruled.
ISIL propagandists have even produced a map showing the ultimate borders that their Islamic State lays claim to. Spain and Portugal will be part of it, because they were ruled by Muslim conquerors during much of the Middle Ages.
All of India except the southern tip should be under the rule of the Caliph, because Muslim conquerors also ruled there as minorities for many centuries and of course Serbia, Croatia and Hungary will be part of the Islamic State, for the Ottomans conquered all the Balkans up to there. Not to mention half of Africa, and Indonesia, and southwestern Siberia (which was once ruled by the Sibir Khanate for a century or so). There is no point in protesting that Muslims were never more than a small minority in many of these places, for the lads of ISIL believe that only Muslims have rights. The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the Caliphate ‘s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas, Al-Adnani helpfully explained.
So much for the fantasy. What’s the reality? A group of jihadists have seized a big chunk of eastern Syria and western Iraq, erased the border between them, and declared an Islamic State. As little as 10,000 strong only a month ago, they have been rapidly growing in numbers as ISIL’s success attracts new recruits but they are obviously never going to re-conquer India, Spain or Siberia.
They aren’t going to make a dent in the two powerful states to the north of their Islamic State either. Iran is immune to their charms and far too big to take by force. Turkey is a modern, secular state that is much too strong to attack.
To the west and east, ISIL is already at war with regimes that are either very tough (Bashar Assad’s war-hardened dictatorship in western and central Syria) or very Shiite (the southeastern slice of Iraq, densely populated and with a large Shiite majority). The Islamic State’s central position between its two enemies gives it a strategic advantage, but not a decisive one.
To the south are desert frontiers with more promising territory. Jordan’s population is about two-thirds Palestinian, and even among the Bedouin tribes that are the mainstay of King Abdallah’s rule there was some enthusiasm for ISIL’s victory in Iraq. If Jordan fell, the Islamic State would reach right up to Israel’s borders, with incalculable consequences.
But even if ISIL gets very lucky, it is unlikely to get farther than that. Egypt blocks its expansion to the west, although the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis extremists who are active in the Sinai Peninsula undoubtedly have some ties with it. Even its direct rivals — the original Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab in northeast Africa, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and their lesser brethren are unlikely to accept the ISIL leader as caliph.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who now styles himself Caliph Ibrahim, has clearly been preparing himself for this moment for most of his adult life. His spokesman does not hide his soaring ambition: We hereby clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of caliphate, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim and support him.
They are not going to do that, and the sheer radicalism and intolerance of ISIL members make it unlikely that their project will survive unaltered for more than a year or so even in the territory that now makes up the Islamic State. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary that the 7th Century caliphate has reappeared even fleetingly in the modern world. Bush and Blair have a lot to answer for.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.