Gwynne Dyer: ISIS returns the caliphate to the Middle East

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      “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 Sunni Muslim organization that conquered almost half of Iraq in a whirlwind week at the beginning of June has changed its name. Before, it was ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (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.

      ISIS 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. Iran, too (although something will have to be done about all those Shia Muslims).

      All of India except the southern tip should be under the rule of the Caliph, because Muslim invaders 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’s no point in protesting that Muslims were never more than a small minority in many of these places, for the lads of ISIS believe that only Muslims—indeed, only Sunni 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 jihadis 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 ISIS’s success attracts new recruits—but they are obviously never going to reconquer 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, being overwhelmingly Shia, is immune to their charms and far too big to take by force. Turkey, although now governed by an Islamic party, is still a modern, secular state that is much too strong to attack.

      To the west and east ISIS is already at war with regimes that are either very tough (Bashar al- Assad’s war-hardened dictatorship in western and central Syria) or very Shia (the south-eastern slice of Iraq, densely populated and with a large Shia 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 Abdullah’s rule there was some enthusiasm for ISIS’s victory in Iraq. If Jordan fell, the Islamic State would reach right up to Israel’s borders, with incalculable consequences.

      Saudi Arabia would be a much tougher nut to crack, but the salafi religious ideology that animates ISIS is very close to the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam that is the Saudi state religion.

      That’s why the Saudis gave arms and money to ISIS jihadis in the early days of the Syrian civil war, although they have subsequently recognized the threat that the organization poses to the Saudi state.

      But even if ISIS 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 in the Refound-the-Caliphate business—the original al-Qaeda, al-Shabab in north-east Africa, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and their lesser brethren—are unlikely to accept the ISIS 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: he even chose the name of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, as his nom de guerre.

      His spokesman does not hide his soaring ambition: “We hereby clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of Khilafah (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 ISIS’s 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.



      Alan Layton

      Jul 2, 2014 at 1:11pm

      Awesome job by Dyer. It's a clear and calm overview of the situation.

      I Chandler

      Jul 2, 2014 at 1:24pm

      "Bush and Blair have a lot to answer for."

      How about the NSA and Mikey Hayden? Are they so busy with mass surveillance and digging up dirt that they missed 911 and now this:

      "That’s why the Saudis gave arms and money to ISIS jihadis"

      Wow...Tony Blair would deride that as "conspiracy theory" - but back on Jan 2003,Blair derided
      accusations that a Iraq war would be in pursuit of oil as 'conspiracy theory:

      Saudis money explains all those shiny new Toyotas- but what about all those ISI black hummers?

      "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now styles himself Caliph Ibrahim, has clearly been preparing himself for this moment for most of his adult life"

      Wow....Yes, Blair,Gaddafi and Sarkozy were all probably very busy preparing themselves.They might have all gone to the same prep school - but Gaddafi went to the Royal Military Academy@Benghazi...and Abu Bakr went to the Abu Ghraib prep school:


      Jul 2, 2014 at 4:06pm

      At one time the Muslim Middle East were united against a common enemy-the Jewish interloper,Israel. Now they are divided and fighting among themselves while Israel is expanding at the expense of their Palestinian brothers. Something has gone terribly wrong in the Arab world either by the design of Western Crusaders or by the accidental ethnic flaws in old Islamic empire. Perhaps the Caliphate is the beginning of an Islamic resurgence in the region. It is surely anti-western, anti-Zionist and therefore will be strangled shortly after it's birth.

      Alan Layton

      Jul 2, 2014 at 4:39pm

      P. Peto - the only thing that has gone wrong in the Middle East is Islam.

      Gladius Sapientiae

      Jul 2, 2014 at 5:14pm

      So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. "We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.”
      ― H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

      Follow the money

      Jul 3, 2014 at 8:59am

      I like Gwynne's fiction it's a good chuckle.

      No seriously the world now knows who has paid for this debacle and it's uncle sam and the only country in the world named after it's ruler. The house of Saud. I like how they changed isis to another alphabet name after it was proven to be yanky security firm pulling the strings.

      Whoops. Did you see how they were wearing white nike jordans too in the famous picture. Death to the westerners blah blah except your sneakers are ok. Comfort in the battle field.


      Jul 3, 2014 at 6:39pm

      so they want to take siberia? Have they met the russians? the minute they go anywhere near the border they'll be blown off the planet by the russian military and their arsenal.