Can an Islamic caliphate survive in today's Mideast?

As the Muslim militant group ISIS advances in Iraq and Syria, its chances of establishing a strict Islamic theocracy will be weakened by its inherent flaws.

AP Photo
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) march in Raqqa, Syria, last January.

Iraq’s second largest city fell to a powerful militant group Tuesday, a stunning development that could quickly lead to the creation of a strict Islamic state in the heart of the Middle East.

This army of Muslim warriors, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), has already taken hundreds of square miles in both Iraq and Syria, and now threatens Baghdad. As the group consolidates its rule and starts to govern millions of Muslims, it could come close to finally restoring the medieval-era caliphate that was once envisioned by the late Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.

The region has recently seen other Islam-defined regimes, such as in Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and Gaza. But this emerging state would be very different. Its fighters are multiethnic, recruited from many countries to fight in Syria’s civil war. Now they are united by a religious fervor to also take over Iraq and break the colonial-era boundaries of the Middle East’s current states. And they show no interest in allowing even limited democracy, as in Iran.

The leader of ISIS, who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is little known. But his military success over the past year indicates he is a shadowy, savvy, and savage ruler. His brutality even caused the current Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to break with the group.

By taking the Iraqi city of Mosul –  in only a four-day battle – the group may have won the capital for its anticipated caliphate. It so far faces weak military resistance from the Iraqi regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has alienated the country’s Sunni minority with his Shiite-dominated and authoritarian rule.

While the world may be alarmed at the possibility of an almost borderless Islamic theocracy, especially one that might export terrorists, such a concern must be tempered by the possibility that such a regime would be inherently flawed and create the seeds for its own collapse.

Up to now, ISIS has relied on extortion rackets and oil smuggling to raise money. Such corruption erodes its legitimacy as a pious ruler. While little is known of its social demands on those it now rules, chances are they will offend moderate Muslims. An estimated 500,000 people fled Mosul as the group advanced on the city. Its implementation of strict Islamic law and cultural purity will not sit well with a region that is growing accustomed to constitutional order under secular rule of law and feeling the influence of the Internet.

The group also largely defines itself by what it opposes – Shiites, Israel, the West, and nonreligious Arab leaders. Such hate is no basis for creating any cohesion among the people it governs. And its record of killing innocent people through terrorist acts violates an understanding of the Quran adopted by almost every Muslim.

In other words, the world must be cautious rather than fearful as it orchestrates a response to this unusual Middle East threat. Patience and wisdom, rather than war, may help bring the downfall of a group whose ideas are devoid of substance.

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