The first aim in President Obama’s war on Islamic State is to “degrade” the militant group. At a physical level, he is on track. American airstrikes have pushed IS to retreat in many areas. And Iraq’s newly regrouped Army, along with Kurdish fighters, has taken back a few IS-controlled areas.
But degrading IS is not only a physical task. One hopeful sign in the war so far is that some Sunni Muslims now living under IS rule are starting to rebel – and perhaps not only against harsh repression.
These Muslims may have realized that the dictatorial “caliphate” proclaimed by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not fit their interpretation of Islam as a faith that grants equality among believers under a sovereign God. IS never consulted them on its right to rule. Individual conscience has been ignored.
Mr. Baghdadi is not the first Muslim to assert a doctrine that claims a cleric can command political power over Muslims without their consent. For centuries, caliphates have dotted the Muslim landscape, from the Ottoman Empire of the Middle East to West Africa to India. In the 1990s, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. But these caliphates were defined by geography and limited in scope. Baghdadi claims superiority over all Muslims. Anyone who resists his rule is threatened with violence.
It is this doctrine of absolute authority over temporal matters that needs to be degraded as much as the IS military forces. Muslim leaders aligned with the US-led war must send a message to the people living under IS that Islam supports individual choice in faith. An Islamic imam can be revered and followed. But his authority ends in using violence to compel religious practice or to run a society in all its secular details.
Such a message, however, would be difficult for Iran’s leaders to deliver, despite their Shiite views about the Sunni version of Islam. Since its 1979 revolution, Iran has lived under two successive leaders, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who both claimed spiritual authority over government.
Yet even in Iran, more people are questioning this doctrine, especially since the 2009 street protests known as the “green movement.” And in Iraq, the Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, remains a prominent advocate of keeping clerics out of politics.
A journalistic glimpse into IS-controlled areas has been rare. But a video documentary by Anglo-Palestinian journalist Medyan Dairieh, shown on the Vice News website, shows life among the rebels in the city of Raqqa. In one telling scene, an IS fighter proclaims: “Sharia can only be established with weapons.”
Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish commenter and author of a recent book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” says the world must first understand the ideology of IS in order to defeat it. In a recent column in the Turkey publication Hurriyet, he writes: “We should agree that God’s authority over men cannot be the basis of men’s authority over men – and over women, for that matter.”
Words like that might be as powerful as any drones in the war on IS.