Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has a big job cut out for him. Over the weekend, the Iraqi militant declared himself the supreme authority for all the world's 1.5 billion Muslims and changed his name – not that al-Baghdadi is his real name – to Caliph Ibrahim.
Based on recent battlefield victories in Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi militant and his followers believe that the world's Muslims are going to flock to their cause. Even before the recent Sunni Arab uprising in Iraq, the group had laughably breathtaking ambitions, as this year-old map shows:
There is much discussion of the historic caliphate and the unlikelihood of its revival in the hands of a jihadi group that now goes by the name of Islamic State (its previous iterations include Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers, the Mujahideen Shura Council, the Islamic State in Iraq.) Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said today that the group's unilateral declaration of a caliphate is a threat to the entire region. "No one in Iraq or any neighboring country will be safe from these plans," he said.
Historian Juan Cole looks at the history of caliphates, and their varying meaning over time.
Let us please call it the “so-called Islamic State,” since it bears all the resemblance to mainstream Islam that Japan’s Om Shinrikyo (which let sarin gas into the subway in 1995) bears to Buddhism.
... After Ali’s assassination, the Umayyad kings ruled (661-750), and though some scholars have found that they claimed religious charisma, they were just Arab kings. A branch of the family of the Prophet tracing itself back to his uncle Abbas began making claims to rightful rule, however, and they were popular among the new converts from among the Persians in Iran, and in 750 they made a revolution against the Umayyads. They became the Abbasid caliphate, ruling until the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258.
Following that defeat by the Mongols, the caliphate in its original form was pretty much dead. Cole writes that while many kings and rulers styled themselves as caliphs, they didn't have the religious authority that implied. Though the Ottoman Sultan declared himself Caliph in 1880, he was not always seen that way by the world's Muslims. While the Turkish state's abolishment of the caliphate claim in 1924 is generally seen as a great tragedy, it rests on revisionist history, in Cole's telling.
The end of the caliphate did not matter to most Muslims. You don’t need a caliph to pray five times a day or fast Ramadan. In Egypt, Ali Abd al-Raziq, a court judge, argued in modernist fashion that no caliph is necessary. Some Egyptian clerics were uncomfortable with the idea, but they lost the argument. There was some jockeying to resurrect the caliphate in the mid-1920s, and the Egyptian king, Fuad I, threw his crown in the ring. But the fact is that none of the newly forming nation-states wanted a transnational authority like that, and no consensus could be reached, and the caliphate (such as it was, since I don’t think most Muslims bought into Abdulhamid’s project) lapsed again.
Small groups of cult-like fundamentalists ever after hoped for a restored caliphate, but it isn’t something on the minds of 99% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Sunni Islam has come sociologically to resemble Protestant Christianity, lacking a formal center and largely organized on the basis of the nation-state.
IMO, this declaration of the caliphate of Ibrahim is a terrible blunder for ISIS. The Islamic world will unite in hostility against such ambitions and claims. Most people in these countries want to retain their local national ientities or at least to have states that may better reflect their ethnic identity. Even the Saudis, who have toyed with the notion of absulute authority given to their wahhabi faith, will recoil in horror from the evident threat presented by the idea of an umma ruled by the likes of these people.
To be sure, Brigadier FB Ali, a retired Pakistani officer and frequent contributor to Lang's blog, says there is cause for concern.
Undoubtedly, governments in Muslim countries will reject this declaration. However, this 'caliphate' may well appeal to the many Muslims all over the world who want Islam to govern their lives and the countries in which they live, but who reject their present governments as not being Islamic. Especially vulnerable to such ideas would be young men in the Muslim diaspora, many of whom feel this need more acutely than their brethren back home. ISIS can expect an increase in Muslim recruits from the West.
What lends substance to this declaration by ISIS is its capture of a large piece of territory in the Muslim heartland, something the other jihadi outfits cannot match.
Writing at the Long War Journal, Thomas Joscelyn points out that 9 major jihadi groups in Syria have already rejected Baghdadi's claim.
In a series of tweets in both English and Arabic, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a top sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, sharply criticized the Islamic State's announcement. While using the hashtag #Khilafah_Proclaimed in his tweets, Abu Sulayman argued that the Islamic State's failure to consult jihadi leaders before making the announcement "is a clear breach of Islam."
"The situation has not changed at all here," Abu Sulayman said in one tweet, referring to Syria. "Only difference I see is there is a stronger 'Islamic' justification for them [the Islamic State] to kill Muslims." The Islamic State has long justified the killing of other rebel fighters and leaders by arguing that it is the only legitimate authority in Iraq and Syria.
Abu Sulayman, who is from Australia, served as a mediator during al Qaeda's early attempts to reconcile the ISIS with other jihadist groups in Syria. When those efforts failed, he became a vocal critic of the ISIS and is now a staunch opponent of the Islamic State.
Time will tell if Baghdadi's grab for power will allow him to hold on to a piece of Iraq and Syria. The smart money is that he won't, if history recent and distant is anything to go buy. The Ottoman Sultan declared himself a caliph in 1880, partly in the hopes that Indian Muslims would turn on the colonial British administration there. It didn't work - and during World War I, Indian Muslim troops under British command helped defeat the Ottoman Empire in what was to become Iraq.
The Taliban's Mullah Omar tried the caliph gambit too. In 1996, shortly after after conquering Kandahar and on the verge of controlling Afghanistan, he wrapped himself in a cloak purported to have been worn by the prophet Mohamed and declared himself the leader of the world's Muslims. Today, Omar lives in Pakistan.