Is the ISIS Caliphate Collapsing?
The Islamic State is losing on the battlefield and in the war of ideas.
The Islamic State (IS) has lost another major city—the strategic city of Manbij in northeastern Syria to a coalition of U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters. Variously called ISIS, ISIL or simply the caliphate, the Islamic State has been on a string of military defeats for the past year. Late last June, it sustained a humiliating military defeat in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, after being driven from Tikrit, Ramadi and Baiji months earlier, while Syrian government troops liberated the ancient city of Palmyra from its grip at the beginning of the year. IS’s successive defeats in Iraq alone shrank its territorial control to 14 percent by early May, a steep decline from 40 percent of Iraqi territories it seized in mid-2014. The loss of Manbij, after Palmyra, has also significantly reduced its territorial stretch in Syria. On top of that, the caliphate has become economically fragile after losing roughly half of its oil finances, forcing reductions in the recruitment of foreign fighters, from nearly two thousand a month a year ago to just two hundred a month currently. These are serious signs of an impending collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate.
Just two years ago, nobody had seriously questioned IS’s viability; the overwhelming global concern was how to contain or degrade it, with President Obama declaring a perpetual war against it in September 2014. The anti-IS war efforts of the U.S.-led and Russian-backed coalitions have not routed IS so far, but they are dealing a massive blow to its much publicized goals and promises—uniting all Sunni Muslims from Spain in Europe to Indonesia in East Asia, elimination of U.S. meddling and Western influences from Muslim lands, restoration of Islamic power under a single caliphate to reclaim global leadership, and so on. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State’s parent organization, once had similar pipedreams, which over time got lost in the quicksands of the Arabian deserts. For a multiplicity of reasons, the Islamic State promises to do no better than Al Qaeda.
The Caliphate Runs into Difficulties
The Islamic State is the second of the two caliphates the Sunni Arabs have declared following the abolition of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, King of present-day Saudi Arabia’s Hejaz province from 1916 to 1924 and a man with a profound sense of betrayal by the British after WWI, declared the first post-Ottoman caliphate in March 1924. His caliphate survived less than two years, being finally crushed by his rival King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, in January 1926. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the second caliphate, or the Islamic State, on June 29, 2014 after conquering vast swathes across the Iraq–Syria borders.
Al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph, made a stunning speech on the day the Islamic State was declared. He divided the whole world into two mutually opposed camps—the camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of disbelief and hypocrisy, thus adding a new religious dichotomy to the already existing secular categories of capitalist vs. non-capitalist, North vs. South or developed vs. developing world. He put fellow Sunni Muslims, who would support his caliphate, in the camp of faith; the Jews, the Christians, the Shia Muslims and peoples of other non-Islamic faith traditions were branded disbelievers and hypocrites, whom the Islamic State must fight to survive. What his religious typology meant in practice was that almost everyone, every power on earth, was to be an enemy of his new caliphate, not by default but by his choice. Shia Iran soon perceived the Islamic State as an existential threat; the United States saw it as a credible rising threat to its traditional economic and strategic interests in the Middle East; and Sunni Saudi Arabia identified it as a menace out to bring down the al-Saud establishment. Naturally, the revulsion was great—leading to a closing of ranks between former rivals and coordinated military actions to destroy the Islamic State, as vividly testified by the Iran–United States “frenemy” relationship.
In his speech, al-Baghdadi also underscored the need for caliphate and Sharia (Islamic law). He averred: “The establishment of a Caliphate is an obligation. The religion cannot be in place unless Sharia is established.” In the Islamic religion, however, the concept of caliphate is a contested concept. The Shias are averse to it, since they reject the first three of the four “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” and accept Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph, as a legitimate “Imam” (not caliph). The three other great caliphs—Abu Bakr, Umar ibn Al-Khattab and Uthman ibn Affan, the Shias say, were illegitimate as they had no direct blood relations with the Prophet of Islam, nor did they come from the Prophet’s family in Mecca.
Underwriting the Sunni Muslim tradition, Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, had used the title “Khalifat Rasul Allah” (Successor of the Messenger of God) that attached a high degree of legitimacy to his leadership. His successor Umar ibn Khattab was initially called “Khalifat Abi Bakr” (Abu Bakr’s Successor) but later Amir al-Mu’minin (leader of the faithful). The third and fourth caliphs had adopted this last title—Amir al-Mu’minin. Still, as early as the second Islamic century (eighth century C.E.) the institution of caliphate became a polemical issue. A group of Mu'tazila scholars (dissenting Muslim scholars known for their biases for rationalist theology) thought that a caliph would be unnecessary if Muslims would abide by Islamic religious laws. By the fourth century of Islam (the tenth century C.E.), after long debates, there emerged a general conviction that the caliphate was a divinely ordained institution to provide for sound governance, moral and material welfare of the Muslims. Some scholars continued to debate whether it was a religious requirement or a response warranted by sociopolitical realities.
Over time, the institution of caliphate developed some general attributes—first off, the concept of umma, that all Muslims, regardless of their ethnic, cultural or linguistic differences, make up a single nation; secondly, a common feeling of solidarity among the Muslims, what the fourteenth century Arab historian and thinker Ibn Khaldun called asabiya; and, thirdly, the idea of God’s sovereignty—a twentieth-century addition that sharply contradicts the Western system of nation-states, with each government claiming sovereignty over its defined territorial limits and the people residing within the territorial limits. Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb chiefly articulated the concept of God’s sovereignty in the early 1960s, claiming that since God is the creator of the earth and the whole universe, only God’s laws, as revealed in the Qur’an, would govern worldly relations. There is no place for human sovereignty, as exalted in the name of Western democracy, in God’s universe. Human sovereignty, Qutb firmly upheld, was contradictory to God’s sovereignty—a rebellion against the laws of God. Inspired by Qutbian radical ideas, the Islamic State and its parent organization Al Qaeda are out to establish God’s sovereignty by reviving their much dreamt Islamic caliphate. Muslims worldwide, however, neither practically make up a single nation (umma) nor are most of them after the restoration of a caliphate.
The Islamic State, as it stands now, is a caliphate without Muslims, not to talk of the umma. Most Muslims feel neither any religious nor political affiliations with it; rather, they view it as a big troublemaker for the Muslim community worldwide. If public opinion surveys are any indicators, the Islamic State represents neither the Muslims nor Islam. A recent opinion poll by Pew Research Center, conducted in early 2015 in a dozen states with significant Muslim populations, found that most interviewees had strong distaste for the Islamic State (Lebanon 99 percent; Jordan 94 percent; Nigeria 66 percent; Indonesia 79 percent; Turkey 73 percent). The Arab Youth Survey of 2016, covering sixteen Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa, reports similar findings. Most young Arabs reject the Islamic State, which they believe, would fail to establish the caliphate. Over 50 percent Arab youngsters see it as the biggest problem facing the Middle East, up from 37 percent in 2015, while 77 percent are concerned about its rise.
Clearly, the Islamic State has no social or political base that can uphold and defend its mission and objectives. Currently, less than 8 percent of Sunni Muslims support it, while non-Muslims have deep disdain for it. The Iraqi and Syrian refugees, freed from harsh IS rule, also complain of atrocities committed by IS fighters. What has caused the Islamic State to lose popular Muslim support are the methods of extreme violence, indiscriminate killings, suicide bombings, rape and enslavement senselessly used against the Shia Muslims and the non-Islamic ethnic and cultural groups. The UN, deeply shocked by the spate of atrocities against the Yazidis by Islamic State fighters, has recently accused it of committing genocide against the Yazidi community that practices a non-Islamic faith. Islam does not support such crimes against humanity. Even thousands of Sunni Muslim clerics from across the globe, disturbed by IS’s destructive activities, have issued a fatwa (nonbinding religious edict) in December 2015 declaring it a terrorist organization and its supporters non-Muslims.