So Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claims he has replaced the caliphs of old; those men of wisdom and learning who presided over the glorious days of Islamic civilisation, from the first Abu Bakr, father-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, to the last one, Abdulmecid II (1868-1944), the last Sunni caliph of Islam from the Ottoman dynasty.
Under the guidance of enlightened men, over several centuries, the caliphate promoted knowledge, which enabled the extraordinary achievements of the Islamic civilisation in the realms of science, literature, and arts. One of its most vibrant legacies is its architecture, extending from Cordoba in Spain to the Taj Mahal in India.
An article in The Economist published recently, entitled “The Tragedy of the Arabs“, argues: “But only the Arabs can reverse their civilisational decline, and right now there is little hope of that happening. The extremists offer none. The mantra of the monarchs and the military men is ‘stability’.”
Indeed, the Arab elites left over from the Ottoman times have all now vanished, or been disposed of; they were the people who understood how to deal with the challenges inherent in different ethnic and religious groups inhabiting the region.
The succession of military men, who – since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup d’etat in Egypt in 1952 – have risen to prominence over the decades, have promoted a series of shallow ideologies in their quest to remain in power, namely nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and Islamism. These attempts have destroyed the fabric of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious community of the region. What good can come of the kings, clerics and army generals who now lead the states of the greater Middle East?
The pseudo-caliphate declared by the Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is in the hands of some barbarian, who comes from an Iraqi village and supposedly holds a doctorate degree in education from a university in Baghdad. For an educated man hell bent on avenging his oppressed people, he is unwittingly serving the interests of his worst enemies, the US, UK, and Israel.
Nevertheless, for all his shortcomings, Baghdadi has achieved what no one else has managed in these last decades – that is, to destroy the colonial frontiers of the Sykes-Picot agreement. But why should this achievement be considered such an awe-inspiring feat? Syria and Iraq are geographical entities and they were never in history anything more than that. Their sudden “nationhood” was a French and British invention.
That the Ummayyad Caliphate had its seat in Damascus did not mean there was a Syria and the same can be said of the Abbassid Caliphate; a seat in Baghdad never meant it was an “Iraqi” caliphate. It was much bigger than that.
This self-styled caliph is an unfortunate creation of foreign actors in the region, whose game will have dire repercussions in the greater Middle East. Might the new caliph dare to challenge next the Saudi rule over the holy cities of Islam?
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been successful in drawing a following from among the “damned”; that is, the underfed, idealistic, ignorant, downtrodden, and vengeful youth, who have always been the primary victims of western aggression on their culture. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Europe’s colonialist wars, whether in Algeria, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan, has led to the demonisation of Islam. Muslims were then – and still are – subjected to racism in the West. In modern times, this racism has spilled over into media reports, which seem to go on overdrive whenever a single westerner is abducted in Libya, but blatantly ignore the thousands of Arab lives lost in depleted uranium bombings.
Baghdadi’s followers include tribes bombed by the US, foreign fighters from Muslim communities in Europe, united by their sense of victimisation, but also fanatics who seem to believe Islam is a religion of war, psychotics and mass murderers who are only looking for the thrill of the kill. Among them, there may also be a smattering of simple, honest people who have been (mis)led to believe that Baghdadi is the new “Mahdi” (messianic redeemer).
And yet, can any self-respecting Muslim leader in the world take this man’s claim seriously? Many have already come forward to denounce him – one has even called Baghdadi a “deviant”.
The new Mahdi?
In a way, by a stretch of the imagination, Baghdadi may be a rendition of the 19th century self-proclaimed Mahdi Mohammed Ahmed Ibn Abdallah, a religious leader of the Samaniyya order in Sudan, who claimed that the Ottoman Caliphate was a den of unbelievers and called the Sherif of Mecca a “kafir” (infidel). Born in a Sudanese village, Mahdi managed to defeat the Turco-Egyptian occupying forces and captured Khartoum in 1885. He died of typhus six months later.
Whether or not one agrees on the parallels, Baghdadi’s future is likely to resemble the demise of the Sudanese Mahdi, whose successor, his followers and his state were crushed after a four-year adventure by Anglo-Egyptian forces. The Sudanese Mahdi state had only one beneficiary, Britain, which occupied Egypt and the Sudan.
Yet, Baghdadi has managed something which would have seemed impossible a few years back. He now controls an area larger than France which borders Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. He has an enormous treasure chest and has managed to basically destroy the Iraqi state, for Kurds have taken this opportunity to take the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which they have long claimed as their spiritual capital, and have decided to call for a referendum on independence.
Whether Baghdadi is acting for himself or is being manipulated by others is not really relevant in the sense that he is basically doing the job of his enemies for them. Nothing pleases Israel better than disarray in the Arab states and a Sunni-Shia war of attrition.
At the end of the day, Baghdadi is another self-proclaimed “Mahdi”, whose only achievement was to enable Britain to invade Egypt and the Sudan in 1898.
In sum, the new caliph is nothing but an impostor and would there be a real caliphate – even an Ottoman one – in the Muslim world today, Baghdadi would have been proclaimed an apostate and promptly disposed of.
Osman Rifat Ibrahim is Chairman of the Royal Mohamed Ali Institute in Lisbon.