Why the caliphate survives

The establishment of a caliphate was sudden, but the emergence of ISIL was a decade in the making.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph [AP]

One year ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took Mosul, declared a caliphate ruling over an “Islamic State”, reshaping the history of an entire region, if not an entire faith.

The ISIL offensive into Mosul in June 2014 and the resulting collapse of the Iraqi military took both Iraqi and international leaders by surprise and has bewildered media and government analysts alike. While the establishment of the so called Islamic State was sudden, and has survived its first year, the emergence of ISIL took a decade in the making.

A year ago, the blame that led to the rise of ISIL, in polemical diatribes in the media, was attributed to the policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, yet the organisation’s origins can be traced back to the fragile political process that emerged under the US Coalition Provisional Authority, which was then inherited by Iraq’s subsequent leaders.

Furthermore, it was the Syrian civil war that served as the vacuum that allowed ISIL to regroup and distinguish itself from al-Qaeda, emerging as the most tenacious armed Islamist group in the region.

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Regardless of the future fate of ISIL, the events of the summer of 2014 serve as a pivotal shift in both the history of the Middle East and the Islamic faith.

An Islamist non-state actor

The emergence of ISIL and its declaration of an Islamic State, and the failure of the Iraqi and Syrian state to deal with this threat, has been unprecedented in the history of the Arab state system that came into formation after the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

For the first time, an Islamist non-state actor, which is now simultaneously national and transnational, carved out a new state in the Arab world, a system of states whose borders have remained relatively unchanged over the last century.

While the formation of Israel in 1948 altered borders within this system, the difference in the case of the Islamic State is that it is ruled under a self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims both religious and temporal authority among believers within his state and globally.

ISIL portrayed its offensive as a corrective measure to two traumatic events that resulted from the Great War.


The events in the summer of 2014 also serve as a testimony to another historical precedent in the region, albeit one that began in 2003. The invasion of Iraq was the first time the US invaded, occupied, and administered an Arab state. It also led to the decade-long rule of Iraq’s first Twelver Shia-led government, the first state led by this sect in the entire Arab world.

Furthermore, ISIL became reinvigorated as a result of a revolt against an Alawi Shia-led state in Syria, one of the most durable regimes since the rise of Hafez al-Assad in 1970.

While ISIL emerged as a result of weak political institutions emerging in Iraq after 2003 and collapsing political institutions in Syria after 2011, it is also a reaction against these two states by a group whose anti-Shiism is one of its core tenets.  

Corrective measure?

While centenary commemorations of World War I have served as reflections of what the Great War means for Europe, the rise of ISIL, while sudden, represents a shift in the Middle East’s post-war century.

ISIL portrayed its offensive as a corrective measure to two traumatic events that resulted from the Great War. When its forces took control over the Syrian-Iraqi border post on the way to Mosul last year, it crafted a well-publicised spectacle erasing what it deemed as the “Sykes-Picot” border.

This spectacle sought to situate ISIL’s action beyond the Syrian and Iraq conflicts as a rectification of the secret Allied treaty that was the precursor to the Mandate system. This action sought to reverse the treaty, which in the views of ISIL and other Islamists carved up the organic, Arab core of the Islamic world.

A satellite image. showing Mosul City on August 12, 2014 [Getty]
A satellite image. showing Mosul City on August 12, 2014 [Getty]

Second, in 1924, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as the post-WWI leader of a secular Republic of Turkey that emerged from the remaining territory of the defeated Ottomans, dissolved the caliphate, a centuries-old institution of the empire. ISIL’s declaration of a new caliphate represented the first attempt to resuscitate this institution within the borders of a new state.

Over one summer, ISIL achieved both a secular and religious victory that actors in the Middle East and the Islamic world have so far failed to accomplish throughout this post-war century.

Arab nationalists, like Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Baath Party of Michel Aflaq in Syria, to Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, have all sought the erasure of borders established by British, French, or Italian colonial policy in the region.

Nasser succeeded in unifying Egypt and Syria for three years before the project collapsed, and Gaddafi’s vision of a union of Libya and Tunisia, or the union of Baathist Iraq and Syria never advanced beyond the discussion stage. The Islamic State can claim its project succeeded while past attempts by secular actors to erase boundaries established by European powers have failed.

Ironically, the 21st century caliph threatens to appeal to British Muslims, many of whom descend from the Indian subcontinent.


Religious victory

Along the same lines, ISIL scored a religious victory that other regional and Islamic actors have failed to achieve: the restoration of a caliphate. The Liberation Party (Hizb ut-Tahrir), a global movement founded in Jerusalem in 1953, and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda had also declared their vision of a caliphate.

ISIL has claimed to make both groups irrelevant by achieving this goal within a relatively small piece of territory, but appealing to a global Islamic imaginary. While Muslims leaders around the world have declared this new caliphate illegitimate, there exists a fear in both Muslim and Western states that a “caliphate foreign policy” poses a danger to domestic stability.

This concern had not existed since the 1880s, when the British Empire had to counter the pan-Islamist foreign policy of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid, which threatened to cause unrest among the large Muslim population in India. Ironically, the 21st century caliph threatens to appeal to British Muslims, many of whom descend from the Indian subcontinent. ISIL has successfully resuscitated and reinvented an Islamic source of authority, even though it might be among a relatively small, but motivated number of followers.

Acknowledging the Iraqi and Syrian states’ instability and ISIL’s success a year later provides insight into the future of this organisation, regardless of the success or failure of the US-initiated international air campaign and coordinated Iraqi and Syrian ground campaign declared in September 2014.

The ability of ISIL to appeal to an Islamic imaginary across borders and its restoration of the caliphate represents this organisation’s crystallisation of a jihadist ideology which has developed over the last 30 years. Despite the future viability of its proto-state in Iraq and Syria against the military might of the US and its coalition, the ability to deliver on a promise of restoring an idealised Islamic state within territory ruled by two Shia governments will continue to inspire followers.

Whether it is an ISIL ensconced in the urban centres of Mosul and Raqqa or an ISIL scattered into the periphery, it will still be able to launch attacks within Iraqi and Syrian cities, particularly through the use of car bombs and suicide attacks and take their fight to the US or Europe directly. 

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.