By Farhang Jahanpour
A shorter version of this article was published by IPS
When all of a sudden ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Sham) emerged on the scene, and in a matter of days occupied large swathes of mainly Sunni-inhabited parts of Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second city Mosul and Saddam Hussein’s birthplace Tikrit and called itself the Islamic State, many people, not least Western politicians and intelligence services, were taken by surprise.
This feeling of shock and repeated reversals in the past has been due to widespread ignorance or the willful neglect of history, and general unwillingness by politicians and pundits to look at the reality as it is or to explore the root causes of the issues in the Middle East from a historical, religious and ethnic point of view.
Most politicians have been afflicted by short-termism and they stumble from one crisis to the next without an overall strategy and without the ability to look beyond their noses.
Unlike the western world, in the Middle East religion still plays a dominant role in people’s lives. When talking about Sunni and Shia divisions we should not be thinking of the differences between Catholics and Protestants in the contemporary West, but should throw our mind back at Europe’s wars of religion (1524-1648) that proved to be among the most vicious and deadly wars in history.
Just as the Hundred Years war in Europe was not based only on religion, the Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Middle East too have diverse causes, but are often intensified by religious differences. At least, various groups use religion as an excuse and as a rallying call to mobilize their forces against their opponents.
Ever since the American encouragement of Saudi and Pakistani authorities to organize and use the Mujahidin (literally the jihadi fighters) following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, to the rise of Al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks on 9/11, followed by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and military involvement in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, it seems that the United States has had the reverse effect of the Midas touch, in the sense that whichever crisis she has touched has turned to dust.
Now, with the rise of ISIS and other terrorist organizations, the entire Middle East is on fire. It would be the height of folly to dismiss or underestimate this movement as a local uprising that will disappear by itself, and to ignore its appeal to a large number of marginalized and disillusioned Sunni militants.
In view of its ideology, fanaticism, ruthlessness, the size of the territories that it has already occupied, and its regional and perhaps even global ambitions, ISIS can be regarded as the greatest threat since the Second World War and one that could change the map of the Middle East and the post-Sykes-Picot geography of the entire region, and challenge Western interests in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
In order to understand the origins of this terrorist organization and the threat that it poses, it is essential to have a quick look at the religious and historical causes behind it and the current conflicts that are raging in the Middle East.
The role of Islam
When Islam appeared in the deserts of Arabia in the early part of the seventh century AD, with an uncompromising message of Monotheism and the slogan “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of God”, it changed the plight of the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula and formed a religion and a civilization that even now claims upward of 1.5 billion adherents in all parts of the world, and forms the majority faith in 57 countries that are members of the Islamic Cooperation Organization.
Muslims also form growing and vociferous minorities in most Western countries. The religion that emerged out of Arabia formed some of the greatest empires that the world has ever seen and has been responsible for the creation of what is now known as the Arab world.
Islam changed the religion, the language, and the culture of a large number of non-Arab nations in the Middle East and North Africa who now are Muslims, speak Arabic and form a part of the 350-million strong Arab world.
Contrary to many previous prophets who did not see the success of their mission during their own lifetime, in the case of Islam not only did Muhammad manage to unite the Arabs in the name of Islam in the entire Arabian Peninsula, but he even managed to form a state and ruled over the converted Muslims both as their prophet, as well as their ruler.
The creation of the Islamic umma or community during Muhammad’s lifetime in Medina and later on in the whole of Arabia is a unique occurrence in the history of religion.
Consequently, while most religions look forward to an ideal state or to “the Kingdom of God” as a future realization of their religious dreams, Muslims look back at the period of Muhammad’s rule in Arabia as the ideal state.
Therefore, what a pious Muslim wishes to do is to look back at the life and teachings of the Prophet, and especially his rule in Arabia and take it as the highest standard of an ideal religious government. This is why the Salafis, namely those who turn to salaf or the early fathers and ancestors, have always proved so attractive to many fundamentalist Muslims. Being a Salafi is a call to Muslims to reject the modern world and to follow the example of the Prophet and the early caliphs.
The rise of the Caliphate
Muhammad’s death (on 8 June 631) shocked his followers and created a great deal of confusion about what had to be done after him and how anyone could fulfill his role both as a political and more importantly as a religious leader. The majority of his followers opted for the age-old tribal habit of the elders selecting one of the most senior members of the clan as his successor.
Thus, Abu-Bakr who was the most senior member among his followers and who had migrated with Muhammad as his sole companion from Mecca to Medina was chosen as the first caliph (Khalifa or vice-gerent of the prophet).
It is important to stress that this post did not carry with it any religious distinction, and the first caliph was in no way seen as the spiritual heir to the Prophet. Indeed, the second caliph Umar was called khalifat al-Khalifa, or the vice-gerent of the caliph and not of the Prophet. The first four caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Othman and Ali, collectively came to be known as Khulafa’ Rashidun (the rightly-guided caliphs, often referred to as Orthodox Caliphs in the West).
However, right from the start, a group of Muslims, mainly the members of Muhammad’s family, rejected the choice of the caliphs, and they maintained that succession to Muhammad was both a spiritual as well as a temporal function. They believed that Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, possessed those qualities and furthermore he had been chosen by Muhammad as his spiritual and temporal successor, and that the caliphate had to continue in his family line.
Shortly before his death, Muhammad gathered around 100,000 Muslims returning from pilgrimage to Mecca, at a place called al-Ghadir Khumm, and in a sermon to his followers he raised Ali’s hand saying “Man kuntu mawlahu fa hadha Aliyun mawlahu” (whoever takes me as his Mawla should also take Ali as his Mawla).
However, there is a great deal of controversy about the meaning of that term.
Many believe that it simply meant friend, and it was an expression of Muhammad’s affection for his son-in-law, but the Shiites maintain that Muhammad was in fact appointing Ali as his successor, by calling him a mawla, a guide, leader or Imam. It should be noted that Ali himself ultimately accepted the appointment of Abu-Bakr and Umar as caliphs and worked closely with them, but disagreement intensified under the third caliph Othman who was assassinated, allegedly by some supporters of Ali.
Although Ali was appointed as the fourth caliph, clashes continued with the supporters of the slain Othman and his powerful Umayyad clan, and Ali in turn was assassinated by some ultra-fanatical Muslims known as Khawarij (literally those who went out or seceded).
Consequently, during the lifetime of the last two Orthodox Caliphs we see the first example of an internal or civil war among Muslims over theological issues. It is a sobering thought that out of the four Orthodox Caliphs, the last three were assassinated due to sectarian differences.
Ali’s death led to the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750), based in Damascus. Thus, the center of Islamic power moved permanently away from Arabia, first to Damascus that had been a part of the Byzantine Empire, and later under the Abbasids (750-1517) to Baghdad, which is an Old Persian word meaning “God-given” and was close to the Persian Sassanid capital at Ctesiphon.
The Umayyad Caliphate formed the second of the four major Islamic caliphates, and although all of them used the term caliphate, nevertheless, the Umayyads, the Abbasids and the Ottomans should be regarded mainly as empires rather than as caliphates.
Under these caliphates Islam expanded far from Arabia and formed the Islamic world stretching from parts of the Byzantine Empire, including Jerusalem, Egypt, Syria and North Africa, and later on from Spain to practically the entire Persian Empire including a large part of the Indian Subcontinent, right up to the walls of China.
After the Mongol invasion and destruction of Baghdad in 1258 and the collapse of the mighty Abbasids caliphate, when Baghdad served as the center of power, learning, and civilization, some remnants of the Abbasids known as the Mamluk formed a weak form of caliphate in Cairo (1261-1517), but they were a pale imitation of the Abbasids and their authority was mainly confined to religious matters.
However, when in 1516-17 the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Selim I captured Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Muslim holy places in Arabia, the sultan assumed the title of caliph, and therefore the Ottoman Empire was also regarded a Sunni caliphate.
Although all Muslims, especially many Arabs, did not recognize the Ottoman rule as a caliphate, nevertheless, the caliphate continued at least in name until the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War when the caliphate was officially abolished in 1922.
The fall of the last powerful Islamic empire was not only traumatic from a political and military point of view but, with the end of the caliphate, the Sunnis lost a unifying religious authority as well.
It is very difficult for many Westerners to understand the feeling of hurt and humiliation that many Sunni Muslims feel as the result of what they have suffered in the past 100 years.
To get an idea of the scale of that loss, they should imagine that a mighty Christian empire that had lasted for many centuries had fallen as the result of Muslim conquest and that, in addition to the loss of the empire, the papacy had also been abolished at the same time.
With the end of the caliphate, Sunni countries were left rudderless, to be divided between various foreign powers who imposed their economic, military and cultural domination, as well as their beliefs and their way of life on them. The feeling of hurt and humiliation that many Muslims have felt since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the strong longing for its reinstatement, still continues among the more fundamentalist Sunnis.
Western betrayal and colonialism
To add insult to injury, before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire Western powers, especially Great Britain, had promised the Arabs that if they would rise up against the Ottomans, after the war they would be allowed to form an Islamic caliphate in the area comprising all the Arab lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
A study of various documents and insincere promises made to the Arabs, from the Kitchener–Hussein Letter in 1914, to the McMahon–Hussein Correspondence in 1915, the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the Declaration to the Seven in 1918 paints a picture of deliberate lies, betrayals and deceit.
For instance, in the agreement between Lord Herbert Kitchener, British Governor of Egypt and later Minister of War, and Faisal bin Hussein, a member of the Hashemite Dynasty, King of Greater Syria in 1920 and later King of Iraq from 1921-33, Kitchener promised that if the Amir and the “Arab Nation” supported Britain in the war, the British would recognize and support the independence of the Amirate.
“It may be,” he concluded, “that an Arab of the true race will assume the Caliphate at Mecca or Medina and so good may come by the help of God out of all the evil that is now occurring”.
In the exchange of letters between the Sherif of Mecca, Husayn bin Ali, and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, concerning the future political status of the lands under the Ottoman Empire, McMahon wrote: “I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurance and make the following reply to your letter … Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca.”
Not only were these promises not fulfilled, but as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement on 16 May 1916, Britain and France secretly plotted to divide the Arab lands between them and they even promised Istanbul to Russia.
Not only was a unified Arab caliphate not formed, but the Balfour Declaration generously offered a part of Arab territory that Britain did not possess to the Zionists, to form “a national home for the Jewish people … it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
In Winston Churchill’s words, Britain sold one piece of real estate (which was not hers in the first place) to two people at the same time.
The failure of military rule
The age of colonialism came to an end almost uniformly by military coups involving officers who had the ability to fight against foreign occupation.
From the campaigns of general Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, to the rise of Colonel Gamal Abdel Naser in Egypt, Colonel Mu’ammar Qadhafi in Libya, the military coups in Iraq and Syria that later led to the establishment of the Ba’thist governments of Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim, Colonel Abdul Salam Arif and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, etc., practically all Middle Eastern countries achieve their independence as the result of military coups.
While the new military leaders managed to establish some order through the barrel of the gun, they were completely ignorant of historical, religious and cultural backgrounds of their nations and totally alien to any concept of democracy and human rights.
In the absence of any civil society, democratic traditions and social freedom, the only path that was open to the masses that wished to mobilize against the rule of their military dictators was to turn to religion and use the mosques as their headquarters.
The rise of religious movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, FIS in Algeria, Al-Da’wah in Iraq, etc., were seen as a major threat by the military rulers and were ruthlessly suppressed.
The main tragedy of modern Middle Eastern regimes has been that they have been unable not only to involve the Islamist movements in government, but they have even failed to involve them in the society in any meaningful way.
This is why after repeated defeats, divisions and humiliation, there has always been a longing among militant Sunni Muslims, especially Arabs whose countries were artificially divided and dominated by Western colonialism and later by military dictators, for the revival of the caliphate.
When the word Islamic caliphate is uttered, even many secular Sunnis get a burst of adrenaline. The failure of military dictatorships and the marginalization and even the elimination of religiously oriented groups have led to the rise of vicious extremism and terrorism.
The terrorist group ISIS is making use of this situation and is basing its appeal on the reinstatement of the caliphate.