The ISIS Caliphate Is Absurd, but No Joke

At the beginning of July, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) announced the establishment of the Islamic State, otherwise known as the Caliphate.  For many with knowledge of Islam, the sudden announcement of a new caliphate seems like an outrageous and outdated claim. Across the international community, important and pressing questions have arisen regarding the sincerity and potential implications of ISIS’ most recent claims.

What is ISIS?

Originally founded as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISIS) in 2006, the Sunni group emerged as the “third generation” of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It would not add al-Sham (Syria) to its name until 2011. ISIS’ main goal is to establish a caliphate across the region with a strict interpretation of Sharia law operating as the sole rule of the land. In return for its social services, ISIS has gathered the support of thousands of foreign fighters who view the group as a successful alternative to Shia-dominated governments.

ISIS has issued Islamic State passports, opened roads and restored electricity lines in attempts to display organized governance. The organization also staffs 1,000 full-time field commanders with monthly salaries ranging from $300 to $2000, compared to Iraqi government workers who make about $400 per month.

Harping on Sunnis’ resentment of their governments throughout Iraq and Syria, ISIS has garnered support by filling the social services void left by corrupt or ineffective governments. Its monetary support comes primarily via extortion schemes and large-scale attacks on prisons, military holdings, and banks. These attacks have armed ISIS with cash, fighters, and weaponry.

After ISIS seized significant swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, the group declared its land as the Islamic State. Shortly after, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now known as Caliph Ibrahim, announced himself as the leader of the Islamic State. Baghdadi spent several years working with the Arab jihadist community and with the Taliban and played a critical role in the extremist Sunni movement in Iraq and was present for its inception.

What exactly is a caliphate?

A caliphate is a unified Islamic state. Ruled by a caliph who is head of the Umma (Islamic community), the caliphate is governed by Sharia law. As both a political and religious institution, the caliphate was established as a means to maintain a protect the Islamic community following the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE

Sunni and Shi’a Muslims differ in their beliefs on who first caliph should have been and how caliphs should be chosen. Sunni Muslims believe that the first caliph was a man named Abu Bakr and that caliphs should be chosen by election or community consensus. Throughout history, Sunni Muslims have recognized and legitimized the existence of four distinctive caliphates: the Rashidun caliphate (632 - 661 CE), the Umayyad caliphate (661 - 750 CE), the Abbasid caliphate (750 - 1258 CE), and the Ottoman caliphate (1517 - 1924 CE).

Unlike Sunni Muslims, Shi’ites never viewed the Ottoman Caliphate as legitimate. Shi’ites believe that the caliph is chosen and appointed by God and therefore reject all caliphs other than Muhammad’s descendent and son-in-law, Ali, who served as the 4th caliph of the Rashidun caliphate.

What has been the international response?

The violent methods used to conceive the caliphate raise dangerous concerns and delegitimize the cause of many Islamists who advocate for the establishment of Islamic system through peaceful political methods. As such, Muslim leaders across different Islamic sects have rejected the creation of the new caliphate, declaring it as void and deviant. Among them are Sufi leaders, leaders of the Al-Nusra Front, the Ennahda party, and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Throughout the international community, many perceive the establishment of the caliphate as a farce. Although the Islamic State has been widely rejected and disregarded globally, it is still a legitimate threat and security concern. The Islamic State is one of the largest and most well-funded jihadist organizations and has shown that is it willing to break international law and use violence as a means to achieve its goals.

UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon has urged the international community to enforce an arms embargo and economic sanctions against the Islamic State in order to support Iraq and fight terrorism. Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, has also stated that the Islamic State militants must be “dealt with militarily”.

The Potential Impact of an Islamic State

As ISIS gains more traction in the region, the international community’s lack of action inadvertently lays the foundation for increased terrorist attacks, the violent repression and persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, and the further destabilization of Iraq and Syria.

According to some estimates, the group extorts about $8 million a month from businesses to fund its operations. The Islamic State is the world’s wealthiest militant group, and prior to the fall of Mosul, US officials estimated that its cash and assets were worth $875 million.

The Islamic State is running a well-organized and sophisticated operation with a high-quality media department releasing powerful propaganda in various languages through different mediums. The intent is clearly to recruit individuals to join the Islamic State’s movement, with a Western audience as its main target. Since February, estimates of 10,000 foreign fighters have joined Islamist militants in fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, with as many as 3,000 holding European or other Western passports.

Although some experts argue that the Islamic State’s operations are not economically feasible, the organization’s exertion and expansive spread of its ideology should not be ignored. As predicted by experts from RAND Corporation and the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Islamic State took control of additional oil fields in order to further finance their operations. Last week, the organization seized control of much of Eastern Syria including the oil-rich province of Deir Ozzor and continues to fuel the ongoing conflict in the state. Last week, militants from the Islamic State seized a Syrian gas field resulting in the death of 270 soldiers, guards and staff.

According to a report released by Human Rights Watch, ISIS has been terrorizing ethnic and religious minorities in Mosul since the city’s capture on June 10. ISIS has seized at least 200 Turkmen, Shabaks and Yazadis and killed at least 11 of them. Thousands of families have fled the city in fear of being kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The group has begun marking minorities’, identifying them as Christian, Shi’a Shabak, or Shi’a Turkmen. Additionally, the Islamic State has issued an ultimatum to Iraqi Christians, forcing them to “convert, pay taxes, leave or face execution”. The militant group has also destroyed 13 Shi’a mosques and shrines, and has burned down a 1,800 year old church in Mosul.

While the existence of the caliphate itself does not seem permanent to some experts, its ongoing campaign has serious regional implications and cannot be ignored. As a result of the Islamic State’s successes in Syria, many Western observers now view the Assad regime as preferable to rebel control in Syria. Jordanian officials also fear spillover into its borders, and view the Islamic State as a legitimate security concern. Additionally, recent events have deepened doubts about the permanency of the 1916 Sykes-Picot borders. By failing to respond to the Islamic State, the international community risks further destabilizing not only Iraq and Syria, but the region as a whole.