We might be forgiven for believing that ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant: formerly al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia) was simply another small, fanatical group. To the west it might appear to be one of many that seem to have proliferated across this fractured region over the last 50 years.
True, their capture of Mosul got our attention but taking power or taking territory, especially in the wide open and chaotic spaces of the present Middle East, is perhaps not as difficult as it might have been before Iraq was liberated from Saddam’s grip in 2003. It's the ability to hold it, consolidate it and then take even more territory that marks out the serious players. And by that measure, ISIS are serious players.
The Iraqi-born Hudson Institute Fellow, Nibras Kazimi has been reporting on the development of ISIS since the early noughties. On his talismangate.blogspot.com website he has tracked in detail the patient work that what is now ISIS have put into developing their command structure and expanding their territory. Kazimi traces the origins of ISIS back to ‘a supra-network of young Salafists and other assortment of young Sunni Islamists who came to age during the 1990s – many of whom spent time in Saddam’s prisons and who all know each other – whose alumni went on to become Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Army, the Ansar al-Sunna, the Army of the Mujaheddin and the 1920 Revolt Brigades.’
Pure Islamic state
Their divinely inspired mission has centred on the re-institution of a ‘pure Islamic state’, which for them was to be manifested in a new ‘Caliphate’. This long-term aspiration became apparent back in 2007 when Kazimi reported in Prospect Magazine that ISIS had felt confident enough in their position within Iraq that they held an election for a Caliph, (the ancient title of the successors to Muhammad). Bin Laden would have been a candidate, but he was ruled out on the basis that he did not have the appropriate qualifications that the ancient Caliphs had (particularly Qureishi lineage), so Bin Laden was made the military commander and the enigmatic ‘Umar al-Baghdadi (a pseudonym) was instead acclaimed Caliph. (It is believed that there have been at least three successors since 2005). The aspiration for the re-introduction of the Caliphate, abolished by the Turkish secularist Kemal Attaturk in 1924, has been a consistent one for radical Muslims ever since that time. It's an aspiration founded upon the perception that the Caliphate of early Islam and into the medieval period saw the greatest flourishing of Islamic might and culture that there has ever been. The rise of the west and its empires at the expense of Muslim land was the humiliation that set Muslims to thinking about what had gone wrong and set in motion the development of the revivalist ideology that is being worked out across the globe in our time. So the re-institution of a Caliphate would represent to those Muslims who care about these things (such as ISIS, the Taliban, Hizb ut Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda) the re-emergence of Islam from its former humiliation.
In one sense the election of the Caliph back in 2007, hidden from the world’s view, had the appearance of an almost laughable game of grand-title giving without any form of power to back it up. But the incident showed at least two characteristics of ISIS, indeed ‘radical Muslims' more broadly that the west should have taken note of long ago, rather than being consistently surprised by the strength and resilience of the radical's reach time and again.
Firstly, it demonstrated their unflinching desire to take and hold territory which they could call 'Islamic' in the purest form of the faith as they understood it. ISIS has built its territory from the chaos in the region and has managed to create, in its mind, an 'Islamic state' in the purest sense of the term.
Their desire to build territory in the name of Islam should not be a surprise to us. Nor is it something that is outside of our experience in the west. The Youtube footage of young Muslim vigilantes in East London telling revellers, drunks and a gay man to go away because 'this is a Muslim area' in 2013 was an example of exactly the same ideology operating on UK shores as was those of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But, whereas ISIS desires to create an Islamic state in Iraq and through to the Mediterranean (the Levant includes Syria and Lebanon), non-violent radicals in our cities want to create physical Islamic states within our borders. This has been reluctantly alluded to in the more recent months following the reporting of the vigilante activities mentioned above, coupled with the growing recognition of the number of westerners going to fight for the jihadis and the so called ‘Trojan Horse’ incidents in Birmingham. A signal of the concern about the extent and reach of radicalisation was indicated by the Prime Minister's authorisation of an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood's activities in the UK on 1 April this year. Yet David Cameron's investigation, whilst welcome, is too little too late in terms of the impact that territorial ideologies have already had in the UK and elsewhere in the west. The time to investigate would have been over twenty years ago when those who knew the direction of travel for some Muslims were already raising flags of concern about what they were seeing. Notable amongst them was the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir Ali and the eminent Yale historian Lamin Sanneh.
Which brings me to the other point. In a world hooked on instant results, these ISIS discussions on the Caliphate demonstrated that they were prepared to work with unswerving devotion towards a long-term goal. In this case, the establishment of a global religio-political state that has (usually Hanbali) sharia as its constitutional basis, in the same way that they believe that Muhammad himself inaugurated in the seventh century.
Long-term strategic thinking is a particular strength of radical Islam; forget ISIS for a moment as they have been playing a relatively short-game compared to say the Muslim Brotherhood, who developed their plan to take over the west in 1981 as demonstrated by Patrick Poole in his article on ‘The Project' for Frontpage Magazine in 2006. If we wanted another example of this long-termist thinking, we would need to look no further than Hizb ut Tahrir who were founded back in 1953 by Taqiuddin an-Nabhani with the express purpose of working to create a global Islamic Caliphate. Indeed the only thing that has managed to keep them from being proscribed as a terrorist organisation in the UK has been their commitment to non-violent methodologies.
So ISIS, in far-off Iraq is simply another incarnation of a perspective that is present amongst radical Muslims in different parts of the world, including the UK. It is energetic, patient and above all, grounded on an apparently unimpeachable interpretation of Islam that has managed to position itself as the ‘true’, or ‘purest’ out-working of that faith. That is what makes ISIS and other groups like it so dangerous: that they are apparently able to quote extensively from the Qur'an and Sunnah to lend weighty authority to their perspectives whilst those who seek to oppose them immediately undermine their arguments by shifting to a philosophical basis, which sounds attractive to western ears, but which fails to resonate at all with the very people we would like to engage.
The problem is ‘we don't do God’. It’s a natural divide for us in the west: government staying away from faith issues and desperately hoping in their turn that faith issues will keep well away from them. Yet it’s not good enough in a situation where the siren voices of the radicals are able to lure people into their ideology. We need to empower those Muslims who are already forming robust (i.e. theologically grounded) counter-arguments to the radicals to speak out in the marketplace of Muslim ideas, rather than allowing the radicals to own it. Until we do there will be a regular supply of people willing to fight for ISIS, al-Nusra, or support the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. And, most depressingly, there will be opportunities for those that desire it to garner the support needed to create 'Islamic Territories'. As Lamin Sanneh wrote in Faith and Power back in 1998: ‘Too much is at stake in the survival of the state as a non-corporate, non-doctrinaire institution to allow it to fall victim to our enlightenment scruples about not mixing religion and politics.’
Sean Oliver-Dee is a researcher and writer in the area of public policy-making and religious minorities.