The caliphate “is not something bad . . . for the majority of Muslims,” concluded visiting professor Emad Shahin during a recent briefing titled “Boko Haram, ISIS, and the Caliphate Today” at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU). A small conference room housed around twenty people, as panelists pledged to “help explain” the allegedly “confusing phenomena” of Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the Islamic State (ISIS)’s “overlapping language of political Islam” and the “caliphate and . . . sharia.” The panel, however, merely reinforced that ISIS’s brutal “caliphate” has ample justification in Islamic history and appeal among modern Muslims.
According to Shahin, a “very idealized historical legacy” of past Muslim caliphates, such as the Abbasids (c. 750-1519 AD), dominates Muslim thinking. It was then that Islam’s “expansion and extension” occurred, he noted, alluding to a brutal “legacy” far less appealing to non-Muslims. The Turkish Republic’s 1924 abolition of the last caliphate—a “symbolic unity of Muslims”—was a “devastating shock.”
Since then, the concept of the caliphate, something Shahin pointed out has been “embedded all along” in Islamic political programs, became the “raison d’être” of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim intellectuals advocating a Muslim confederacy alongside a caliphate envisioned “something like the Vatican and the European Union.” Shahin concluded that the caliphate, as exemplified by Tunisia’s Ennahda and Turkey’s AKP Islamist parties, signifies “good governance” for many Muslims.
Shadi Hamid of the Qatar-funded Brookings Institution—and a former student of Shahin’s at Georgetown—continued this analysis, stating that there is “something powerful about the idea” of a caliphate for the “vast majority of Muslims, even those who are quite secular.” Growing up in Pennsylvania, he heard Muslims ask, “How did we go from there to here?” while contemplating Islamic society’s fall from its supposedly glorious past to its all too dismal present. Consequently, the Islamic State’s caliphate declaration was a “pretty great marketing move,” even though, he claimed, the “vast majority of Muslims disagree profoundly with” the group.
Hamid described the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the “deeply illiberal” yet “mainstream Islamist movements committed to the democratic process” which, in the wake of Egypt’s popular uprising in 2013, provided a source of recruitment for groups like the Islamic State. Recruits who are initially “vaguely sympathetic” to ISIS and join for economic reasons, “over time . . . start to take on the ideology.” It helps that ISIS is “perhaps the richest extremist group in modern history,” having captured oil reserves and received “a lot of private funding from Gulf countries,” often while governments turned a “blind eye.”
Hamid explained that ISIS supporters see Muhammad’s “prophetic model” as a guide. It is a popular assumption that Muslims are “just like anyone else” in respecting humane values, but, he stressed, “Islam is a construct” requiring interpretation. He conceded that “very problematic and uncomfortable” doctrines exist in the orthodox “pre-modern Islamic tradition” desired by Salafists and other Islamists. Sharia law, for example, legitimates slavery, an abhorrence that ISIS practices today.
Shahin attempted to counteract ISIS’s legitimacy by referencing “benchmarks” from the “rightly guided” caliphate that existed for thirty years after Muhammad’s death. Under this “prophetic model of the caliphate,” a caliphate proclamation was an orderly process requiring territorial control and consensus among Muslim leaders. Yet Shahin referenced no such development amidst Islam’s past successive caliphates, regimes no less turbulent than other historical empires, beginning with the strife-torn “prophetic model” itself. Caliphates have risen and fallen according to the violent tides of Islamic history, a pattern ISIS clearly seeks to emulate.
Hamid considered “governance and democracy” central concerns to any anti-ISIS strategy in a Middle East marked by widespread “collapse of the regional order.” ISIS, which he described as “primarily not a terrorist organization,” had exceeded the “very low bar” of regional governance “in recent decades.” Hamid criticized an American-supported, regionally dominate “Saudi counter-revolutionary axis” and instead advocated a “get serious” approach to an insurgent overthrow of Syria’s Bashar Assad, however unlikely to combat ISIS or regional instability. Meanwhile, in yet another erroneous analysis of jihad, Shahin cited the “root causes” argument that seeks to blame Western colonialism, poverty, and oppression rather than acknowledge its roots in classical Islam.
Tamara Sonn, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the History of Islam at Georgetown, complained of ISIS and Boko Haram using “similar language” concerning the caliphate, claiming that the result has been “a great deal of confusion of what actually Islam stands for.” Given that Sonn’s chair is named after the former ruling emir of Qatar, one of ISIS’s primary funders, it is little wonder that such “confusion” reigns.
Sonn’s protestations notwithstanding, her fellow panelists unwittingly exposed the longstanding caliphate visions anchored in Islamic canons to which ISIS has pledged allegiance. The panel also revealed that there is an abundance of support for ISIS from Muslims worldwide, demonstrating that, for many Muslims, there is nothing confusing about ISIS. The analysis of ISIS’s governance, meanwhile, indicated that this brutal movement cannot simply be written off as crazy and raised doubts about hastily considered Middle East democracy promotion. Ultimately, the panelists offered nothing to blunt Islam’s often dangerous political edge.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.