At the very end of 2013 Patrick Cockburn was asked by his editor to nominate a Middle Eastern ‘Man of the Year.’ He named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a name that did not resonate much except with a small number of Western specialists – and a growing number of Iraqis and Syrians. In January al-Baghdadi’s troops seized Falluja, going on in the early summer to take Tikrit and Mosul. In June he declared a Caliphate – an ‘Islamic State’ – and himself Caliph. Large parts of the Syrian-Iraqi border were bulldozed and declared irrelevant, and by the end of the year the Daesh (as they tend to be called by unsympathetic Arabs, using their Arabic acronym) held a great arc of territory stretching from the edges of Aleppo to the gates of Baghdad. It’s hard to overstate the momentousness of this extraordinary series of events. The post-Great War imperial dispensation is gone: Sykes-Picot, with its red zones and blue zones demarcating British and French spheres of interest, is fading like the smile on the Cheshire Cat as the nations that those zones had become, in turn become fluid and interpenetrating.
Whatever else happens now, the Shia state of Iraq is over, quaint relic of a brief period of half-hearted Western state-building. An oppressed majority in Ba’athist Iraq, the Shia became the sectarian, unrepentantly oppressive and profoundly corrupt government after the US invasion. Then, as the focus opened up and national boundaries fell away, they were revealed once again as a vulnerable minority in a much wider Sunni Arab world that likes them not very much at all. They rely on Iran and the US for their survival. Under Saddam, inter-communal peace, if not always affection, was maintained. Inter-marriage was fairly common. But the Sunni strategists of the caliphate, driven by an abhorrence of the Shi’a shared by a range of Wahhabis, Islamists, Salafis and jihadis, have made sectarian warfare their signature. Shi’ites, with their reverence for tombs, shrines and imams are idolaters to the purists and so automatically apostates whose punishment is death. The insurgents have driven careful wedges between the communities with the bombings of Shi’i shrines in 2006-7 and the industrial sectarian murders that followed. Provoking civil war proved easy enough in the end, and the shedding of much blood is welcomed.
Al-Baghdadi represents the teeth of the wider Sunni world. Though the complexities of funding and support in this messy proxy war are complicated, he and his confrères in other jihadi organizations represent an urgent desire amongst Sunni monarchs to dish the Shi’a – and dished they probably now will be, unless the Iranians can save a rump state. The Iraqi government watched with flaccid incomprehension the collapse of its hollowed-out, venal army which threw down its arms at Mosul and fled before a tiny force of jihadis, and still seems incapable of putting up serious resistance to anything or anybody. What fight-back there is, is provided by Shi’ite militias and US bombers. Without the US, Arbil would be in their hands, Kobani would have fallen, and perhaps Baghdad itself. As it is, stasis may be reached for a time, but no easily visible kind of settlement.
This fast-moving and complicated scenario needs careful explanation, and it has got it, from Patrick Cockburn, in his excellent new Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the new Sunni Revolution. It’s a short book, in modest and proper recognition that we don’t yet know very much; but everything that we do (or should) know about the geo-politics of the Daeshi ‘state’ is carefully and effectively marshalled by Cockburn in a powerful argument. This is no more than one expects from the single most interesting writer in English on Iraq and Syria. (If you don’t follow him in the London Review of Books, you should).
If we ever had any doubt, the deeply sectarian nature of the Middle East conflict is made very clear. “Government rule over the Sunni Arab heartlands of north and central Iraq has evaporated,” writes Cockburn, quoting the Iraqi Deputy National Security Adviser as saying that “when 100 ISIS fighters take over an area, they normally recruit five or ten times their original force.” Research by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss (to be published later this month) goes further in showing that “much of the senior leadership of Islamic State is actually made up of Saddam-era Baath Party members.” This is a seismic movement, which will have massive impact on the architecture of the Middle East, and perhaps of Islam. Not perhaps precisely the chiliastic outcomes that al-Baghdadi and his myrmidons trumpet, but one resulting nonetheless in a new regional order and a new Middle East.
One of the many fascinations is the way the West has been blind-sided by the whole business: to listen to Western governments is to realize that what Cockburn calls ISIS’s ‘Hundred Days’ came as a complete surprise to all of them. This is largely because of the impossible knots into which the West has tied itself over Syria, a Gordian tangle that Cockburn examines eloquently. By focusing for much too long on (and believing possible, without committing serious resources to) the removal of Bashir al-Asad and the Alawite regime in Syria, the US cemented itself into a labyrinth of impossible conflicts of interest. By supporting the anti-Asad forces it soon found itself supporting the jihadists, through a potent cocktail of ignorance about whose allegiances lay where, self-delusion over the reality of a secular third force, and inability to confront the lethal sectarian interests of its Sunni allies in the Gulf which were financing different fragments of the jihadi opposition to Asad. Cockburn uses the analogy of the Thirty Years War to describe the Syrian wars, and it is an apt one: a whole generation and more of ferocious sectarian strife inextricably wound up with national and dynastic ambitions, the self-perpetuating momentum of voracious mercenary bands, the vanity of rulers and generals, resulting in three decades of blood and escalating bestiality.
But there’s more. Cockburn examines with precision the ætiology of the caliphate, but he does not dwell on ideology. If we want to understand the appeal of the caliphal jihad to disaffected young Muslims across the world, we must ask what it is that a growing few of them find attractive, even irresistible, about the Daesh. In a very powerful article in the Atlantic this week, Graeme Wood has dissected the chiliastic rhetoric of the Caliphate to great effect. What is clear is that geo-politics isn’t the whole story. It’s easy to see the Daesh as a latter-day Mongol horde, deploying a theatre of blood to terrify its opponents into submission and propel its conquering fighters onward. Wood asks why they are doing this – what precisely are the ultimate objectives that the Daesh serves? And what is the elaborate rhetoric, verbal and sanguinary, all about, if we take the trouble to interrogate it closely?
His answers to the two questions are one and the same, and they make clear a dimension of the Daesh phenomenon that we have not yet understood very clearly in the West – its carefully scripted and referenced theatre, not so much of blood, as of Doom, in the Old English sense of that word. Daesh is set on hastening the apocalypse, and convincing susceptible Muslims that it is the handmaiden of the End-time, so that they can put their shoulders to the wheel and seel martyrdom in doing so. It seems to be having some success. “The inflow of jihadists that followed [the declaration of the Caliphate], from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.”
The argument rests on an understanding of the significance of the Caliphate, not as a historical succession of sometimes pious and sometimes impious rulers that was finally given its quietus by Ataturk in 1924, but as a concept in the wilder reaches of Salafist thinking. It is, seen in this light, the keystone to the arch of jihadi victory, and the trigger of the apocalypse. There has been no righteous caliph not just since 1924, but for a thousand years (some Muslims reckon Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi only the eighth of twelve legitimate caliphs). Without a caliph Muslims cannot, it appears, fulfil their religious obligations. The election of a caliphate changes the rules: as Anjem Choudry of al-Muhajiroun (a tributary of the Daeshi river) smugly puts it, “Before the Caliphate maybe 85 percent of the Shariah was absent from our lives. These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa, and now we have one.”
The rightful Caliph must be descended from the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraysh; he must be physically and morally sound; and he must rule territory in which Islamic law is enforced. Al-Baghdadi seems to fulfil the first two criteria, but only since the middle of 2014 has he felt able to trumpet the third. Having done so, with Mosul in his hands, he demands the declaration of loyalty – the baya’a – of all Muslims. The election of a Caliph changes the dynamics of Islam for a significant minority of Muslims: if you accept this caliphal doctrine, then you have no alternative but to sign up. “The caliphate” – Choudry again – “is not just a political entity, but also a vehicle for salvation.”
And if you sign up, you are signing up to a code of behaviour that is based on what they call ‘the Prophetic Methodology,’ a literal recreation of what Daesh believes to have been the behaviours of the very first Muslims and the Prophet himself. “Much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to reforming civilisation to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately bring about the apocalypse.” They took slaves, so you do. They beheaded captives and crucified them, so you do too. They punished certain offences by throwing the perpetrator off a high rock, so throw such sinners yourselves, substituting a multi-storey car park. They forced their enemies’ women into sexual slavery, killed pagans, taxed people of the book with jizya so you do it all too. Sufis, Shi’ites and rulers who even flirt with secular law are apostates and to be killed. By acting like the first Muslims, you increase spiritual proximity to them and by some kind of bizarre sympathetic magic bring forward the cosmic showdown.
This showdown will take place – according to a hadith – at a place called Dabiq, near Aleppo, where ‘the Muslims’ will defeat ‘Rome.’ Daesh thoughtfully secured Dabiq early on, and it is all ready for the final battle. References to Dabiq are frequent (it is the title of the Caliphate’s glossy magazine, apart from anything else), and there is a definite ‘bring-it-on’ tone to all references to US troops: they are required participants. (There’s an after-story, too, of Muslim defeat and a last, victorious stand of 5,000 righteous Muslims led – a little confusingly – by Jesus, which perhaps inures the Caliphate to short and medium terms setbacks,)
What all this suggests is that what looks like random extreme violence is nothing of the sort – it is a theologically dictated violence, designed to evoke the end of the world. And that’s a little hard to argue with. In fact the law is coercive: Dabiq (the glossy mag) said last October, “Enslaving the the families of the kuffar and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narratives of the Prophet … and thereby apostasizing from Islam.” And the penalty for apostasy is of course death, so the pious jihadi must sink any remaining scruples and get on with it.
Even – perhaps especially – the Caliph is hedged about with restrictions. He may not enter into diplomatic relations or treaties, and his every move is scrutinized by the ideologists of Doom. The most he can do in terms of peace (because it’s all the Methodology sanctions) is to sign partial and temporary truces which must not become permanent, and even then he must fight at least one campaign of jihad each year. Failure to do this and he too is an apostate. This is deliberately not a stable government, but one driven willy-nilly onwards by its own inherent radicalism. Like Robespierre, the Caliph will – or so the world must hope – be consumed by the tiger he rides.
Wood’s analysis is fascinating, but still preliminary. He quotes scholars working on the ideology of Daesh, and they will in due course produce the books that flesh out the picture. For now, if we take it simply as a working hypothesis, it is a good, and a sobering, first cut at the pathology, and the mediæval hyperlink, which the Middle East is now facing. Most Muslims are entirely horrified: it is, as Graeme Wood puts it, “the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.”