The Islamic State’s establishment of the caliphate has surprised Middle East observers and global security experts. Many have been trying to identify someone or certain policies to blame for the rapid rise of the Islamic State (IS). As always, some pundits point a finger at a politician to support their own political agendas. On the other hand, some puzzled analysts offer desperate explanations why a small terrorist organization could gain control over large parts of the region by picking political actors to blame for the current mess in the Middle East: Iraqi government’s discriminatory policies against Sunnis, Bashar al-Assad’s suppression of secular Syrian protestors, President Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the US War on Terror, President Obama’s lack of leadership and the early US withdrawal from Iraq, the Iran-Arab rivalry in the region, and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been suggested as causes of the rise of the Islamic State.
Although any of the above theories can be considered as a variable for the problem, the main cause of why IS has become so powerful has not been addressed comprehensively. Most analyses are focused at the tip of the iceberg, rather on socio-historical roots of the issue. The problem with the former approach is that the demand and public support for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate are ignored, and IS is being portrayed as the sole problem. In fact, even if American drones or Special Forces assassinate the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed Caliph –Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, Salafi jihadist supporters of the Islamic State will fight for another leader or group to help their dream of a global caliphate come true. Such demand for an Islamic caliphate has existed among Sunni Muslims since the modernization and secularization of the Ottoman Empire during the Tanzimat era in 19th century, and became popular after its fall in early 20th century leading to the emergence of many Islamist movements across the Middle East.
However, modern Islamism has not been only a Sunni phenomenon. Calls for an Islamic government have been popular among Iranian Shiites too. The first successful attempt in Iran against secular reforms was made by Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1927 when he –as a member of Parliament–prevented modern laws from replacing the sharia law.
Although anti-secular movements helped Mosaddegh become prime minister from 1951 to 1953, Shiite Islamism could not defeat secularism until the 1979 Islamic revolution lead by Ayatollah Khomeini. The rise of IS should be analyzed through the same prism i.e. understanding popular anti-secular demands in Muslim societies. Unlike Iranian Shiites, Sunnis’ dream of an Islamic state has never come true. Their struggle to revive Islamic empire’s glorious past has been translated into current Salafi jihadi movements among which ISIS stands out.
In reality, while the Islamic State and other Salafi jihadi groups pose a problem by themselves, it is their ideologies which is a bigger issue. The Islamic State could have not controlled Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria so easily if its fighters were not welcomed by local Sunnis. The Taliban could have never survived American strikes without tribal support in Pakistan’s Khyber. Ansar al-Sharia’s control over Benghazi was made possible only thanks to its Libyan sympathizers. The popular Islamist ideology calling for the establishment of a modern-day caliphate is what has empowered Salafi jihadi groups such as IS. A majority of Sunnis may not support IS but many of those Sunnis who oppose IS would support the establishment of a caliphate.
Non-jihadi Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir do not support IS or a-Qaeda’s violent strategies, but all share the same goal: to reconstruct an Islamic caliphate. IS has been able to rise to power thanks to the demand for an ideology that has been indoctrinated into Sunni Muslims for decades by such non-violent Islamist organizations. Considering the popularity of Islamism in the Muslim world, the rise of IS was inevitable.
Although Muslim elites of the 20th century created modern secular-friendly sociopolitical systems in the Muslim world, their progressive ideas were never deeply rooted enough in Muslim societies. As secular Middle Eastern societies became modernized, non-elite classes of Muslims –the majority– got a chance to have a voice. Artificially designed national identities of Muslims were not strong enough to challenge the fact of being the Third World’s citizens. Having missed the lost powerful Muslim Empire, desperate Muslims clung to an Islamic identity as the solution. What was optimistically seen during the second half of the 20th century as promising signs of modernity, secularism and prosperity in the Middle East was just an outlier. This bubble has now burst revealing the reality of the modern Muslim world. Whether it is in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, or even France and Turkey as forerunners of secular societies, Islamism and the demand for sharia law is growing.
Although there are different interpretations of the sharia law, the most appealing interpretation in the Muslim world is the most removed from secularism. The decline of Salafi Madkhalism in Saudi Arabia is the best indication of such public preference. Madkhalism used to be seen as the most practical solution through local implementation of the sharia law for a highly conservative Muslim society while maintaining peaceful and friendly relations with the non-Muslim world.
Still, such interpretation of the sharia law that leaves the leadership of the Saudi government relatively secular has now lost legitimacy to the caliphate ideology of the Islamic State. Dream of having a united Muslim community –Ummah– under the rule of a caliph is not popular only in the Middle East, rather across the whole world. That is why the rise of ISIS is just the tip of an iceberg. The Islamic State is just surfing on high waves of Islamism in the Muslim world. Neither airstrikes nor boots-on-the-ground can defeat ISIS; even if Muslim and Western countries can ever manage to take out its leaders. There will be another surfer –i.e. the Nusra Front– to carry the Black Banner of the Tawheed (the Shahada Flag) on waves of Islamism trying to reach the utopia of the caliphate. The Islamic State, which has an opportunity to conquer lands beyond Iraq and the Levant, is not a mere terrorist organization, rather the product of a popular ideology based on a radical interpretation of Islam.
In fact, the very same radical interpretation of Islam is what should be blamed for the rise of the Islamic State. Theologically, Islam is based on the Quran and the sunnah that is the traditions of Prophet Muhammad, the Four Righteous Caliphs and the first pious Muslims. Unlike early Christianity, early Islam was a not a mere religious movement, rather a political one as well. Although moderate and tolerant interpretations of Islam have formed over the past 14 centuries, thanks to the diverse culture of the Muslim world, they still lack major theological doctrines. Globalism and other modern attributes of our time have now highlighted the shaky ground of those minor reforms in Islam, making them incapable of surviving amid high demands for literal interpretations which are strongly backed by the sunnah.
In a global market of religion, Islamic products that seem more original –read literal– are much more in demand than interpretations whose messages differ from the sunnah. As long as majority of Islamic scholars do not start to marginalize the sunnah, secular interpretations of Islam will not have the opportunity to thrive. The sunnah as the literal reading of Islamic laws established by Prophet Muhammad and the source of the sharia law is the main obstacle to any major reform in Islam.
Radical Islamic scholars have been able to fill the gap caused by scarcity of well-established reforms in Islam to indoctrinate their literal interpretations. ISIS took this opportunity to rise to power simply through presenting itself as the reviver of the much-propagated sunnah. Ironically, the Islamic State did not completely adhere to the sunnah when it declared the caliphate without controlling holy cities of Mecca and Medina first. More importantly, as a bida’ah contradicting the sharia law, ISIS named a caliph who had not been selected by a six-member Islamic council or shura. Fortunately, that was one of main reasons why major Islamist organizations and even some other Salafi jihadi groups have not pledged alliance to its caliph, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. In fact, the inevitable phenomenon of the Islamic State’s caliphate would have been a bigger threat if, for instance, its caliph had been appointed at a virtual shura consisting of representatives from al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, ISIS, the Nusra Front, Taliban, Ansar al-Sharia, and Boko Haram.
Still, ISIS is gaining supporters around the world much faster than it loses devoted fighters in the battlefield. Although revival of the caliphate may seem unavoidable, the very same sectarian tensions of the medieval caliphates have been revived too. Though this time unlike the medieval times, Shiites have Iran as their stable central Shiite authority and are much more united than Sunnis. This situation has already turned the old Sunni-Shiite conflict into an apocalyptic war in which both Shiite and Sunni Islamism would suffer significantly in the end.
Despite an unfortunate loss of life, this conflict will eventually lead to major reforms in Islam. Likewise, Christianity experienced secular reform only after the Thirty Years’ War which lead to the Age of Enlightenment. Dreams of reconstructing an Islamic caliphate will fade away as other radical ideologies of the past did, and ISIS will be vanished from the face of history along with radical interpretations of Islam which have brought it to power.