The defeat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Mosul, the group’s last primary stronghold in Iraq, represents a turning point strategically, politically, ideologically and even religiously in the Muslim world. Mosul was the largest symbolic center of the ISIS “caliphate” over which the ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi presides.
The fall of the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa in Syria will not be far behind now. That will put an end to ISIS’ claim that it has begun the physical elimination of all colonial borders, starting with that between Iraq and Syria. In short, it will mark the end of the territoriality of ISIS, perhaps the “caliphate’s” most striking claim to fame. Such a blow to the group will mean it will eventually cease to exist in any meaningful way.
The institution of the caliphate has been one of the important historical and symbolic features of Muslim history, most famously referenced following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The caliph was functionally the religious ― but also often the political and even military ― head of state. The office was seen to embody the ideal of a universal Islamic state, even though such an ideal state has never fully existed. The caliphate is roughly the equivalent of the papacy — once a major territorial concept, and still today a concept of the living religious community of Catholicism. Both caliphate and papacy symbolize a vision ― the religiously-founded state as an ideal.
“The institution of the caliphate has been one of the important historical and symbolic features of Muslim history.”
In fact, unlike its often distorted image in the West as an extreme form of Islamic governance associated with the likes of ISIS, in the eyes of most Muslims, the concept of the caliphate is quite positive — a symbol of the Muslim world’s historic power, culture, civilization and geographical reach.
Today, however, few Muslims believe that a caliphate of pre-ISIS days could ever again be practically reconstituted. Yet the idea of having a single seat of religious authority makes just as much sense for Islam as it does for other religions. An effort to recreate a meaningful and responsible caliphate in current times though raises near-insoluble questions: where would it be located, who would the caliph be, how would he be elected, what qualifications would be required, what would his authorities be, what political power would he exercise, if any, and what issues could he address authoritatively? And finally, how binding would his pronouncements be? (The pope still faces some similar problems).
Contemporary schemes for the reestablishment of a modern-day caliphate go back to the abolition of the office of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey in 1924. Turkey had a right to expel the caliph from the country, but it didn’t have any more right to abolish the office than an Italian prime minister has to abolish the papacy ― it is an issue for global Catholics to decide.
“The unique feature of ISIS is not so much that it declared a contemporary caliphate but that it provided it territoriality.”
The unique feature of ISIS is not so much that it declared a contemporary caliphate but that it provided it territoriality — the closest thing in a century to establishing a meaningful caliphate possessed of political, administrative and military power. Tragically, it was established by individuals brutally intolerant in their vision, violent and cruel in their administration, and willing to employ terrorism against opponents. Unspeakable acts became the hallmark of the ISIS brand ― and its primary victims were overwhelmingly Muslim, both Shia and Sunni. Yet all these ugly features did not necessarily have to come with the establishment of a caliphate any more than all popes necessarily had to be brutal. But ISIS’ twisted take on the concept changed the stakes.
Equally baleful is the ISIS take on the practice of “takfir,” declaring individuals ― even Muslims ― to be non-Muslims or “infidel.” For ISIS, the penalty is often death. But the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia also practice theological takfir, as do ultra-traditionalist Islamists, even if not necessarily calling for the death penalty. Indeed, Saudi Wahhabism is not directly terrorist-related, but indirectly its preachings and massive financing have led to the propagation of large numbers of intolerant and extreme movements and individuals around the world, many of which and whom are indeed violent or even terrorists.
For most in the Muslim world then, who like those in the Western world have suffered at the hands of the self-proclaimed caliphate, the fall of ISIS will be welcome. Yet we should not believe that terrorism conducted in the name of Islam will automatically come to an end with ISIS. Such terrorism is widely recognized by specialists as stemming less from theology, but rather the product of politics, sociology, disadvantaged minorities, or even troubled individuals seeking ideological justification to express the rage of their personal pathology.
“Muslims do not condemn the concept of a caliphate in Islamic history, but they certainly condemn this vicious expression of it.”
But a sober reality remains: the virtually nonstop wars promulgated primarily by the United States in the last two decades across large parts of the Middle East, have decimated the region, with millions of Muslims being killed in the wars and resulting anarchy. Vast material devastation and social and psychological dislocation have occurred whose effects are far from over; they still arise daily in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria, among other places. Such violent conditions are hotbeds for the emergence of rage, hatred, despair and psychological derangement. If American soldiers suffer in large numbers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD — leading to high suicide rates after their tours of duty in the Middle East ― surely Muslims permanently living in such war zones are victims of this stress disorder a thousand-fold or more.
Thus as long as radical conditions exist, the conditions for further terrorism will also continue to exist. Even in the West, there will always be a handful of psychologically and socially alienated Muslim youths ripe for recruitment into acts of terrorism. Nor is psychotic violence limited to Muslims by any means. In most instances, it comes down to cases of abnormal psychology then dressed up and dignified as a religious act. One wonders how such cases will ever completely cease.
But the destruction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is still of major importance. The once dramatic claim to have established a caliphate on physical territory is no longer there to dazzle and tempt many. For most, the bloom is off the rose. Revelations about the brutality of life in ISIS territories are well-known in the Muslim world and the overwhelming majority of Muslims are horrified by it. They do not condemn the concept of a caliphate in Islamic history, but they certainly condemn this vicious expression of it.
“The present iteration of ISIS as a 'caliphate' is now drawing to a close.”
Thus today, if some aspiring Muslim radical says, “I have a great historical vision, how about creating a caliphate?” there will likely to be very few takers willing to resuscitate such conditions of violence. By now most Muslims have “been there and done that.” The notion of a caliphate as a shining new idea ready to attract angry, adventurous or idealistic youth has lost its gloss. Others may yet try to proclaim some ramshackle caliphate in one remote area or another, but it will likely have little attraction except through brute force.
Parallels in the communist movement provide perspective. The theoretical foundation of communism ― a high degree of state socialism ― will never die. But the experiment with communism in the Soviet Union created a fairly miserable society that even Russia’s admirers could no longer accept. Many doctrinaire leftists will still make the case that Russia simply carried out the communist experiment exceptionally badly, that it did not have to be like that and that the Swedish model of society and governance is closer to the communist ideal.
Still, the present iteration of ISIS as a “caliphate” is now drawing to a close. There will inevitably be some who will try to exploit the power of the idea again ― as with authoritarian state socialism ― but it becomes mostly an exercise in brutal imposition of power, not an exercise in Islamic political thought. The U.S. can help by sharply curtailing its campaigns of military destruction in the region; they gave birth to ISIS in the first place and remain a key wellspring of radicalization.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official and author of numerous books on the Muslim world. His latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. A version of this piece was first published on grahamefuller.com.