In The Caliphate: A Political History Of Islam -- published on Jan. 13, in French, by Flammarion -- historian Nabil Mouline traces the origins of the self-described Islamic State. The senior researcher for the French National Centre for Scientific Research examines the politico-religious institution of the caliphate starting from its origins in the seventh century.
HuffPost Morocco asked Mouline to reflect on the Islamic State group as it compares with other jihadist organizations, including al Qaeda, and to place the concept of the caliphate in the context of Islamic history.
Is the Islamic State group following the same pattern other caliphates established by former Muslim rulers?
To legitimize their political-religious project, custodians of jihadism draw from two complementary ideologies. On the one hand, they're trying to capture the messianic schemes that had been prevalent in Islamic countries since the Middle Ages: to restore the unity of the umma (the Islamic community at large), revive the caliphate, strictly implement Sharia law and conquer the world in order to finally achieve salvation. But at the same time, they are both consciously and subconsciously inspired by European ideas and institutions like nationalism and authoritarianism. Jihadism, embodied today by Daesh (Islamic State), is a hybrid phenomenon that has at once elements of continuity and rupture from Muslim history.
What do you mean by "elements of rupture"?
Elements of rupture are numerous and can be found in virtually all areas of the organization's activities. Jihadists of course have a strong desire to hide this fact by Islamizing intellectual concepts, symbols, images and institutions of European origin.
For example, The Management of Savagery, the most popular treatise on strategy in jihadist circles, is primarily based on the works of European, American, Latin American and Asian authors, not on Muslim political and religious traditions. Moreover, Abu Bakr Naji, the book's author, has said more than once that jihadists have not been able to take power in the four corners of the world because they have been unable to reconcile Islamic law and universal law. He urged them to learn from the West in order to better fight it.
Is it true that communication strategy is what separates the Islamic State from al Qaeda?
If communication strategy is one element that sets al Qaeda and Daesh apart, it's only the tip of the iceberg. The fundamental breaking point between the two terrorist organizations remains their differing strategies to revive the caliphate. Al Qaeda's operations are based on the idea that the "Muslim community" is subject to aggression by external forces and that all Muslims have a duty to help their brethren in distress. This pan-Islamic solidarity implies a global jihad against both the Western powers and the Arab-Muslim regimes that support these powers.
Their ultimate goal is to hunt non-Muslim powers in Muslim territories, overthrow "apostate" regimes and restore the original unity of the umma under the caliphate. But this strategy has failed, prompting several leading jihadist leaders to criticize it severely, especially after the September 11 attacks.
If communication strategy is one element that sets al Qaeda and Daesh apart, it's only the tip of the iceberg.
By contrast, Daesh acts within a "glocal" process, that is to say the ability to think globally and act locally. The leaders of the organization have preferred to adopt a territorial base in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world and to ensure their financial independence before going to conquer the rest of the world.
To do this, they have followed three steps. One: demoralization and depletion. Two: the management of savagery. Three: the establishment of the Islamic State/caliphate. The partial success of this strategy and the proclamation of a "caliphate" in June 2014 has been emulated here and there in the Arab-Muslim world and elsewhere, as we've seen in Sinai, Libya, Tunisia, and France.
What are the points of convergence between the Islamic State and the caliphate as it existed in the seventh century?
The elements they use to legitimize themselves. Most political entities that have emerged in Islamic countries since the Middle Ages have drawn heavily on the idea of the caliphate to justify their seizure of power -- which is usually done by brute force. The caliphate is a structuring institution in the political-religious Muslim imagination. We don’t have to go too far -- most Moroccan dynasties from the Alawites to the Almohad up through the Merinids and Zaydanides (Saâdiens) were largely inspired by this social construction. Daesh's approach is anything but exceptional. But we can legitimately ask if the ingredients that were used to keep these dynasties in power throughout the Middle Ages still apply in contemporary times.
Could this pitfall drive the Islamic State to ruin?
For objective and subjective reasons, I can say that there are two kinds of possible scenarios for the future of Daesh. The first scenario is unlikely. It's a routinization, a kind of normalization of Daesh, which would take it down a notch in terms of violence and attempt to gain acceptance in its immediate environment, and eventually by the international community.
We have already dealt with this kind of phenomenon not only in medieval history but also in contemporary history. I'm thinking of Iran and especially Saudi Arabia, which more or less looked like Daesh at the beginning of the 20th century. The ideological foundation of the Saudi state was founded on the same ideological base as the "Islamic State," that is to say, Wahhabism.
But since Daesh has adopted a kind of moral conviction and willingness to implement its beliefs at all costs, regardless of the consequences, it's heading straight for a brick wall. In addition, there are too many internal contradictions within the movement. Strong social, political, cultural and ideological contradictions between fighters of different origins. So far, it is mainly due to successive victories and rapid expansion that the organization has been able to maintain and continue its operations.
But as soon as its resources begin to fail and its "victories" begin to become more scarce, internal tensions will morph into fratricidal conflicts, likely causing the terrorist organization to implode. This second scenario is the most likely course.
Jihadism is a social structure, certainly, but above all it is an ideology. In this sense, the fight must target ideology. Daesh is a kind of generalized cancer. If a comprehensive solution is not found, the cancer will reappear in all regions where there is chaos. To fight and defeat Daesh militarily will be useless. Most regimes in the Arab world have taken this route, but it is not enough. We need a political and economic solution to combat this ideology.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Morocco. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.