Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s announcement of the creation of an Islamic Caliphate reveals a sense of hopelessness. His proclamation was strongly ideological, but to usher in this new era of a worldwide caliphate, he had to overturn an entire area: not in Syria, where ISIS will probably be wiped out by Bashar Assad’s army, but in Iraq’s weak underbelly, the Sunni area where the government did not have a strong army. And there he drew a halt and issued this presumptuous statement.
The very fact they no longer refer to themselves as “ISIS” in which the words “Iraq and Syria” were present, but simply “Islamic State”, as if it were a global entity, is ridiculous from the practical point of view. At the same time, it reveals the ideological dimension of the project to restore the caliphate of Baghdad, regarded as the most brilliant period of Islam.
But the majority of Muslims no longer dream of the caliphate, nor an empire without borders.
Most are simply attempting to live in a nation, so much so, that for years now the Kurds have been attempting to give birth to their own independent nation.
1. The end of the Caliphate and the birth of the “Muslim Brotherhood”
The end of the Caliphate dates back to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. On 1 November 1922, he deposed the Sultan Mehmet VI, and 18 days after Abdülmecid Efendi was elected Caliph, for a short period. Ataturk founded the Republic on October 29, 1923 and after being elected president, proclaimed the definitive abolition of the Islamic Caliphate on March 3, 1924.
This symbolic decision was a shock to the entire Islamic world. Especially following the decisions taken by Ataturk, particularly the secularization of the state and the de-Islamization of society: equality of the sexes; prohibition of the use of the Islamic veil in public places; prohibition of the fez and the turban; ban on beards for public officials; adoption of the Latin alphabet in place of Arabic; the Gregorian calendar year instead of the Hegira; of Sunday as a public holiday; of the metric system, etc..
Since then, many groups have tried to revive the caliphate. In 1928, a project led by the Imam Hassan al-Banna azharita Rashid Rida, gave birth to the “Muslim Brotherhood” with the precise purpose of restoring the caliphate. After pro-longed discussion and a series of studies into the feasibility of establishing a new caliphate in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, they themselves concluded that “it is no longer possible to have a caliphate” and changed course: we need to Islamize the various countries and governments, introducing sharia as our constitution. This was especially successful in Saudi Arabia, which does not have a constitution, just sharia. In other countries, legislation was enacted “inspired” by sharia. Nowadays, it is well-known that the majority of Muslim countries, especially the developed countries, are not headed in this direction and do not apply sharia as an ideal.
2. Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Like all Muslim terrorists, the new “Caliph” has a new “war name”. He is no longer called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His real name is Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, who was born in Samarra in 1971. His full name of war is: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi.
This name, for any educated Muslim, is already a program in itself. Abu Bakr is the name (or more precisely the kunyah) of the first caliph, that is, of Muhammad’s first successor. Al-Baghdadi evokes the period’s most famous Islamic caliphate, the Abbasid, whose capital was Baghdad (750-1258). Al-Husseini refers to Hussein, son of Ali and Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, the most revered figures in Shiite Islam. Finally, al-Qurashi, refers to the tribe of Mohammed, originally from Quraysh. According to a hadith the legitimate caliph must be a descendant of Muhammad. The latter two names (two nisbah) mean that he is the rightful caliph par excellence, which satisfies both Sunnis and Shiites.
3. The Caliphate, the dream in the midst of a Muslim world in turmoil
The caliphate is a dream, and refers to the Caliphate of Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphate. It is no coincidence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is Iraqi. He has tried to implement this project before with al-Qaida, but had to break away from it. The other fundamentalist groups have broken away from him and fought him in Syria. Indeed, almost all governments have decided to fight him: Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq … his only remaining allies are the oil nations – Qatar and others – because they share his idea of the caliphate, but to create diversions, distractions in the Arab world .
In any case, the caliphate no longer responds to what the Arab Muslims seek. Even Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – the majority of which is by no means terrorist despite being quashed by the new Al Sissi government – have disavowed him.
Those familiar with al Baghdadi say he is not capable of leading a great movement and is unable to get along with anyone. With the little support he receives, it is very possible that his ambitious plan to conquer the world will end in nothing. The only thing that the Islamic Army (IA) possesses is strength: its militants would be nothing without the weapons that the oil countries and the West have given them. But these weapons cannot withstand an army. The IA looks like the victor because it attacks easy targets, regions weakened by the last three years of war and terrorism. They also dreamed of taking Libya, but nobody followed them.
4. The decline of the Arab world
In any case, the proclamation of the Caliphate shows where the Islamic world is heading. Three conclusions emerge from al-Baghdadi’s proclamation: first, “We want to restore the greatness of Islam”; Second, “the West has reduced the Islamic world to nothing, killing people, making widows …”; third, “we will forcibly take back our leadership”.
This is the typical mythical discourse of the fundamentalists: first we were very good, then we were depleted, now we will regain power by force.
Here’s how Abu Bakr depicts the decline of the Islamic world in his tirade:
“The Islamic Ummah seeks your jihad with hope. Your brothers in many parts of the world are being inflicted with the worst forms of torture. Their honor is violated and their blood is shed. Prisoners are moaning and screaming for help. The orphans and widows lament their fate. Women who have lost their babies cry. Mosques are desecrated and shrines are violated. The Islamic nation awaits your jihad with hope. You have brothers in all the corners of the earth who are suffering: in China, India, Palestine, Somalia, Arabian Peninsula, Caucasus, the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Philippines, Ahwaz, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, both in the East and in the West … “.
He began with a very acceptable observation: the decline of the Arab and Islamic world, recognized by intellectuals and people from all walks of life. It is enough to compare any given Muslim nation and a Western counterpart in the arena of economics, politics, human rights, justice, social life, care for the weak and the poor, to see that the Islamic world is in the midst of a period of decline. Even where we have billions and are richer than anyone (think of the Arabian oil), the educational level is very low and the contribution to world civilization is null!
This is where the seeds of the dream are born. This dream of rebirth, however, finds no support in wealthy Muslim nations, the oil countries, uninterested in any integral human development. Reflecting on this, the Arab world must recognize the following: we have money, but it is the hands of a few; we have the numbers, with hundreds of millions of people, but we only know how to make war.
5. Rebuilding a culture of openness
In fact, the only way to regain our dignity is to culturally reconstruct our concept of the Arab and Muslim person, to rethink the laws we apply to human rights, to strengthen them and move in the direction of an open culture, which sympathizes with the whole world. Instead we see the spread of a culture of division, which is a step backwards.
We should look at the Abbasid Caliphate and ask ourselves: where did its greatness stem from? It came from the union of all parts of the ancient Muslim empire. From the cultural point of view more than the Arabs, the Iranians, Afghans, Balkh, Syriac-speaking Christians have contributed to its greatness… It was an open vision that gave space to all, all the while giving priority to the Arab Islamic world.
Today’s culture is based on the human rights of the people and solidarity between peoples. And what do we do? We try to justify and regress to a way of life from the past (seventh century), typical of a Bedouin desert region: this cannot be a solution for the twenty-first century.
6. Islam’s ideological error
The Islamic world’s error is an ideological one. It leads to ideological wars: cultural, religious, historical, but never based on the real needs of the people.
The Arab people seek solutions to basic needs; equality between men and women; between Muslims and non-Muslims; rich and poor (the poor in the Arab world have never had a voice!).
Instead of taking the best of modern civilization and assimilating it, we try to find the solution by going backwards.
The cause of this error is ideological, but the West is also partly responsible: it must improve relations with the Arab world. We see the West as an immoral place, without values. It is partly true. The West is seen as the global leader, but it uses weapons and the law of the fittest to impose its dominion. Looking at these elements, the Muslim world rejects the Western project, as too “human”, and hopes in a “divine plan” that is sharia.
In reality, Sharia law has nothing “divine” about it: it is the sedimentation of Bedouin tribal rules from the ninth and tenth centuries, and has nothing to do with the Koran, which dates to the seventh century, or with the Prophet Muhammad.
Unfortunately, although this idea is shared by most of the population, the political leaders, especially the richer ones, continue to keep alive the idea of Sharia law as something “holy”, defending the Bedouin and the desert culture, in so far as they are descendants of that era. But they are not and will never be a model for the Muslim world.
7. Israel, Islam and the “conspiracy” theory
The crisis in the Islamic world was exacerbated with the establishment of the State of Israel, an unfair creation because born in the territory of another State that bore absolutely no responsibility for the Holocaust. The defeat of 1948 and then in 1967 showed the extent to which the Arab world (and the Islamic world) was late, and sparked all the Arab revolutions and the animosity towards the West, as well as the hatred for Israel (and for some against Jews and Christians).
But this creation is now a historical fact and there is no turning back. To usher in any hope of increased international cooperation, we have to work for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This entails, for both Israelis and Palestinians, the decision to seek a just – though never perfect – solution, because both have been wronged, but both have also inflicted injury.
Faced with this military-political situation, many of us see the hand of Israel (and the U.S.) in everything that happens in the Middle East. Even in the creation of the IA, which many suspect is an attempt to divide the Arab world and reshuffle the cards in the region.
I do not support this “conspiracy” theory because it weakens us even more by removing all responsibility for our misfortune from our shoulders. And if this theory is true, then we are nothing more than stupid Arabs: in the end who wages the wars in the region, in the Arab world? We do. And even if we let ourselves be duped so easily, our responsibility would remain.
The fact that this division of the Arab and Islamic world strengthens to those who are enemies of the Arab world, is evident. But fostering division and war is bad politics because it eliminates peace for all, even for Israel. Israel will continue to expropriate territories from the Palestinians, but in doing so it will soon mean that Israelis and Palestinians will eventually be swallowed up within the one state, thus the warring factions will end up becoming a domestic problem. The only way forward is collaboration.
The adherents to the “conspiracy” theory accuse the United States and some European countries of facilitating this genocide inside the Islamic world. Again, the fault is ours. The problem began among ourselves in Syria because the government of Damascus, as well as dictatorial, is a government of the Alawite minority. A political and social problem internal to Syria, has turned into a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites, a war that dates back to the seventh century!
However, the solution proposed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also dates back to the seventh century, when Muhammad set about fighting all the Arab tribes who did not believe in God (and his mission), organizing more than sixty raids (= Ghazwa) in a ten years (622-632) according to the oldest biography of the Prophet of ‘Islam, Kitâb al-Maghâzî (“Book of History and Campaigns”), by al-Wâqidî.
Conclusion: Rebuilding Arab society with shared values
If you really want to rebuild the Arab society, a few fundamental choices are needed:
1. We Arabs must learn to live together on the basis of shared values, without going to war because of religious differences. And secondly, we need to think about solidarity in the countries and the region. It is unacceptable that there are super-rich Arabs and people struggling to survive and these differences encourage wars.
2. At another level, regional collaboration is needed, especially with Israel, for peace with the Palestinians. Every step towards peace in this sense may also facilitate relations with the West.
3. Another urgency is that Arab nations must prepare constitutions inspired by justice, equality, human rights, peace, without making any distinction between the sexes or religions.
4. Finally, societies need to eradicate corruption. Our countries are drowning in corruption. In Egypt, for instance, many people do not go to the hospital because they know that every service, even the most simple, requires a small bribe. For surgery, a daily pill, an injection you have to pay, otherwise you will not receive any care!
The caliphate has none of these four principles. So it will not succeed, indeed it will only reinforce discrimination based on standards established more than 1000 years ago. The vast majority of Muslims want to live according to true and current values; only the Salafists want to go back to the Middle Ages!
The solution is to enter into a vision of international inter-Arabian collaboration, to build a new civilization, incorporating the positive elements of modernity and the values contained in Islamic tradition. If the Arab world fails to do so, it will only regress, and – what is worse – it will do so in the name of religion, namely Islam. The time has come to save Islam, by fighting against religious fanaticism.
Samir Khalil Samir is an Egyptian Jesuit who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute, as well as in Beirut and Paris. This article was originally published in AsiaNews.it and is republished with permission.