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Does the Mideast Need a Caliphate?
AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
Does the Mideast Need a Caliphate?
AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
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The word "caliphate" has earned an especially terrible kind of prominence in recent years, largely due to the rise of the militant Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. The jihadist organization has imposed its own special brand of terror not only on innocent people in Western cities such as Paris, but also on those caught within the boundaries of its makeshift empire. This so-called caliphate, covering large swaths of northern Iraq and Syria, has understandably stirred panic all around the world. Observers from countries and communities near and far now worry about the terrorist organization's reach and capabilities, and look around with distrust toward their own sizeable Muslim populations.

ISIS isn't the first army or organization to declare itself the one true caliphate, of course. Though their borders were often fibrous and varied throughout the centuries, the Islamic caliphates that reigned from the middle of the seventh century -- starting with Abu Bakr, father-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad -- to the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate in the early 20th century imposed an order of sorts on the region and the greater Muslim world. It's that very same order and identity, some experts argue, that is sorely missing from today's anarchic Muslim world, especially in the war-torn Middle East.

"The demise of the caliphate in 1924 left a gaping hole at the heart of Sunni Islam," writes Islamic affairs commentator Haroon Moghul. "In the decades since there have been attempts to create alternative pan-Islamic institutions -- probably most ambitiously of all, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation -- but none has fully met the needs of our time. Nature, however, abhors a vacuum. If good people don't fill it, someone worse will."

It's Moghul's contention that much more ended than just the understood parameters of empire at the conclusion of World War I. With the demise of the Ottoman Empire came the end of a centuries-long stewardship of the Islamic world, and with it came the rise of radical Wahhabism and its progeny now terrorizing every corner of the globe.

A modern-day caliphate might resemble something closer to the European Union: an institution that -- at least in theory -- would provide an umbrella of order for the Muslim world, while also offering avenues of expression and representation for the faith's various sects and minorities. Turkey analyst Nick Danforth, however, advises caution in such a rosy -- and perhaps apocryphal -- retelling of the caliphates' legacy:

"By conflating the nineteenth-century Ottoman royal family with these caliphs from a millennium ago or more, Western pundits and nostalgic Muslim thinkers alike have built up a narrative of the caliphate as an enduring institution, central to Islam and Islamic thought between the seventh and twentieth centuries. In fact, the caliphate is a political or religious idea whose relevance has waxed and waned according to circumstance."

In truth, argues Danforth, the caliph was a mantle often assumed through imperial wrangling, or one taken by force, and rarely was there ever unanimity over the caliph's claim to the seat. ISIS, then, is just the latest manifestation of this somewhat amorphous institution. Danforth:

"It would be a mistake to think that twenty-first-century Islamist movements trying to revive the caliphate are doing so in the name of a clear, well-defined Islamic mandate. Rather, they are just other players in a centuries-long debate about a concept that has only occasionally taken on widespread relevance in the Islamic world."

More on this:

Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East

The Peacock Angel and the Pythagorean Theorem -- Foreign Policy

Turkey's Hidden Past -- New York Review of Books

You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Understand Wahhabism -- Huffington Post


Around the Region

Lessons from Sinjar. Kurdish affairs expert Denise Natali takes a deeper look at the recent liberation of the Iraqi city of Sinjar, and examines the long-term implications for U.S. policy in the country:

"The aftermath of the Sinjar liberation further highlights the gap between tactical and strategic gains. During and after the operation, Kurds and Yezidis marked, ransacked, and burned Sunni Arab homes. Attesting to this retribution, a leading Sunni Arab tribal leader from the Mosul area who is also against ISIL noted that ‘five Sunni Arab villages in south Sinjar were burned completely, with more than six mosques burned as well.' These retaliatory measures coincided with Ma'sud Barzani's inflammatory statement that "no flag but the KRG will be permitted in Sinjar" -- directly targeting the PKK. He has also proclaimed that Tuz Khormatu, another disputed territory populated by Sunni Arabs and Shi'a Turcoman, is part of Kurdistan, and that the KRG plans to build a trench around Sinjar.

"Sinjar's political fallout has implications for U.S. policy and strategy moving forward. Tactical expediency should not override long-term strategic imperatives. Providing precision-strike capabilities to Kurdish partners, and advising and assisting ground operations, should continue in support of kinetic operations. However, U.S. engagement should equally focus on the second- and third-order consequences of its military support that are undermining its strategic objective of effectively containing, if not defeating, ISIL."

It's time for Kurdistan(s). Recent political rifts among Iraqi Kurds notwithstanding, experts Aliza Marcus and Andrew Apostolou believe the time for a more autonomous Kurdistan is now -- but there is a catch:

"Just as the world needs to accept that there are multiple, self-governing Kurdistans, so do the Kurds. The common political idea among Kurds for decades has been the need for a single Kurdistan that would bring together the Kurdish regions of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. For the Kurds to accept a series of Kurdistans, they will need to stop intervening in each other's politics. There will be less tensions among Kurdish parties, and less international wariness of Kurdish nationalism, if Kurds themselves accept that there will never be a united Kurdistan."

"Quite nice." U.S. presidential aspirant and retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson visited a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan over the long holiday weekend. Reuters' David Lawder has the story:

"Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said on Sunday that he found facilities at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan to be ‘really quite nice' and that people there would rather stay or return home to Syria than come to the United States.

"But Carson, one of the leaders in the polls in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, offered few details in a round of television interviews from Jordan about how he would work to defeat Islamic State militants and stabilize Syria to enable the refugees' return.

"After meeting with refugees at a camp in Jordan, Carson, 64, told CNN that ‘their true desire is to be resettled in Syria.'"

Fewer Syrians displaced both in and outside of the country appear to view their onetime homeland as a viable option however, and nearly half of the Syrians surveyed by Gallup earlier this year would prefer to permanently leave the country for safer destinations in the Middle East or Europe.


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