When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced Sunday that it was changing its name and reviving the caliphate, the news lit up the Internet and headlined news reports around the world.
But what is a caliphate? And what is the self-described Islamic State hoping to achieve with its declaration?
The answers, experts say, have more to do with the Sunni militant group’s rivalry with al Qaida than with any plan to replicate the last caliphate, which was abolished in 1924 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Understanding the history of the caliphate and its powerful symbolism is key to comprehending what the Islamic State’s declaration means. It’s the latest salvo in an inter-Muslim battle for territory and influence in the Middle East and beyond – a conflict that not only pits Sunnis against Shiites but radical Sunni jihadis against each other.
Disagreement about who would lead Muslims after Ali’s death led to the schism between those who recognized the first four “rightly guided” caliphs, the Sunnis, and those who claimed that Muhammad had anointed Ali as his successor and that authority should pass to Ali’s sons, the Shiites. A caliph doesn’t have to be a descendent of the prophet, but it doesn’t hurt. “It’s extra bonus points,” said John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University.
It’s also a declaration of war against al Qaida. By declaring a caliphate, the Islamic State is targeting al Qaida’s funding sources and hoping to win over fighters from al Qaida’s far-flung franchises in places such as Somalia and Yemen, said Patrick Johnston, who studies Iraqi insurgent groups for the RAND Corp., the California-based research institute.
With the coming of the Ottoman Empire, the definition of the word caliphate shifted. “Basically the sultan was the political power who ruled the Ottoman Empire, but then they added the title caliph so he was also the religious leader of the Ottoman Empire,” Abdelkader said. That lasted until a group of military officers seized power in what became Turkey and canceled the title in 1924. Baghdadi isn’t the first radical Muslim to take on the title of caliph in contemporary times. Afghanistan Taliban leader Mullah Omar declared himself caliph in the 1990s.
Given the Ottoman sultans’ reputation for corruption and what Kersten called “general decadence,” they are not likely to be Baghdadi’s role models. Instead, the Islamic State prefers a comparison to the “Golden Age” of the four original caliphs, which would cast the radical group’s caliphate as a return to Islam’s “perceived `pristine' origins,” Kersten said. It’s all part of a strategy to use religious symbols and historic grievances to spread fear and attract funding and fighters. “Like any political group,” Abdelkader said, “they’re out to make a big splash.”
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