The militant group the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) has grabbed headlines by declaring a new caliphate in territory it holds in Iraq and an Islamic state with the group’s head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph. ISIL earned a reputation for brutality in Syria, where it turned on other Islamist groups including al Qaeda affiliates. However, in the last two months after making a base for itself in eastern Syria, ISIL struck into Iraq and in quick succession took the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit, carving out control of a territory where it rules through force of arms. The US-trained and -equipped Iraqi army crumbled before ISIL’s assault and the group managed to recover quantities of arms from abandoned Iraqi positions. ISIL’s rapid advance has since seen it gain control of almost a dozen Iraqi cities including Hawjah and Tal Afar, bordering the Kurdish autonomous region, and it advanced to within 70 kilometres of Baghdad, where the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is in complete disarray. The US has responded with President Obama sending 300 ‘advisors’ to aid the Iraqi government. Iran has emerged as Maliki’s main support, supplying weapons and men, partly because it views the Sunni extremists of ISIL as a serious security threat and partly to counter what it sees as Saudi designs using Wahhabi extremist groups. ISIL’s territorial gains seem to have stoked its own ego as well. The announcement of a caliphate, symbolically made on the first of Ramazan (June 29), was met with derision and outrage. Baghdadi became ISIL’s head in 2010 but very little is known about him. Reports say he led several smaller insurgent factions before joining the al Qaeda-led Islamic State of Iraq and then ended up in US custody in 2005. He was released in 2009 by the Iraqi authorities and resurfaced in Syria. In the statement announcing an Islamic state, spokesperson Muhammad al-Adnani gave Baghdadi’s real name as Ibrahim and said he was descended from the Prophet (PBUH), something many Muslims believe is a requirement for the caliphate.
ISIL’s declaration of an Islamic state is a potent aberration but its establishment points less to the revival of an Islamic statehood than the failure of US policy in the region post-9/11. Around the Middle East, US aggression in the ‘war on terror’ has left a lasting legacy of bloodshed and chaos, starting in Iraq. Iraq’s religious communities divided sharply on sectarian lines after US insistence on equating Saddam Hussein’s regime with the Iraqi Sunni minority to justify the invasion and occupation, though Hussein’s B’aath party was secular like its neighbour in Syria is today. The ‘liberation’ of Shias became another catchword in justifications for the invasion, and the US turned to Iraq’s banned fundamentalist Shia political parties to legitimise its claims. Giving power to Shia clerics, it marginalised Sunnis in the process. Focusing on Hussein’s depredations against Shias, it fuelled sectarian resentment that was long dormant and gave Iraq’s fundamentalist parties an opportunity to take bloody revenge for long held grievances. The presence of al Qaeda in Iraq aggravated the situation as they became the self-appointed Sunni ‘defenders’, leading sectarian violence down the path of wanton butchery. ISIL’s Islamic state is the natural outcome of a highly radicalised society with a power vacuum, the result of US interference in Iraq and Syria. In an ironic twist, the US is now trying to differentiate between ‘good and bad rebels’ in Syria, though it is clear that most such support will end up with groups like ISIL one way or another. Similar results of US interference can be found in Libya and the worry is that Afghanistan faces a similar fate. In the same way that colonial empires destroyed local institutions and left chaos in their wake, what can only be defined as US neo-colonialism is doing the same. Moreover the declaration is likely to create more rifts within the Muslim world since ISIL’s radical Salafiism brands any other belief as heresy. While the caliphate is a potent symbol of unity and authority, the Islamic state’s declaration points not to unity, but to the deep fractures in the Muslim world. *