As far-fetched as this scenario was until recently, it is just possible that international governments may one day face an unprecedented dilemma: whether to recognise a caliphate as an independent country. The newly-declared Islamic State (IS) – formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – is indicating it is separate to the Baghdad and Damascus regimes. It is its own state, though the U.S. has scoffed at the very idea. Then again, there is growing indecision in Washington in how to deal with these unwelcome developments.
The IS jihadists have overrun and carved out a sizable chunk of land straddling the Iraqi and Syrian border for themselves and scrapped the border itself. Welcome to IS. Both countries may decide they have enough problems as it is without trying to crush this act of geographical hijacking. More than three years on, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is still fighting rebels elsewhere in his country, while Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki is beset by jihadists running rampant in his disintegrating nation.
IS, of course, has no history in governance let alone a currency. The only law which concerns it is Sharia. Initially, its interpretation of the Islamic legal code has been harsh and brutal with beheadings, crucifixions and the mass execution of Iraqi soldiers. It has even banned smoking.
Curiously, no one has any idea where its leader is or really what he looks like apart from a fuzzy photo. Shades of Mullah Omar, the elusive Taliban leader in Afghanistan! The caliphate leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now renamed Caliph Ibrahim. He has been rumoured to be in either Syria or Iraq. He is said to lead his followers from the front on the battlefield and to be a smart tactician. With a $10 million bounty on his head, he will certainly be making sure he’s well out of sight of snooping U.S. drones.
We have had nothing in modern times to compare our relations with a caliphate. The last one – belatedly enshrined in the Ottoman Empire’s constitution – was abolished by Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk in 1924.
Caliph Ibrahim may have trouble explaining on what basis he was entitled to such a title. A caliph means ‘successor’ and for the Sunnis like him that is supposed to mean being chosen by the Moslem community. As far as we know, his only authority is as leader of a fearsome terrorist group – ISIS – which usurped the standing of al-Qaeda.
That aside, the fact is that IS is under the rule of an extreme Sunni fanatic who, like most religious zealots, probably has a closed mind and is beyond persuasion to look at life differently, especially towards Shiites. But at least he has tempered the actions of his followers in some areas under his control for fear of alienating all Sunnis.
Even so, daily life in the area which represents IS must be nerve-wracking for those residents who haven’t fled because of the draconian new Sharia rules. Tourek Masoud, an Islamic scholar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, says the concept of a caliphate is not something most Moslems think about. ‘The majority of Moslems and the majority of Arabs generally accept the legitimacy of the nation-states they inhabit’, he says.
Caliph Ibrahim is surprisingly well set up. He has plundered military bases of equipment and looted banks of gold and cash. He already pumps oil to customers and is even reported to sell electricity to the Assad regime which his group is trying to overthrow. He gets income from taxes and is said to be running mafia-like activities in the areas under his control.
He may find himself presiding over a rump state as Iraq and Syria are too preoccupied with other pressures and may care little about losing some desert territory even if it is festering with terrorists. As it is, IS jihadists have a foothold elsewhere in Iraq.
So what to do? Popular opinion is to start by getting rid of Prime Minister al-Maliki and replace him with a respected figure who will reach out to the Iraqi Sunnis. Al-Malaki, a Shiite, is loathed by them for neglecting their interests and ridding the government and military of their numbers. An IS spokesman once dismissed him as ‘an underwear merchant’. He is running for a third term as PM and showing no signs of wanting to step down for the good of his stricken country. Finding a suitable replacement is unlikely.
That may well lead to a wholesale conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites, even more refugees and the disintegration of Iraq as we know it. The Shiite majority would remain concentrated in the oil-rich southern half and the Sunni minority would share the northern half with the Kurds. Indeed the Kurds might want to exploit the chaos to form their long-sought independent homeland to supersede their current autonomous region. They and Turkey – unlikely partners not too long ago – might then form a buffer to protect the northern approaches to Iraq.
Viewing all this with alarmed interest will be not only the U.S., but also Iran, the most powerful of the Shiite states. Both countries might astonish themselves by realising they now share common interests just as Washington once did with Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against Iran.
All this is not the fault of George W.Bush and his allies who invaded Iraq in 2003. We should blame Mark Sykes, a young British politician, and François Georges-Picot, a former French official in Beirut. Back in 1916, with the Ottoman Empire tottering, they agreed to break up the Levant to suit Western goals. They drew a diagonal line across the region and divided the empire between their countries, creating artificial states irrespective of religious, tribal and cultural differences.
As far as Australia is concerned, we might be relieved that our nearest Moslem nations, Indonesia and Malaysia, have never been under the influence of a caliphate. The closest has been the introduction of Sharia law in Indonesia’s Aceh province in Sumatra.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.