Since its very onset two years ago, the creation of a so-called caliphate nation – governed in accordance with Islamic law, or sharia, by a caliph, purportedly God’s appointed deputy on Earth – has been the alleged motivating force and rallying cry behind the Islamic State group’s ruthless and violent expansion into Syria and Iraq.
The call to arms to establish and defend a venerated Islamic state has inspired thousands of young Muslims – both native-born and newly converted – to flock to the region and pledge their undying allegiance to an antediluvian society run by dictatorial thugs and imperious dogmatists who arbitrarily dole out religious doctrine and despotic punishments that make the Spanish Inquisition look like a kindergarten afterschool play group.
Yet, while these zealous proselytes seem willing to abandon their countries, homes, families and traditional values in favor of an elusive and idealized vison of a Muslim caliphate, few of them have even bothered to research the origins of their nostalgic and romantic vision of a sharia-based culture.
If they had, they would know that the very concept of the caliphate has been adulterated and bastardized by the Islamic State (IS) to justify its authoritarian absolutism and serve as a marketing ploy to recruit minions who are willing to lay down their lives and blindly submit to its unquenchable thirst for power.
The first caliphate came into being in 632, after the death of the prophet Muhammed and was led by the Rashidun caliphs, who were chosen through shura, a loose form of Islamic democracy based on intellectual consultation.
While these caliphs were charged with guiding the Muslim community in interpreting the chapter and verse of Mohammed’s teaching, they themselves were not believed to have the same prophetic powers as he did.
In other words, the early caliphates were neither chosen by God nor infallible, and their power – at least in theory – was subject to their willingness and ability to serve the Muslim proletariat.
When Islam split into two separate branches – the Shi’ites and the Sunnis – due to a dispute over succession, each sect reinterpreted the concept of a caliph based on their own political interests and religious doctrine.
The Shi’ites, who today make up about 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, believed that Mohammad’s mantle should be taken up by a member of his family, and thus ascribed the caliph with hereditary superhuman powers, proclaiming him a great Iman chosen by God.
But in accordance with Sunni Islam – which represents about 80 percent of the world’s Muslim community and is the branch of Islam from which the IS hails – the caliph is supposed to be elected based on his leadership skills and is not required to be familiarly linked to the prophet.
As Islam spread across the Middle East and Africa, subsequent leaders found the idea of a caliphate a useful tool to justify their reigns and subjugate their people, which meant that it was continually reinterpreted and redefined.
Nowhere was the concept of a caliphate more successful than in the case of the Ottoman Empire, which through a loose and tolerant rule managed to hold sway over a vast swathe of diverse territory for more than six centuries.
But when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, Turkey proclaimed the end of its caliphate and became a democratic republic under the guidance of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
European colonialism set in and the lands that had once been led by Moslem leaders were now subject to Western rule, a notion that did not sit well with the local people.
European exploitation of the Middle East and North Africa only served to antagonize already seething resentment, which eventually grew into a blazing fury of acrimony and distrust that paved the way for extremist fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaida and the IS to garner followers.
By using the mythos of the return of an Islamic caliphate nation-state and glazing over the democratic aspect of shura, IS has rallied an army of expendable foot soldiers and adherents to do its bidding in its bloody and brutal quest for autocratic supremacy.
The Islamic State group has hijacked the appeal of a caliphate to justify its harsh and vehement practices and has duped an entire generation of young Muslims into believing in a fantasy that has no basis in history.
As part of its ongoing propaganda, the IS has created pseudo-governments in some of the territories it occupies, offering its own depraved brand of public services such as healthcare and education (but not for women and not infidels).
But at long last, it seems that the Islamic State group may now be losing ground, both in terms of territory and supporters, as more and more of its former acolytes come to recognize that its so-called caliphate is neither there to serve Islam nor the Muslim people.
It is there to serve the IS ringleaders, and their gruesome vision of repressive totalitarianism.
Thérèse Margolis can be contacted at [email protected]