In the grisly delusions of Isis, past and present are one

By Tom Holland
Financial Times
July 2, 2014

Faith and memory can haunt the Middle East, often to convulsive effect. Almost 70 years after the founding of Israel in the land that devout Jews believe was promised them by God, another state has been reconstituted that similarly traces its origins back to ancient times, and claims a divine sanction for itself.

On Sunday, carefully timed to coincide with the start of Ramadan, the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant proclaimed the resurrection of “khalifa” or caliphate. No longer, they have announced, are they to be known by the acronym “Isis”.

Instead, with pretensions so global in scope that they now haughtily dismiss the legality of all other “emirates, groups, states, and organisations”, they have rebranded themselves as a universal Islamic state. Videos on YouTube duly portray the whole world as existing in the shadow of their fluttering black banner. On Twitter, their hashtag has been upgraded with great solemnity from #ISIS to #IS. Mastery of social media and an obsession with history are the keynotes of go-getting contemporary jihadists.

This is not quite the paradox it might seem, for in their fantasies past and present are invariably conflated. The concept of the caliphate that Isis is busy pushing on Facebook and Twitter reaches back, according to the traditions told by Muslims to explain the origins of their faith, to the very beginnings of Islam.

The spectacular sequence of conquests back in the seventh century, when the Arabs humbled the two great powers of the day, the Roman and Persian empires, had been presided over (so it is said) by a sequence of “caliphs”, or successors to the Prophet Mohammed. Shia Muslims believe a terrible wrong was done to the fourth of these, a cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed by the name of Ali, when factional politicking prevented him from stepping immediately into his father-in-law’s shoes. But the vast majority of Muslims commemorate both Ali and his three predecessors as the “Rashidun”, or “rightly guided”. It is their legacy, and that of the Prophet Mohammed himself, that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, is hoping to appropriate by proclaiming himself caliph.

The point is made with a typical lack of subtlety by his choice of nom de guerre – for Abu Bakr, an old-brother-in-arms of Mohammed, had been the first of the rashidun. And that is not all. Mr Baghdadi has also claimed, for good measure, to be descended from the family of the Prophet Mohammed himself.

The ambition is quite breathtaking in its audacity: to cast the sanguinary extortion racket run by Isis as the very embodiment of God’s plans for humanity.

This being so, it is no surprise that those opposed to it should loom in the jihadist imagination as literally hellish foes. To the fighters of Isis, adversaries past and present are all part of a single demonic continuum. Syria, where the followers of Mohammed humiliated the Christian Romans – and Iraq, where they routed the Zoroastrian Persians – are lands as hallowed to contemporary jihadists as the Holy Land was to crusaders.

The contours of seventh century history, in the opinion of those who would found a universal Islamic empire over the rubble of Shia and western-backed regimes, have never really altered.

There is little reason to think that the murderous cohorts of Isis will succeed where the greatest sages and statesmen in Islamic history have failed

When Isis propagandists dismiss the Iraqi army as “Safavids”, they are alluding to the 16th-century dynasty that turned Iran Shia; between the Zoroastrian empire overthrown by the Arabs, so they imply, and the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the beleaguered Iraqi prime minister, there is barely a difference.

Similarly, when an Isis press release praises the followers of Mohammed for having “forced the noses of the cross-worshippers on to the ground”, it is not only the Romans who stand condemned. The French and British, who carved up the Middle East between them; the Americans, whose meddling in Muslim lands casts it as a latter-day Rome; the west as a whole, with its pestiferous notions of democracy and secularism – all are seen as offensive to God. Naturally, if the establishment of a neo-caliphate is indeed the expression of divine favour, then the stakes being played for in the Middle East are cosmic in scale.

The reality, however, is likely to prove altogether more sordid. “O believers,” it declares in the Koran, “obey God, and obey the Prophet, and those set in authority over you.”

Who those “set in authority” should be, though, it does not specify. Over the course of Islamic history, Muslims have repeatedly projected their own hopes and convictions on to this indeterminacy – and never arrived at a definitive answer. There is little reason to think that the murderous cohorts of Isis will succeed where the greatest sages and statesmen in Islamic history have failed. The caliphate announced at the weekend is likely to expire as it was born: amid a welter of blood.

The writer is author of ‘Persian Fire’ and ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’

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