There’s a good deal of bad news coming out of the Middle East these days, with the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The continued existence of either or both is in question, although give their artificiality it’s amazing they’ve lasted as long as they have. In response to their brutality on Americans, Yazidis, Iraqi Christians and just about everyone else in their way, there are the usual calls for action. In normal American parlance, that means the kind of direct involvement we’ve just gotten out of in Iraq.
Right after 9/11, when this was still a static website, I posted a piece entitled When the Sheep Have Anthrax, which was an overview of Middle Eastern political ways both before and after the rise of Islam. My point at the time was that, before we plunge into the thick of Middle Eastern politics, we should understand them. The results of the last thirteen years have certainly borne that caution out. American foreign policy stumbles along, drifting from a simplistic world view backed up by military power to an inferiority complex where we not only can’t do anything right but shouldn’t.
At this point I think it’s time to remind my readers of a few things about the ostensible goal of ISIS and many other people around the region: the re-establishment of the caliphate.
The Caliph is, in simple terms, the leader of Muslims. The idea is that all Muslims will be led by a single man who can direct jihad against the “region of war” (the Muslim term for the world outside of its majority). Like most concepts in Islam, it’s a simple one, but going from simple concept to reality has always been the hard part for Islam, and the Caliphate is no exception.
At the start, the idea was for Mohammed to appoint a successor as a leader (not as a prophet) and for that leader (the caliph) to appoint his successor and so forth. About thirty years after Mohammed’s death, the first (and largest) split in Islam took place precisely over the succession of the Caliph: the Shi’a-Sunni divide. That’s certainly a central issue in the current fracas: many serious Sunnis, including the Salafis, consider Shi’ites to be outside of Islam. In addition to the usual geopolitical considerations, ISIS’ biggest potential opponent in the Middle East is Shi’ite Iran, and same has tried to straighten out the mess al-Maliki has made before going after ISIS. (I don’t think that we Americans can take much credit for that effort).
The later history of the Caliphate is complex; sometimes there has been more than one, and I’m not talking about up-from-nothings either. The most recent long-run holder of the title was the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, who did it for about five centuries, that only ending in 1922.
Now we have a man who wears a knock-off Rolex watch proclaim himself Caliph. Everyone else panics. But haven’t we heard this before? Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood wanted to set up a Caliphate. But the idea of Qutb’s followers doing this gives the Salafis indigestion. And what about Ergodan: wouldn’t he like to re-establish Ottoman glory, caliphate following? And the other contestants?
The basic problem with the Caliphate is simple: it’s next to impossible for all the parts of Islam to agree on one. There’s the usual power holder-power challenger dynamic going on, as is always the case in the Middle East. So how to establish it? Experience is not very encouraging in this regard.
The key for the United States–and the one that has eluded it from the start–is to use the centrifugal tendencies of Middle Eastern politics to keep the various nations and groups focused on each other and not on us. That will even suck in “home-grown” terrorists, as we have seen with ISIS. Up to now that’s all that’s happened, albeit the response has been slow. We’ve swallowed our provincialism on “legitimate government” and armed the Kurds, those legendary fighters who won the Crusades and stand to administer a similar lesson to ISIS. Downstream Iran tries to stiffen the resolve of their Shi’ite clients in Baghdad. And there are signs that some of the weightier Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt–who have tacitly supported Israel against Hamas–would like to be rid of ISIS too.
The problem with large-scale intervention, as we saw in Iraq, is that it tends to unite people who would otherwise be at odds with each other. So, even though the threat looks huge, our response needs to be careful and leverage the animosity of others to the greatest extent possible.
Whether the American foreign policy establishment, in all of its own factions and sects, is up to such a clever response remains to be seen. Past history isn’t encouraging, but with the stakes as high as they are, someone needs to act like all the education and travel they’ve acquired wasn’t a waste.