It is a struggle to sort out who dislikes whom in the Middle East what with Al Quada, ISIS/ISIL, Sunni and Shia Muslims and warring factions within each group. It appears to be both a series of civil wars going on within the Muslim community and a wider conflict which at times carries to the outside world, to other religions and to other places. Its aim is to spread the faith, or a version of it, globally, and thereby change people’s way of life, and destroy the faith of others.
An informative article by Audrey Kurth Cronin, “ISIS Is Not a terrorist Group,” appears in Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2015. A principal argument is,
But ISIS is not al Qaeda. It is not an outgrowth or a part of the older radical Islamist organization, nor does it represent the next phase in its evolution. Although al Qaeda remains dangerous—especially its affiliates in North Africa and Yemen—ISIS is its successor. ISIS represents the post–al Qaeda jihadist threat.
While Al Qada is described as a terrorist organization, ISIS is a pseudo state. It has an estimated 30,000 fighters (of varying quality), currently controls territory in Iraq and Syria, has military capabilities which allows it to engage in sophisticated military operations, funds itself through sale of oil, hostage taking, black market dealings, revenues from supporters abroad and other means. It aims to establish a caliphate with its own version of the Muslim faith.
What is a Caliphate?
There is much more to learn from Cronin’s article. Here, I explore the idea of a caliphate and how it relates to the region’s history. According to Wikipedia, a caliphate is a type of Islamic government which can have a Sunni and Shia version.
”… led by a caliph or leader as a successor to the prophet Muhammad The Sunni branch of Islam stipulates that, as a head of state, a Caliph should be elected by Muslims or their representatives. Followers of Shia islam, however, believe a Caliph should be an Imam chosen by God from the Ahl al-Bayt (the “Family of the House”, Muhammad’s direct descendants). In 2014, the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared itself a Caliphate; …its authority remains unrecognised by any country.”
A caliphate is a form of empire with religious overtones. ISIS/ISIL operates in a region which was once part of the Ottoman Empire. It covered a geographical area of today’s Middle East, extending westwards into parts of Europe, including some of Northern Africa and eastwards towards the Indian subcontinent. An illustration of this is contained in
http://www.euratlas.net/history/europe/1300/entity_6084.html from 1300AD to 2001Ad (type in Ottoman Empire in the search box).
This website shows over time the geographical spread and shrinkage of the Ottoman Empire until its demise at the end of WW1 leaving Turkey as a separate country. At its height it covered not only a large land area but a population of different religions which often engaged in civil wars as well as fighting against each other. The crusades pitted Muslims against Christians; protestant and catholic Christians often opposed each other as did Shia and Sunni Muslims. The present is a continuation of the past over much of the same territory.
Today’s narrative tends to take its starting point as the postcolonial borders of countries which emerged from arrangements drawn up after 1918 by mainly the French and British under the eye of the League of Nations. They delineated countries like Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, and later on Israel and Jordan emerged as separate countries. But the story and conflicts did not start then. They are mainly a continuation of what happened in previous centuries including the crusades from the eleventh century which involved Christians, Jews and Muslims fighting themselves and each other. Religion is often a bloody sport. The latest proposal for a new Muslim Caliphate provides a footnote (at present) to this historical record.
What’s different today?
Each generation, encouraged by academics, thinks that what they are experiencing is new, but this is seldom the case, or only new in particular dimensions. Geographically, land and sea areas remain the same over centuries. One difference is that demographically there are far more people in the world and Middle East today than there were in the past. Up to 1900, the world population had remained for centuries at around one billion. It is now seven plus billion and expected to climb to over nine billion. That is change worth noting especially when you consider its location, religion, economic and social wellbeing. For example, in 1900, a world population of 1.6 bn was located 60% in Asia in contrast to 2000 with a world population of 6bn and 54% in Asia, that is almost twice the world population 100 years earlier.
Today over half the world’s population is in a smallish area of the world including China, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia the countries of south-east Asia. A map of the globe shows how geographically concentrated half of the world population is, and how spread out is the remainder. Today, China and India each has a total population only slightly smaller than the global population in 1900.
The other area to recognize as being new is technological change. Summed up in terms like globalization, this change includes the impact of transportation and communications both of which have experienced declining costs of moving people, goods and services. The use of social media, foreign outsourcing of production, employment of temporary foreign workers, and the “uber” sharing method of producing goods and services have all changed the location of production domestically and globally, and made more efficient use of existing resources. At the same time it has changed the demand for different types of skills and altered the career patterns for individuals.
What has this got to do with the Middle East cauldron of violence? At the moment (Feb 2015) the violence is conducted as guerilla warfare or terrorism. This is a far cry from WW1 trench warfare, WW2 trench, air and naval warfare with recognizable troops who wore uniforms, and when captured received some protection from the Geneva Convention rules of warfare. These conflicts saw guerilla tactics used, but generally opponents would give prisoners reasonable care. There were exceptions. Japanese treatment of prisoners was often similar to those meted out today by ISIS/ISIL.
Today ISIS/ISIL engage in unconventional warfare using whatever weapons they can buy or capture from their opponents. They execute their prisoners in a brutal fashion, unless they can sell them back to their native countries or trade them on a black market. ISIS/ISIL fighters can be called guerillas, terrorists, criminals, the label does not matter. It’s what they do that matters as are their actions reported daily in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and now parts of Africa including Egypt, Libya and Nigeria.
The violence taking place in the Middle East and in countries with connections to the Middle East, for example in Europe, North America and Australia is not new in general terms. Religious conflicts fill the pages of history books. What has some newer aspects are the means by which the conflict is conducted, and that is because of technological developments. Some people remain as evil as their predecessors, but they are now able to perform their acts in different ways. Whether they are called terrorists or criminals is immaterial. Their actions are horrific including to most of those who profess the same religion. This too has happened before, for example, when Germans of the Christian faith supported the murderous actions of Hitler. At the moment, prospects for the success of a new Caliphate may seem remote but this does not mean there will no more violence in and outside the Middle East……and responsibility cannot just be assigned to post-colonialism.