Fear of a Caliphate

Now that Barack Obama the dove has metamorphized into Barack Obama the hawk, the President and his people are more than usually in over their heads.

It isn’t just that their past and present enemies in Iraq and Syria – Iran and the Assad government – are now also their de facto allies; or that those “Syrian moderates,” who haven’t exactly panned out in past iterations of American meddling, are now, again, their great Islamic hope.

They are so confused by the situation they helped bring about that, at first, they couldn’t even decide what to call their enemy.  Nor could they figure out whether to call this latest phase of the Bush-Obama perpetual Middle Eastern war a “war” or something that public opinion might find more congenial.

They were inclined, at first, to follow the example of their fascism-friendly Ukrainian protégés, by calling it an “anti-terror operation” – supplemented by some adjective like “heightened” that would imply that it would be more or less permanent.   In the end, they settled on “war.”

From Obama’s point of view, it is emphatically not a war of choice; not his choice, anyway.

Candidate Obama famously used that expression to disparage George Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  He still takes credit for winding Bush’s ruinous adventure down, even as he is starting it up again.

His point was that the Iraq War was Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s choice in the sense that they had no compelling reason to start it.

To be sure, they had grandiose, and patently unrealistic, geopolitical objectives in mind, but basically they, and the neocons they empowered, just wanted to overthrow the Iraqi government and to take that country over.  And so, there it was; and still is.

Obama, on the other hand, didn’t want this war.  The man is a god-awful President, but he isn’t stupid.

However, with an election in the offing, and with Republicans, right-wing Democrats, and the usual gaggle of pundits calling for blood — along with Hillary Clinton – he had no choice.

Resisting the pressure would take courage.  That is therefore out of the question.

Obama had no choice, but then neither did the warmongers and their acquiescent colleagues in the Senate and the House.  They too were reacting, predictably, to events not of their making.

The Islamic State (IS), or whatever we call it, chose to bring this war on – or, rather, to bring the United States back into a war that it started, lost many times over, and still never really quit.

Obama and his crew don’t want to call the IS by the name it now uses.   They favor the names it used to go by after it broke away from Al Qaida – ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

They are said to think that if the old names prevail, it will diminish IS’s global reach, reducing it to a regional power.  Seriously.

Could this be what Obama’s publicists mean by a “strategy”?  Perhaps; nothing amazes anymore.

In any case, on the principle that even “bad guys” get to be called what they want, I propose we stick with IS.  If this gets Obama’s goat, then so much the better.

Why would the IS choose to have America rain murder and destruction down upon it, and upon the people it purports to fight for?

Maybe because something like that worked out well for Al Qaida, and because Osama Bin Laden is their spiritual guide.

On 9/11, Al Qaida caused some three thousand people to die in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

But the harm it did on that day was almost trivial compared to the harm America went on to do to itself.   The reaction to 9/11 changed the country for the worse – in countless ways.  The process continues to this day, some thirteen years on.

To inflict so much harm, Al Qaida had to stage a spectacular assault on some of the citadels of American imperialism.

All the IS had to do was behead two American journalists — and, later, one British aid worker.   As best we know, they didn’t even have to capture their victims; others turned them over to the IS – either because the IS forced them or because the original captors realized that the chances of collecting ransoms were dim.

It was a stroke of genius.  At almost no cost, the IS got the fear factor in the West back up to dizzying heights.

Fear had gone dormant in recent years; war-weariness had taken over.  The military-industrial-national security state complex in America and elsewhere could hardly stand for that.

But it might have had to, had the IS not come to the rescue.  With just a few strokes of the sword, happy days are here again – for our “warriors” and the death merchants who arm them on the taxpayer’s dime, and for jihadis eager to get America and its vassals whole-heartedly back into the fray.

If there were a Nobel Prize for military strategy – specifically, for how weak non-state actors can prevail in “asymmetrical” wars against mighty juggernauts — it should go to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS’s leader (or, at least, its public face).

He is certainly more deserving of a prize than the Nobel Peace laureate who now leads – or is the public face of – the forces fighting the IS.

Al-Baghdadi must have a keen grasp of the thoroughgoing befuddlement of America’s political class and its media flacks; he certainly knows what buttons to push.

There was no way he, or anyone else, could make it “rational” for America to recommit all the troops and resources it soon will.  But where rationality fails, there is always irrationality.  As a true believer, Al-Baghdadi is no stranger to that; as they say, “it takes one to know one.”

The man is zealous, benighted, and vile, but he knows what he is doing.

He is also quite the ironist.

Saudi Arabia, America’s favorite country in the Middle East – except, of course, for Israel — is the beheading capital of the world.  And, according to The New York Times, in a story other corporate media squelched, the “moderate” Free Syrian Army, the announced beneficiary of Obama’s largesse, recently undertook some beheadings of its own.

It is far from obvious too that, as an occupying force, the behavior of the IS, horrendous as it is, is any more odious than the IDF’s, the Israel Defense Forces’.  Israeli propagandists and American pundits call the IDF “the most moral army in the world.”  Only ardent Zionists believe them; the rest of the world knows better.

Unlike many Western leaders, the IS didn’t get where it is by being ignorant and dumb.  Coming out of nowhere, the IS now rules large swathes of Syria and Iraq — because its leaders figured out how to leverage their otherwise feeble power.

Its military prowess is, no doubt, considerable, but it has prevailed mainly thanks to uprisings in aggrieved Sunni communities.

By all accounts, the IS is not well loved in the territories it has conquered – quite the contrary, it is feared and despised.   But it knows how to mobilize popular discontent, and how to take advantage of it.

It is not just in the West that IS fanatics are regarded as barbarians at the gate.  Everyone loathes them; reportedly, even Al Qaida.

Unfortunately, though, for many hard-pressed Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, they are the only game in town.  And so, for the time being, they support them.  Have they entered into a Faustian bargain they will come to regret?  Time will tell.

The IS says that it wants to establish a caliphate.  No doubt, its leaders really do.

But the important thing is that it makes sense for them to say that establishing a caliphate is their objective.  This is yet another way for them to affect Western public opinion to their advantage.

“Caliphate” has become the favorite scare word of modern day Islamophobes.  Thanks to their influence, the mere use of the word can be almost as upsetting to ill-informed Westerners as videos of beheadings.

How bizarre – to be OK with Obama’s drones and Netanyahu’s massacres, but mention “caliphate,” an antiquated notion of mainly theological significance for the past thousand years, and up go the hackles!

That would be the hackles of people who haven’t the slightest idea what a caliphate is.

The time to define terms and go back to basics is evidently long past due.

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Nowadays, the word “state” is sometimes used loosely to designate any of the many political structures that govern independent political entities.

However, in most contexts, including this one, it is best to use the term more restrictively – to refer to political regimes in which supreme authority is concentrated into a single institutional nexus.

When the great German social theorist Max Weber declared that states exercise a monopoly over the means of legitimate – that is, considered to be legitimate – violence, he was referring to states in this more restricted sense.

The state form of political organization is therefore the exception, not the rule. Throughout history, political authority relations have been diffuse.  Feudal societies didn’t have states (except in the looser sense of the term), and neither did more ancient social formations.

Indeed, with only a few minor exceptions (or, rather, anticipations), the state is a creature of the modern era.

States came into being in tandem with and largely because of the rise of capitalism.  This was not a coincidence; the state, specifically, the nation state, was, at the time of its emergence, a functional requirement of capitalist development.

Capitalist economies join together vast numbers of people who live apart and who are strangers to one another.  They do not, and cannot possibly, trust one another well enough to interact through exchange relations — unless they are brought together under the aegis of a common political and legal framework.

States also facilitate interactions between the discrete economic units they help to construct – mainly, but not only, through trade.   The role of trade in the rise of capitalism and in the politics of the era in which the state form of political organization took hold can hardly be exaggerated.

Emerging capitalism needed states.  But states will not function well if they are experienced as arbitrary concoctions.  To flourish, they must arise, or seem to arise, out of the natural order of things – like the integral communities of earlier periods, but on a far larger scale.

To best discharge their mission, they therefore need to become nation states.

The nation too is a modern development.

It is now widely understood that nations are “imagined communities” – socially constructed, more or less deliberately, to take the place of the solidarities that capitalism disrupts.

Since nations didn’t exit, it was necessary to invent them.

In early modern Europe and, later, nearly everywhere else, the raw materials for doing so were readily at hand.

Physical contiguity was important; for constructing a sense of nationality, it helps if the lands in which potential members of the same nation live comprise an integral geographical whole.  In the collective consciousness of a nation, co-nationals inhabit the same space.

It was important too that co-nationals shared, or thought they shared, a common history; and that they exhibit identifiable cultural affinities.

It also helps if the dialects they speak are mutually intelligible.  Then one or another dialect can more easily become the basis for a nation’s official language.  Constructing a national language is an important task in nation building.

These are not necessary or sufficient conditions.  But the general pattern is robust.

Typically too, members of the same nation share, or once shared, common religious beliefs and practices.

This was very nearly all that members of the Jewish nation, as nineteenth century Jewish nationalists conceived it, had in common — though efforts were made, and are still made, to support claims of common descent.  Simply sharing a religion was evidently not enough.

The reason why is not entirely clear – especially inasmuch as some religious sects meet the criteria for nationhood better than most bona fide national groups do.

The Amish are a case in point: they lived on contiguous territories, first in Europe, then in North America (until population growth and land scarcity necessitated a kind of “diaspora”); they speak a common language, the middle-German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch; and they share a common history and culture.

But no one, the Amish least of all, would speak of an Amish nation.  Among religions, the Jewish case is an anomaly; and but for the rise of Zionism – a political movement that assumes Jewish nationhood – the idea, born in the age of German Romanticism, might well have disappeared long ago.

If it had, the Jewish people today would be what they have been for the past two thousand years: co-religionists.

In the nineteenth century, as European imperialists brought the Islamic world into the capitalist fold, Western notions of political organization took root in historically Muslim areas as well.

But because Islamic theology has a pronounced theocratic strain, and because, within its framework, a Muslim’s first loyalty is to the entire community of the Muslim faithful, the ummah, nationalist ideas had a hard time becoming established in Muslim lands.

However, as the Muslim world modernized – and secularized – nationalism eventually took root there too.

By that time, though, most Muslims were living in areas that were either incorporated into the Ottoman Empire or ruled by British, French, Dutch or Russian imperial powers.

By that time too, there were more nations in the Middle East (and other dominated parts of the world) than were ever likely to have their own states.   This has been a problem ever since.

When the British and the French divvied up the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the administrative units they concocted were drawn up with little regard for the national or proto-national aspirations of the subject peoples involved.

They were too “orientalist” to care what the natives wanted, and too shortsighted to take any but their own interests into account.  The consequences of their thoughtless maneuverings are only now falling due.

Also, by that time, nationalism had largely outgrown its original function.  It no longer had much to do with helping capitalist economies flourish.

In the Muslim world, as in other regions of the global South, nationalistic aspirations had more to do with motivating and sustaining resistance to imperial domination.

Often, nationalism became indistinguishable from patriotism, a virtue extolled by political thinkers since even before the dawn of the capitalist era.

In all this time, however, there was never much interest in Muslim quarters in implementing theologically driven notions of a unitary, theocratic political order that would govern the entire Muslim world through the antiquated institutional forms of the seventh and eighth centuries.

Uniting the whole world, or even just the historically Muslim part of it, under the sway of a caliphate was a religious, not a political, ideal — in much the way that, before Zionism, returning to the Promised Land was for Jews.

The caliphates that existed in Islam’s first centuries – before the religion we know today fully coalesced – were not even all that scary.

From the beginning, Muslims were obligated to protect Christians and Jews, even as they accorded them a subaltern status.  Though not religiously required, the spirit of tolerance often spilled over to practitioners of other ancient faiths as well.

Those that had scriptures generally fared better than outright pagans; as did those that could claim to be monotheistic.  Monotheism was not a very demanding requirement in any case, inasmuch as, on that criterion, (trinitarian) Christianity had already set the bar low.

Some of those barely tolerated religious groups survive to this day.  Lately, the Yazidis have been in the news – because Obama claims to have saved some thirty thousand of them from the IS.  In truth, there were far fewer in need of saving than was at first reported, and most of the saving was done by Kurds and Turks.

Other ancient strains of Mesopotamian religiosity melded, often uneasily, into Islam.  Typically, adherents of these faiths retained some of their beliefs and practices, and suffered persecution on that account.  The Alawites in Syria are an example; the Assad family, in power there since 1970 (no thanks, lately, to the United States), is of Alawite origin.

In any case, by the time Islam coalesced into the religion it has become, with distinct Sunni and Shia branches, the idea that the entire community of the faithful should – or even could — be drawn together into a single political entity had become patently unrealistic.

The idea survived as a theological construct, but it had no political meaning.   Caliphates were sometimes still declared.  There was even a caliph in Istanbul at the time that the Ottoman Empire expired.  But, from a political point of view, the office was, for all practical purposes, inert.

Now that the whole word is divided into states, the idea is more unrealistic than ever.

The post-World War I division of the Ottoman Empire’s Mesopotamian provinces into British and French protectorates, and later into states, could now be in jeopardy thanks to the IS.  Parts of Syria and Iraq could splinter apart, and Sunni areas in both countries could merge.

But the chances that the world, or any significant part of it, will soon be taken over by fanatical Muslims intent on imposing sharia (Islamic religious) law – another Islamophobic scare word — is nil.

The prospect that, under the IS’s leadership, the state form of political organization in territories it controls would give way to institutional arrangements that died out more than a thousand years ago is, if anything, even less likely.

These notions are nightmare fantasies, promoted by Israeli propagandists and other fear mongers who prey upon Islamophobically-inclined Westerners.

If a later day caliphate is what IS militants think they want, then they too are living in a fantasy world.

The confusion is evident in the name itself.  A caliphate is not a state, not even an Islamic state, unless “state” is used only in the loosest of senses.

Were the IS to hack out parts of Syria and Iraq in order to establish a new state there, it would be a Sunni state – but only in the sense that it would rule over majority Sunni populations.

No doubt, such a state would enforce religious law, much as the Iranian state does.  It would be a grotesquely brutal and illiberal state.   But, no matter what the IS would call it, it would be a state nevertheless, not a caliphate in anything like the original meaning of the term.

The caliphates of Muslim antiquity operated in a very different world from the present; their institutional arrangements reflected conditions that no longer exist.

This is something even the IS cannot change.  A true caliphate could hardly operate, much less endure, in today’s world.

Does the IS realize this?   It is hard to say on the available evidence.  The evidence only supports what we know as a general rule: that clear thinking and godliness, fanatical godliness especially, don’t mix.

Even more surely, it supports the idea that the IS wants the US again to put “boots on the ground.”  The more in America is, the happier they will be.

The happier many of our Senators and Representatives will be too.   Great minds think alike.

Talk of caliphates serves the IS’s purpose, much as beheadings on You Tube do.  And talk is cheap, and become cheaper.  Since 9/11, the cost of getting America to do itself in has plummeted.

And so, the IS, wins: Obama’s America is off to war again.

Worry about that; not about what the IS says it wants to establish in the region or the world.

The potential for harm resulting from the United States and other Western powers fighting against the IS is greater by many orders of magnitude than any harm that the IS can do in the areas it controls.

And the only way it can harm the United States or other Western countries is the tried and true way: by getting them to harm themselves.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).