On June 29, ISIL (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) decided to drop the pretense of geographical borders from their name and create a caliphate simply known as The Islamic State. The news immediately broke in the west and numerous pundits went running, heads in their hands, discussing how infinitely dangerous this move was.
However, this new move seems to be rooted in pageantry and spectacle, rather than some wide sweeping reform meant to unite Sunnis. The Islamic State broke onto the scene last month, shocking the world during their swift takeover of Northern Iraq. Very quickly, those who had thought of them as a fringe group were now studying their tactics and mounting global defense operations against them.
In recent days, battles raging in Tikrit and various villages have resulted in some defeats, some victories and quite a few stand offs. And while militarily we should absolutely take this group seriously, we also need to realize how much credibility they lost with the Muslim world when they created this ‘caliphate.’ Oh and did I mention they named Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, their leader, the new commander of the believers?
The problem is, outside of jihadist groups, there isn’t some giant yearning within the Muslim population for the resurgence of a caliphate or empire. Rather, the yearning in recent years has been towards representational democracy. The Arab Spring and violence in Syria, Iraq and Egypt has primarily been over fair representation in government. It was only when vulnerable Sunni groups were left on the sidelines, in both Syria and Iraq, that The Islamic State gained any real political ground.
The idea of a new caliphate is also somewhat laughable inside the Muslim community. In Islam, a Caliph is seen as a wise and uniting figure, working as a living mouthpiece and representative of The Prophet, Mohammad. One does not simply name themselves a Caliph after taking a bit of land by force. Historically, this is unheard of and this unprecedented move has many Sunnis shaking their heads.
In Northern Iraq, Adnan R. Khan interviewed every day Iraqis and their reaction to the new ‘caliphate’:
“For everyday Iraqis, however, it was merely laughable. “Caliph?” said one Sunni Arab taxi driver in Kirkuk. “Okay then, call me Wazir.” (Wazir is a minister, usually the chief minister and the right-hand man of the Caliph).
His sentiment was repeated a dozen times in this ethnically mixed, oil-rich city in Iraq’s north. “Who is al-Baghdadi?” many asked. “’What gives him the right?” others questioned.
Rather, what seems to be happening is not a push for popular power, but a push to establish themselves as ‘the’ terrorist group. Move over Al Qaeda, you’re old news because The Islamic State is in town and we have a caliph. Do you have a caliph? Checkmate.
Ironically enough, it is this pomposity that could create exactly the sort of infighting the west is hoping for at the moment. If multiple terrorist groups are all vying for power at the same time, certainly some of them must lose. It was a gamble, taken by The Islamic State, and while they still hold plenty of land, it might be the harbinger of their ultimate downfall.
This blow is further compounded by the media war they have been waging. Taking to Twitter and other forms of social media, The Islamic State has been sending out messages, in hopes to unite the Sunni world. These tweets include selfies, photos of meals, photos of battles and even pictures of kittens.
Many have declared The Islamic State as having the best PR in the world. However, that said, their constant photos have led to both intelligence leaks and decreased security. In most war zones, soldiers are asked to limit their social media as a matter of national security. The Islamic State’s failure to do so has led to intelligence not only pinpointing their positions, but uncovering photos of their top leaders.
As quickly as ISIL/The Islamic State came into the national consciousness, it might also fade from the international stage. Although formidable on the battlefield, the lack of innate understanding on how to win the Muslim world over will likely be their demise. For instance, in a recent press release, in which The Islamic State announced that after they conquer Saudi Arabia, they want to destroy the Ka’aba in Mecca. The Ka’aba, for reference, is the most sacred place, in the holiest mosque, in the entire Muslim world. So, good luck with making that work for you.
Meanwhile al Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq, has been playing his cards right, rallying Shia offensives, international support and even proposing amnesty and forgiveness to any Sunni tribes that are currently fighting the government.
The reality is, while excellent media fodder, and thoroughly despicable, The Islamic State might be dead on arrival, making it a relatively minor blip, in the story of modern day Iraq.