The New Caliphate: Governance and the Islamic State

Saad Omar Khan

The Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS and ISIL, has been making headlines worldwide over the past few months. The threat to stability in the Middle East invoked by IS has prompted an international response—including a Canadian commitment to send military advisors to Iraq—designed to stem the spread of the group further from its area of control. Yet it seems doubtful that the Islamic State’s regional and international conflicts will be short-lived, none the least because it has gained support from locals and global jihadists willing to fight for this new and expanding “state.”

Originating in the Iraqi insurgency, IS expanded into Syria as that country’s civil war intensified, taking control of the Iraqi-Syrian border in June 2014. The group subsequently declared itself a “caliphate,” with leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi adopting the title of “caliph.” The term—from khalifah, meaning “successor” or “representative”—historically implied a direct link between the Prophet Muhammad and the first rulers of the new Islamic empire after his death in 632. The caliph was intended to be a temporal and spiritual leader, given the responsibility of leading the Muslim community in worldly as well as religious matters. The position could be considered roughly analogous to that of a Governor General: the latter acts as representative for an earthly monarch, while the former acts as God’s representative on Earth.

For al-Baghdadi to declare himself a “caliph” is no small thing. The last widely recognized caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, dissolved in 1924 when Kemal Ataturk transformed Turkey into a secular nation-state. IS’ renewal of the caliphate implies a confidence on the part of the group to declare itself the only legitimate state for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

According to IS’ own propaganda, all Muslims, as members of the same ummah (“nation”), are required to “pledge allegiance” to this new caliph: one leader for one unitary, indivisible state. Claiming a traditional education in the Islamic religious sciences and a lineage stretching to the Quraysh tribe (the same tribe as the Prophet Muhammad), IS has tried to justify al-Baghdadi’s legitimacy as leader of both his own group and of the broader Muslim community.

The notion that IS models its governance ideals on political paradigms developed almost 1400 years ago would not be disputed by its leadership. The group’s transnational character reflects its disdain of political concepts like the modern nation-state. Its recent elimination of the Iraqi-Syria border was a decidedly vindictive act, eliminating a vestige of an Anglo-French boundary created to reflect European rather than Arab interests.

Limited research has shown an effort by IS to create a multifaceted administration, taking on judicial and security responsibilities as well as attempting to improve basic infrastructure. IS has also subsidized food for local consumption through its control of several industrial-sized bakeries. The group’s revenue comes from a variety of sources including farming, taxation, and a lucrative black-market oil trade. By taking on an administrative role and through its profit-making ventures, IS is trying to establish itself as a political entity capable of servicing the Iraqi-Syrian population under its control.

Despite its appropriation of the title of “caliphate,” IS bears little resemblance to its predecessors. Islam expanded rapidly following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and the first caliphs developed a system of governance that allowed its citizens to learn from other cultures. Caliphs led a burgeoning empire where its inhabitants created art, studied science, developed trade networks, and erected structures that stand to this day. IS has accomplished nothing so lofty. Documented reports of the persecution of Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims has added to a list of atrocities committed by IS, including kidnapping, sexual slavery, and the execution of prisoners of war.

Muslim theorist and scholar Ibn Khaldun once defined “government” as an institution that “prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself,” a definition intended to be cautionary rather than prescriptive. But rather than learning from the past, IS is feeding off the rump left behind by Syria’s devastating civil war and the Iraqi government’s marginalization of the Sunni-dominated western regions, fighting under a political vision limited by the violence it inflicts on the citizens of its ever-increasing empire.

Saad Omar Khan is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master degree in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. Saad has worked in the non-profit, financial, and academic sectors. His policy interests include international relations, human rights, immigration, and cultural policy.

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