The post-colonial caliphate: Islamic State and the memory of Sykes-Picot


James Renton, Edge Hill University

Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.

Our series has been examining the historic and cultural forces behind the rise of these jihadists. Today, historian James Renton looks at the fateful 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which was pointedly denounced by Islamic State in the first video it released.


Ever since Islamic State (IS) spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani announced the establishment of a caliphate on June 29, 2014, analysts have been busy trying to explain its aims and origins.

Much of the discussion has concentrated on the IS leadership’s theology – an apocalyptic philosophy that seeks a return to an imagined pristine Islam of the religion’s founders. But this focus has led to a neglect of the group’s self-declared political aims.

For all the importance of religion in the way IS functions and justifies itself, we can fully understand the caliphate only if we pay close attention to the public explanations – the modernist manifestos – of those at the helm of its overall political purpose.

Viewed from this perspective, the caliphate appears primarily as an attempt to free the ummah – the global Muslim community – from the legacies of European colonialism.

The leaders of IS do not see their caliphate as an exercise in theocracy for its own sake, but as an attempt at post-colonial emancipation.

Looking right back

Certainly, the very name adopted by the declared leader of the caliphate suggests an acute preoccupation with a specifically religious mission that harks back to the early years of Islam.

Originally known as Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarra’i (or variations thereof), he took on, long before the summer of 2014, the pseudonym Abu Bakr, the name of the first caliph (the successor to Muhammad as the religious and political leader of the ummah).

Briton Sir Mark Sykes agreed on terms with his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, for dividing up the region after WWI.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ruling in the years 632-4, Abu Bakr put an end to dissent against the new Islamic system in its Arabian heartlands. He established the caliphate as an expansionist Muslim empire with military campaigns in, the sources suggest, present-day Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Israel-Palestine.

As a declaration of intent, this choice of name by IS’s leader – whose full moniker became, alongside the title Caliph Ibrahim, Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi – seems to encapsulate much of what we need to know about the new caliphate’s ambitions.

Al-Adnani’s founding proclamation made a point of celebrating the military victories of the first decades of Islam and how the ummah then “filled the earth with justice … and ruled the world for centuries”. This success, he argued, was the result of nothing more than faith in Allah and the ummah’s adherence to the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad.

But the conquest of land and the establishment of a Muslim empire – or state, as those behind the new caliphate prefer to call it – is a means to a very specific end. It is not an end in itself.

Anglo-French infamy

According to al-Adnani, the caliphate is needed to take the ummah out of a condition of disgrace, humiliation and rule under the “vilest of all people”. Al-Baghdadi, speaking two days after he was pronounced caliph, was much more specific.

The fall of the last caliphate – and, with it, the loss of a state – led to the humiliation and disempowerment of Muslims around the globe, he said. And this condition of statelessness allowed “the disbelievers” to occupy Muslim lands, install their agents as authoritarian rulers and spread false Western doctrines.

Al-Baghdadi’s vague narrative refers to the story of the dissolution after the first world war of the Ottoman Empire, which had governed much of Western Asia for four centuries.

IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Mosul.
Reuters

In its stead, the British and French empires took over significant parts of the region and remained for decades. When their rule came to an end, these colonial states did their best to leave behind successor regimes that would serve British and French interests and those of the wider West.

For IS leaders, these colonial machinations have left the ummah floundering ever since because they took away the essence of power in the contemporary world: sovereignty – territorially based political independence.

The caliphate is urgently needed, al-Baghdadi argues, to rectify this harmful absence. A similar argument for a caliphate, though made with a very different type of state in mind, was articulated by the UK-based scholar S. Sayyid in 2014.

The most explicit evidence of this political objective’s primacy is to be found in the new caliphate’s propaganda, which has been such an important part of the IS project.

To coincide with the announcement of the caliphate, IS released a video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot”. Signed in May 1916, the Sykes-Picot agreement was a secret Anglo-French plan for dividing the Asian Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence and zones of direct rule for the two European empires.

The Bolsheviks discovered the agreement in the Russian state archives soon after they took power in November 1917 and revealed its contents to the world.

The Sykes-Picot agreement

The French negotiator of the Sykes-Picot agreement, François Georges-Picot.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Sykes-Picot agreement did not set out the borders of the states that replaced the Ottoman Empire, as the video suggests. But this error is beside the point if we want to understand the significance of the agreement for IS, and what it tells us about its caliphate.

In the Middle East, Sykes-Picot became shorthand for a whole narrative of Western betrayal and conspiracy in the region. But it also came to stand for the specific European colonial process of robbing the peoples of the region of their sovereignty.

And it is IS’s declared goal to undo this process. This is why “The End of Sykes-Picot”, above any other possible subject matter for an inaugural film, had to accompany the declaration of the caliphate.

For al-Baghdadi, sovereignty and Islam cannot be separated; thus the need for an Islamic state. He cannot use the term empire, even though it more accurately describes the global expansionist aims of his caliphate.

This is not just a question of semantics; it goes to the heart of the purpose of IS. The caliphate is needed, its leadership contends, to end the consequences of European empire, of colonialism. It is an effort to finally break away from the colonial condition; an attempt at a new post-colonial ummah.

Liberty from colonialism and sovereignty go hand in hand. The post-1918 world order embodied in the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, places the idea of sovereignty at the centre of how we understand power today. Within this system, the absence of a state is the absence of power.

The military defeat of IS and its loss of territory would, of course, make sovereignty, and thus the caliphate, impossible. But this defeat will not solve the problem of the sense of powerlessness that fuelled the 2014 caliphate in the first place; it will only compound it.

The real long-term challenge that faces opponents of IS, therefore, is not the overthrow of the caliphate – as difficult as that might be – or even to defeat “extremism”. It is, rather, to overcome the narrative at the centre of IS’s call to arms: Muslim alienation from the world system.


This is the seventh article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.


James will be online for an Author Q&A between 9am and 10am AEDT on Wednesday, February 24, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

James Renton, Reader in History, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Did the Crusades lead to Islamic State?


Carole Cusack, University of Sydney

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, professor of religious studies Carole Cusack considers the Crusades: can we really understand anything about Islamic State by looking at its rise as the latest incarnation of a centuries-old struggle between Islam and Christianity?


In 1996, late US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Following the collapse of communism in 1989, he argued, conflicts would increasingly involve religion.

Islam, which Huntington claimed had been the opponent of Christianity since the seventh century, would increasingly feature in geopolitical conflict.

So, it wasn’t particularly shocking when, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the then-US president, George W. Bush, used the term “crusade” to describe the American military response.

Framing the subsequent “war on terror” as a crusade acted as a red flag to journalists and political commentators, who could treat the events as simply the most recent stoush in a centuries-old conflict.

The actual Crusades (1096-1487) themselves evoke a romantic image of medieval knights, chivalry, romance and religious high-mindedness. But representing them as wars between Christians and Muslims is a gross oversimplification and a misreading of history.

Early Islamic conquests

That there were wars between Muslims and Christians is certainly true. After the death of Abu Bakr (573-634), the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and first caliph, the second Caliph Umar (583-644) sent the Islamic armies in three divisions to conquer and spread the religion of Islam.

Whole regions that were Christian fell to Islam. The Holy Land, which comprised modern-day Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, for instance, was defeated. And Egypt was conquered without even a battle in 640.

The ancient and vast Persian Empire, officially Zoroastrian in religion, had been conquered by 642. Weakened by war with the Christian Byzantine Empire, Persia was no match for the Muslim forces.

Muslim armies marched across north Africa and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into modern Spain, eventually securing a large territory in the Iberian Peninsula, which was known as Al-Andalus (also known as Muslim Spain or Islamic Iberia).

They also marched across the Pyrenees and into France in 732, the centenary of Muhammad’s death. But they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Poitiers (also known as Battle of Tours and, by Arab sources, as Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs) by the Frankish general, Charles Martel (686-741), grandfather of the great Emperor Charlemagne.

This was seen as a Christian victory and, after Poitiers, there were no further attacks on Western Europe. The Crusades came much later.

The causes of the Crusades

The proximate causes of the First Crusade (1096-1099) include the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1056-1118), who was crowned in 1081 and ruled until his death. His armies met the Muslim Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and were defeated.

This placed the city of Constantinople at risk of conquest. So, the emperor requested that the West send knights to assist him – and he was prepared to pay.

Pope Urban II (1044-1099) preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095. He argued that the Turks and Arabs attacked Christian territories and had “killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire”.

He also promised his audience:

All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.

This was recorded by a monk called Fulcher of Chartres, who wrote a chronicle of the First Crusade.

The four leaders of the First Crusade.
Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands answered the pope’s call and the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099. But the Crusaders’ presence in the Middle East was short-lived and the port city of Ruad, the last Christian possession, was lost in 1302/3.

Many later conflicts that were called Crusades were not actions against Muslim armies at all. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), for instance, was a Venetian Catholic army, which besieged Constantinople. Catholic Christians attacked Orthodox Christians, then looted the city, taking its treasures back to Venice.

Islam was not a factor in the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, either. In that instance, Pope Innocent III (1160/1-1216) used the language of war against the infidel (literally “unfaithful”, meaning those without true religion) against heretics in the south of France. So, “right-thinking” Christians killed “deviant” Christians.

The end of the Middle Ages

It wasn’t all intermittent fighting. There were also periods of peace and productive relationships between Christian and Muslim rulers in the Middle Ages.

For instance, Charlemagne (742-814) (also know as Charles the Great or Charles I), who united most of Western Europe during the early part of the Middle Ages, sent gifts to Harun al-Rashid (763-809), the Caliph of Baghdad. In return, he received diplomatic presents such as a chess set, an elaborate clepsydra (water clock) and an elephant.

In Spain, the culture from the early eighth century to the late 15th was known as “la Convicencia” (the co-existence), as Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace (though the level of harmony has been exaggerated). And there was an exchange of ideas in fields including mathematics, medicine and philosophy.

The Christian kingdoms of the north gradually reconquered Al-Andalus. And, in 1492, King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) reclaimed Granada and expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain, or forced them to convert to Christianity.

A clumsy view

Clearly, to speak of an “us versus them” mentality, or to frame current geopolitical conflicts as “crusades” of Christians against Muslims, or vice versa, is to misunderstand – and misuse – history.

Not all blood and guts: the Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid receives a delegation from Charlemagne.
Julius Köckert via Wikimedia Commons

Modern Westerners would find medieval Crusader knights as unappealing as they do Islamic State.

And it’s impossible to miss the fact that the immediate entry into heaven Pope Urban promised to Christian soldiers who died in battle against the infidel Muslims is conceptually identical to the martyrdom ideology of contemporary jihadists.

Reality is more complex – and more interesting – than the simple continuation of a historical struggle against the same enemy. Muslims conquered Christian territories, yes, but Christians engaged in reconquest.

There were forced conversions to both Islam and Christianity, and – very importantly – actual governments and monarchs were involved. It’s a simplistic thing to say that “Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state”, but there’s an element of truth in it.

The most important reason we should resist the lure of the crusade tag to any fight against jihadists is that groups like Islamic State want the West to think like that.

It justified the Paris bomb attacks of November 2015 as attacks against “the Crusader nation of France”. Osama bin Laden used the same reasoning after the September 11 attacks.

By adopting the role of Crusaders, Western nations play into Islamic State’s hands. It’s how these jihadists want the West to understand itself – as implacably opposed to Islam. But it’s not, and it never has been.


This is the sixth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

The Conversation

Carole Cusack, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Islamic State and the Assassins: reviving fanciful tales of the medieval Orient


Farhad Daftary, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, historian Farhad Daftary debunks the idea that Islamic State is based on the so-called Assassins or hashishin, the fighting corps of the fledgling medieval Nizari Ismaili state.


Many Western commentators have tried to trace the ideological roots of Islamic State (IS) to earlier Islamic movements. Occasionally, they’ve associated them with the medieval Ismailis, a Shiʿite Muslim community made famous in Europe by returning Crusaders as the Assassins.

But any serious inquiry shows the teachings and practices of medieval Ismailis, who had a state of their own in parts of Iran from 1090 to 1256, had nothing in common with the senseless terrorist ideology and ruthless destruction of IS and its supporters.

Attacks on civilians, including women and children, and engaging in the mass destruction of property are forbidden both by Prophet Muhammad and in the tenets of Islamic law. Needless to say, the Ismailis never descended to such terrorist activities, even under highly adversarial circumstances.

Significant discordance exists between the medieval Ismailis and contemporary terrorists, who – quite inappropriately – identify themselves as members of an Islamic polity.

Fanciful Oriental tales

The Ismailis, or more specifically the Nizari Ismailis, founded a precarious state in 1090 under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah. As a minority Shi’ite Muslim community, they faced hostility from the Sunni-Abbasid establishment (the third caliphate after the death of the Prophet Muhammed) and their political overlords, the Seljuq Turks, from very early on.

Struggling to survive in their network of defensive mountain fortresses remained the primary objective of the Ismaili leadership, centred on the castle of Alamut (in the north of modern-day Iran). Their state survived against all odds until it was destroyed by the all-conquering Mongols in 1256.

During the course of the 12th century, the Ismailis were incessantly attacked by the armies of the Sunni Seljuq sultans, who were intensely anti-Shiʿite. As they couldn’t match their enemies’ superior military power, the Ismailis resorted to the warfare tactic of selectively removing Seljuq military commanders and other prominent adversaries who posed serious existential threats to them in particular localities.

An agent (fida’i) of the Ismailis (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

These daring missions were carried out by the Ismaili fidaʾis, who were deeply devoted to their community. The fidaʾis comprised the fighting corps of the Ismaili state.

But the Ismailis didn’t invent the policy of assassinating enemies. It was a practice employed by many Muslim groups at the time, as well as by the Crusaders and many others throughout history.

Unfortunately, almost all assassinations of any significance occurring in the central lands of Islam became automatically attributed to the Ismaili fidaʾis. And a series of fanciful tales were fabricated around their recruitment and training.

These tales, rooted in the “imaginative ignorance” of the Crusaders, were concocted and put into circulation by them and their occidental observers; they’re not found in contemporary Muslim sources.

The so-called Assassin legends, which culminated in Marco Polo’s synthesis, were meant to provide satisfactory explanations for the fearless behaviour of the fidaʾis, which seemed otherwise irrational to medieval Europeans.

The very term Assassin, which appears in medieval European literature in a variety of forms, such as Assassini, was based on variants of the Arabic word hashish (plural, hashishin) and applied to the Nizari Ismailis of Syria and Iran by other Muslims.

In all the Muslim sources where the Ismailis are referred to as hashishis, the term is used in its pejorative sense of “people of lax morality”. There’s no suggestion that they were actually using hashish. There’s no evidence that hashish, or any other drug, was administered to the fida’is, as alleged by Marco Polo.

The literal interpretation of the term for the Ismailis as an “order of crazed hashish-using Assassins” is rooted entirely in the fantasies of medieval Europeans.

Modern scholarship in Ismaili studies, based on the recovery and study of numerous Ismaili textual sources, has now begun to dispel many misconceptions regarding the Ismailis, including the myths surrounding their cadre of fidaʾis.

And the medieval Assassin legends, arising from the hostility of the Sunni Muslims to the Shiʿite Ismailis as well as the medieval Europeans’ fanciful impressions of the Orient, have been recounted and deconstructed.

A culture of learning and tolerance

Living in adverse circumstances, the Ismailis of Iran and Syria were heirs to the Fatimid dynasty that founded the city of Cairo and established al-Azhar, perhaps the earliest university of the world. Although preoccupied with survival, the Ismailis of the Alamut period maintained a sophisticated outlook and a literary tradition, elaborating their teachings within a Shiʿite theological framework.

An entirely fictional illustration from The Travels of Marco Polo showing the Nizari imam Alâ al Dîn Muhammad (1221-1255) drugging his disciples.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Their leader, Hasan-i Sabbah, was a learned theologian. And the Ismaili fortresses of the period, displaying magnificent military architecture and irrigation skills, were equipped with libraries holding significant collections of manuscripts, documents and scientific instruments.

The Ismailis also extended their patronage of learning to outside scholars, including Sunnis, and even non-Muslims. They were very tolerant towards other religious communities.

In the last decades of their state, in the 13th century, even waves of Sunni Muslims found refuge in the Ismaili fortress communities of eastern Iran. These refugees were running from the Mongol hordes who were then establishing their hegemony over Central Asia.

All this stands in sharp contrast to the destructive policies of IS, which persecutes religious and ethnic minorities and enslaves women.

The medieval Ismailis embodied qualities of piety, learning and community life in line with established Islamic teachings. These traditions continue in the modern-day Ismaili ethos. And the present-day global Ismaili community represents one of the most progressive and enlightened communities of the Muslim world.

The Ismailis have never had anything in common with the terrorists of IS, who murder innocent civilians at random and en masse, and destroy monuments of humankind’s shared cultural heritage.

Global terrorism in any form under the banner of Islam is a new phenomenon without historical antecedents in either classical Islamic or any other tradition. IS’s ideology reflects a crude version of the intolerant Wahhabi theology expounded by the Sunni religious establishment of Saudi Arabia, which is itself a narrow perspective that fails to recognise any pluralism or diversity of interpretations in Islam.


This is the fifth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

The Conversation

Farhad Daftary, Co-Director & Head of the Department of Academic Research and Publications, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why is Islam so different in different countries?


Aaron W. Hughes, University of Rochester

The rise of Islamic State has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of the jihadist group?

In the fourth article of our series on the historical roots of Islamic State, Aaron Hughes explains the amazing regional variation in Islamic practice to illustrate why Islamic State appeared where it did.


No religion is unified. How Catholicism, for example, is practised in rural Italy differs from the way this is done, say, in New York city. Language, culture, tradition, the political and social contexts, and even food is different in these two places.

Such geographic differences are certainly important in Islam. But also important are the numerous legal schools and their interpretations. Since Islam is a religion predicated on law (sharia), variations in the interpretation of that law have contributed to regional differences.

Also significant in the modern world is the existence of other religions. Malaysia, for example, has a relatively large percentage of religious minorities (up to 40% of the population). Saudi Arabia has virtually none.

This means Malaysia has had to develop a constitution that protects the rights of religious minorities, whereas Saudi Arabia has not. And it’s why Islam is so different in these two countries.

Schools of thought

There are historical reasons for this variation. Despite popular opinion, Islam didn’t appear fully formed at the time of Muhammad (570-632). There were huge debates over the nature of religious and political authority, for instance, and who was or was not a Muslim.

It’s similarly misguided to assume that a unified teaching simply spread throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond.

How Muhammad’s message developed into the religion of Islam — complete with legal and doctrinal content — took centuries to develop and cannot concern us here.

What is important to note, however, is that his message spread into various (unbordered) regions. Modern nation states would only arise much later. And each of these areas was already in possession of its own set of religious, legal and cultural traditions.

The result was that Islam had to be articulated in the light of local customs and understandings. This was done, in part, through the creation of legal courts, a class of jurists (ulema; mullas in Shi`ism), a legal code (sharia) and a system of interpretation of that code based on rulings (fatwas).

Many local customs arose based on trying to understand Muhammad’s message. And these customs and understandings gave rise to distinct legal schools.

Although there were originally many such schools, they gradually reduced to four in Sunni Islam – Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i and Hanbali. While these four schools all regard one another as orthodox, they nevertheless have distinct interpretations of Islamic law. Some of their interpretations are more conservative than others.

There are also a number of such schools in Shi`i Islam, as you can see from the image above.

The four Sunni schools are associated with distinct regions (as are the Shi`i schools). The Maliki school, for example, is prominent today in Egypt and North Africa. The Hanafi is in western Asia, the Shafi`i in Southeast Asia and the Hanbali (the most conservative) is found primarily in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.

Fundamental differences

All this legal and local variation has produced different interpretations of the religion. But despite such regional and legal diversity, many Muslims and non-Muslims insist on referring to Islam and sharia as if they were stable entities.

An example might be illustrative of the extent of the differences within Islam. Many non-Muslims are often surprised to learn of the cult of saints, namely the role Sufi saints (Sufism is Islamic mysticism) have played and continue to play in the daily life of Muslims.

A Sufi saint is someone who is considered holy and who has achieved nearness to God. Praying to these saints and making pilgrimages to their shrines is a way to, among other things, ask for intercession.

Although these practices are not unlike the role and place of saints in Catholicism, in Islam they are much more localised. And this locally varied cult of saints played and continues to play an important role in Islamic religious life from Morocco in the West to Pakistan in the East.

Devotion to the saints is believed to cure the sick, make fertile the barren, bring rain, and so on. Needless to say, such devotion is often frowned upon by more fundamentalist interpretations.

While most legal schools are content – albeit somewhat bothered – by such practices, the conservative Hanbali school forbids cults like this. Its adherents have, among other things, destroyed tombs of saints in both the premodern and modern eras. They have also been responsible for the destruction of shrines associated with Muhammad’s family, such as the shrines and tombs of Muhammad’s wife.

The Hanbali school, backed by the wealth of the Saudi ruling family, has also tried to make inroads into other areas. Those associated with this legal school, for example, have built madrasas (religious seminaries) in regions traditionally influenced by other legal schools of thought.

Most fundamentalist movements in Islam, including Islamic State, have emanated from such ultra-conservative elements. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, are influenced by the more conservative elements of Hanbali ideology, even though they exist in a predominantly Hanafi legal environment.

The goal of many of these groups, sometimes referred to as Wahhabis or Salafis, is to return to what they imagine to be the pure or pristine version of Islam as practised by Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often have strict interpretations of Islam, strict dress codes and separation of the sexes.

Today, there are more than one and a half billion Muslims worldwide, making Islam the second-largest religion on the planet after Christianity. But it is a rich and variegated religion. And this variation must be taken into account when dealing with it.

Most importantly, the variation cannot be papered over with simplistic slogans or stereotypes. That women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia but are in places like Malaysia tells you something about this variation.


This article is the fourth in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

The Conversation

Aaron W. Hughes, Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Rochester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Folly of treating all refugees as would-be terrorists solves neither problem


Michael Humphrey, University of Sydney

A “draft” cabinet document recently leaked to the media suggests the idea that refugees are a potential source of terrorism and radicalisation will soon shape Australia’s humanitarian resettlement policy.

If implemented, refugees – not just boat arrivals – would be seen as a security issue. By offering only temporary residence and making Australia a less attractive destination, it makes deterrence the aim of the entire refugee program.

What’s being proposed?

Viewing all refugees through the security prism, and further restricting their rights, is a tactic to try to manage the much larger global refugee crisis. The number of refugees and internally displaced people exceeds 60 million. This is the highest since the end of the second world war.

Since the 1990s, various deterrence strategies have eroded the rights of those seeking protection onshore in Australia after having arrived by boat. These have included temporary protection visas, mandatory detention, the excision of the migration zone, the Pacific Solution and regional processing and resettlement.

If the leaked policy document is accurate, now all refugees are to be put into the category of – at best – temporary residents.

The justification for this punitive policy is the perceived connection between refugees and terrorism. The document links the outcome of earlier humanitarian policies and asylum decisions to terrorism and extremism. It points out that individuals who arrived on humanitarian-linked or refugee visas – Man Haron Monis, Farhad Jabar and Abdul Haider – have committed recent terrorist acts.

The document also identifies previous humanitarian programs as having contributed to radicalisation and the increased risk of terrorism. It says the special humanitarian program for Lebanese refugees during the civil war in the late 1970s is evidence refugees can import “extremism”, and “unsuccessful integration” can make young Muslims more receptive to extremist beliefs.

It puts forward the Lebanese Sunni Muslim experience as a warning. It argues they are today the:

… most prominent ethnic group amongst Australian Sunni extremists.

But the ethnic stigmatisation of Lebanese Sunni Muslims highlights shortcomings with the contemporary understanding of radicalisation and terrorism. It equates ethnicity with “extremism” and the potential for radicalisation with social environment.

The equation of Lebanese Sunni migrants with extremism is historically and politically inaccurate. The Lebanese civil war was primarily a sectarian struggle over power-sharing.

The terror threat, and Australia’s place in the world

Seeing Muslims in Australia through the security lens has led to the intensification of surveillance to intercept and prevent terrorist plots. Since September 11, seeing Muslim diasporas in the West this way has only reinforced the formation of transnational Muslim identities.

In other words, “Muslim” is now a transnational category targeted to manage transnational risk, not only in Australia but also Europe and North America. Muslim culture and practices are no longer merely about difference because difference has become a political marker to question national loyalty.

New laws stripping dual citizens involved in terrorism of their Australian citizenship are an expression of the ultimate sanction against disloyalty. But this might play right into the hands of Islamic State recruiters, who point to the West’s targeting of Muslims as a threat as evidence of the historical victimisation of Muslims.

The further restrictions on rights to asylum set out in this document are not primarily about terrorism or Muslims, but about the global refugee crisis. The reality of globalisation is we are deeply connected with different parts of the world. What happens there reverberates here. Terrorism is one dimension of that interconnection and appears to be here to stay.

We are facing this global refugee crisis because of our profound failure of political vision in the Middle East. The present wave of international terrorism is a symptom of the impact of a regional political conflict played out in Syria and Iraq. Australia cannot solve the global refugee crisis by deeming refugees as part of the overall terror threat to deter them from coming.

Refugee policy and counter-terrorism strategy should not be collapsed into the same space.

The Conversation

Michael Humphrey, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

If Islamic State is based on religion, why is it so violent?


Aaron W. Hughes, University of Rochester

Islamic State’s seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for its emergence?

Today, religious studies scholar Aaron Hughes considers whether this jihadist group’s violence is inherent to Islam.


Despite what we’re told, religion isn’t inherently peaceful. The assumption is largely based on the Protestant idea that religion is something spiritual and internal to the individual and that it’s corrupted by politics and other mundane matters.

But people kill in the name of religion, just as they love in its name. To claim that one of these alternatives is more authentic than the other is not only problematic, it’s historically incorrect.

The Crusades, attacks at abortion clinics, some political assassinations, and price-tag attacks – to name only a few examples – were and are all motivated by religion.

This is because religion is based on the metaphysical notion that there are believers (in one’s own religion) and non-believers. This distinction is predicated on “good” versus “evil”, and can be neatly packaged into a narrative to be used and abused by various groups.

An imagined past

One such group is Islamic State (IS), which is inherently violent and claims it mirrors the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. In this, it’s like other reformist movements in Islam that seek to recreate in the modern period what they imagine to have been the political framework and society that Muhammad (570-632 CE) and his immediate followers lived in and created in seventh-century Arabia.

The problem is that we know very little about this society, except what, often, much later sources – such as the Biography (Sira) of Muhammad and the work of historians such as al-Tabari (839-923 CE) – tell us it was like.

A central ideal for IS is that of restoring the caliphate. A geopolitical entity, the caliphate was the Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco and Spain in the West, to India in the East. It symbolises Islam at its most powerful.

When it was spreading across the Middle East and the Mediterranean region in the seventh century, Islam was highly apocalyptic. Many early sources, such as the second caliph Umar’s letter to the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, as well as contemporaneous non-Muslim sources, such as the mid-eighth-century Jewish apocalypse The Secrets of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and the seventh-century polemic Doctrina Jacobi, speak about the coming destruction of the world as we know it.

The destruction is to begin with a battle between the forces of good (Muslim) versus those of evil. And IS has adopted this apocalyptic vision.

Again, though, it’s worth noting two things. The first is that the majority of Muslims today don’t buy into this apocalyptic vision; it’s mainly something recycled by groups such as Islamic State.

Second, such an “end of days” vision is by no means unique to Islam; we also see it in Judaism and Christianity. In these other two traditions, as in Islam, such groups certainly do not represent orthodox belief.

Medieval tolerance

But apocalypse aside, was Islam particularly violent in the seventh century? One could certainly point to three of the first four of Muhammad’s successors (caliphs) having been assassinated.

One could also point to the tremendous theological debates over who was or was not a Muslim. And such debates included the status of the soul of grave sinners. Was such a sinner a Muslim or did his sin put him outside the community of believers?

What would become mainstream Muslim opinion is that it was up to God to decide and not humans. But groups such as Islamic State want to make this distinction for God. In this, they certainly stray from orthodox Muslim belief.

While this doesn’t make them “un-Islamic”, to say groups such as IS represent medieval interpretations of Islam is not fair to medieval Islam.

Manuscript with depiction by Yahya ibn Vaseti found in the Maqama of Hariri depicts the image of a library with pupils in it, Baghdad 1237.
Wikimedia Commons

The eighth century, for example, witnessed the establishment, in Baghdad, of the Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), which symbolised the so-called golden age of Islamic civilisation. This period witnessed, among other things, Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars studying the philosophical and scientific texts of Greek antiquity.

These scholars also made many advances in disciplines, such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, to name only a few. Within a century of its founding, Islam represented a cosmopolitan empire that was nothing like the rigid and dogmatic interpretation of the religion seen in the likes of IS.

A powerful tool

Observers in the West who want to claim that Islam is to blame for IS and use it as further proof that the religion is inherently violent, ignore other root causes of the moment.

These include the history of European colonialism in the area; US and European support for a number of ruthless Middle Eastern dictators; and the instability created by the American invasion of Iraq after the events of September 11, 2001.

It’s juxtaposed against these recent events that groups such as IS dream of reconstituting what they romantically imagine as the powerful Islamic caliphate.

The fact is that religion’s ability to neatly differentiate between “believer” and unbeliever”, and between “right” and “wrong”, makes it a powerful ideology. In the hands of demagogues, religious discourses – used selectively and manipulated to achieve a set of desired ends – are very powerful.

While it would be incorrect to say that the discourses used by IS are un-Islamic, it’s important to note it represents one particular Islamic discourse and that it’s not the mainstream one.


This article is the third in our series on understanding Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.


Aaron will be online for an Author Q&A between 9 and 10am AEDT on Thursday, February 18, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Aaron W. Hughes, Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Rochester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Islamic State lays claim to Muslim theological tradition and turns it on its head


Harith Bin Ramli, SOAS, University of London

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, historian of Islamic thought Harith Bin Ramli explains how Islamic State fits – or doesn’t – in Muslim theological tradition, and incidentally addresses a question often levelled at adherents of the religion living in the West.


For Muslims around the world, it’s become an almost daily heartbreaking experience to see Islam associated with all the shades of cruelty and inhumanity of so-called Islamic State (IS). It’s tempting to dismiss the group as lying beyond the boundaries of Islam. But this way of thinking leads down the same route IS has taken.

Let me explain.

Ever since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, there hasn’t been a single central authority that all Muslims have unanimously agreed on. The first generation of Muslims didn’t just disagree, they battled over the succession to leadership of the community.

The result of this division was the formation of the main Sunni and Shi’i theological traditions we see to this day. But the blood spilt over the issue also resulted in a general sense of concern about the consequences of political and theological differences.

A consensus quickly emerged over the need to respect differences of opinion. And it was considered important to “disassociate” oneself from anyone who had differing views on these key issues. But as long as the person in question affirmed the basic tenets of Islam, such as the unity of God and the prophecy of Muhammad, he or she was still considered a Muslim.

Similar detractors

The one dissenting theological view on this matter was held by a group known as the Kharijites. It adopted the view that dissenting or corrupt Muslim leaders, by their actions, had become “apostates” from Islam altogether.

Sub-factions of this group increasingly extended their definition of apostasy to include any Muslim who didn’t agree with them. They declared these Muslims infidels who could be killed or enslaved.

The brutality of these extreme Kharijites never attracted more than a minority of Muslims, and other Kharijites adopted a more peaceful position more in line with the emerging consensus.

Widespread horror at the early divisions of the Muslim community and the terrors unleashed by Khariji extremism ensured that Islam generally embraced a pluralistic approach to differences of opinion. This emerged hand in hand with a culture of scholarship, based on the idea that the endeavour to seek the “true” meaning of scripture is an ongoing and fallible human effort.

Beyond a number of issues over which there was unquestionable consensus, different interpretations could be tolerated.

What makes IS different to traditional Islam isn’t necessarily the religious texts the group uses. To justify their practice of slavery or war against non-Muslims, they appeal to parts of the Qur’an or prophetic traditions, or legal works that are fairly mainstream and representative of the medieval Islamic tradition.

But these texts – scripture or otherwise – have always been read through the mediation of past and continuous efforts of interpretation by communities of scholars. As theology scholar Sohaira Siddiqui of Georgetown University points out, groups like IS deviate from mainstream Islam by their rejection of this culture of scholarly interpretation and religious pluralism, that is, the means by which the texts were interpreted.

This approach has roots in the group’s main theological inspiration, the Wahhabi movement. Founded on a radical interpretation of the 14th-century theologian Ibn Taymiyya, it dismissed any Muslim who didn’t subscribe to its strict interpretation of monotheism as an “apostate”.

It can also be traced back to radical political theorists of the 20th century, such as Sayyid Qutb, who rejected the modern state and attendant ideologies, including nationalism and democracy, as “idolatrous” and not based on the rule of God.

By declaring the revival of the Caliphate, IS claims to have created an alternative to the prevailing political order.

Harms of hastiness

Adopting a simple “with us or against us” approach lets IS justify denouncing Muslim rulers as “tyrants” and the religious figures who support them as “palace scholars”. In general, Muslims who don’t “repent” and support their beliefs are at risk of being denounced as “apostates” who can be killed.

Effectively, the group has revived the age-old Kharijite tendency in the form of a deadly modern political ideology.

IS is right about one thing: the solution to the widespread problems of the Muslim world cannot lie in the reaffirmation of status quo politics and the hypocritical employment of religion to prop up corrupt and oppressive regimes.

By declaring the revival of the Caliphate, IS claims to have created an alternative to the prevailing political order.
REUTERS/Umit Bektas

But its dismissal of the culture of scholarly pluralism and religious tolerance seems like an easy way to select interpretations of the scripture and religious tradition to suit its political aims, not the other way round.

Leading Muslim religious authorities, such as the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, have refrained from denouncing IS as “apostates”, even though they have called for the use of full military force against them. Their hesitance may be due to an awareness that such a move would simply drag the Muslim community down to the level IS wants them to be on.

Instead of labelling IS un-Islamic, the global Muslim community would do better to reaffirm its commitment to its culture of pluralism. This approach may also open up a crucial conversation that must take place about the relationship between state and religion in contemporary Muslim societies.

Many Muslims might share the IS view that there are already many signs that the end of times is approaching. But the group departs from mainstream Muslim apocalyptic theology in two respects.

First, its literature seems to omit any mention of the awaited Mahdi (the Guided One) and the return of Jesus the son of Mary, who is prophesied to defeat the Great Pretender (Dajjal, or anti-Christ). And second, in contrast to the average Muslim believer who acknowledges only a limited ability to fully grasp the meaning of these prophecies, IS arrogates for itself a central role in the unfolding of such events.

In other words, instead of waiting for God to bring about the end of times, IS hopes to prompt it through its own actions. In this respect, it has something in common with extreme forms of Christian and Jewish religious Zionism.

If one were to give IS’s followers the benefit of the doubt, excluding those with mainly criminal motives, it seems that theirs is an ideology fuelled by a hasty desire for the implementation of the will of God. And an even hastier dismissal of the more careful and humble approach of other Muslims.

As the Qur’an states:

man was created hasty by nature” (21:37), and “all mankind is at loss, except for those who believe and advise one another concerning the Truth, and concerning patience”. (103:2-3)


This article is the second in our series on understanding Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.


Harith will be online for an Author Q&A between 9 and 10am AEDT on Wednesday, February 17, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Harith Bin Ramli, Research Fellow, Cambridge Muslim College & Teaching Fellow, SOAS, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Understanding Islamic State: where does it come from and what does it want?


James L Gelvin, University of California, Los Angeles

Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.

Its seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State?

In the article kicking off our series on the genesis of the group below, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History James Gelvin cautions against easy answers. It’s a logical fallacy, he adds, to think that just because one event followed another, it was also caused by it.

Far better to look at the interplay of historical and social forces, as well as recognising that outfits such as Islamic State often cherry-pick ideas to justify their ideas and behaviours.

Our series attempts, in a dispassionate way, to catalogue many of the forces and events that can arguably have played a part in creating the conditions necessary for these jihadists to emerge. We have tried to spread the net wide, but we make no claim to being comprehensive or having the final word on the origins of Islamic State.

Over the next two weeks, a selection of religious studies scholars and – modern and medieval – historians from around the world will bring their expertise to our discussion of what led to the most notorious jihadist group in recent history.


How far back in history does one have to go to find the roots of the so-called Islamic State (IS)?

To the oil shock of 1973-74, when Persian Gulf oil producers used the huge surplus of dollars flowing into their coffers to finance the spread of their severe interpretation of Islam?

To the end of the first world war, when the victorious entente powers sparked resentment throughout the Arab world by drawing artificial national borders we hear so much about today? How about 632 AD, the date of the death of the prophet Muhammad, when the early Islamic community split on who should succeed him as its leader — a breach that led to the Sunni-Shi’i divide that IS exploits for its own ends?

The possibilities seem endless and would make for an entertaining variation on the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon parlour game (which suggests any two people on earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart) were the subject not so macabre.

But to look at any and all historical phenomena through a simple string of causes and effects is to ignore the almost infinite number of possible effects that might follow from any one purported cause.

It also opens the door to one of the most pernicious logical fallacies historians might commit: post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). So rather than tracing the rise of IS to one or more events in the past, I suggest we take a different tack.

A long line

Muhammad Ahmad, one of a long line of self-professed redeemers of the Islamic faith.
Wikimedia Commons

IS is an instance of a phenomenon that recurs in most religions, and certainly in all monotheistic religions. Every so often militant strains emerge, flourish temporarily, then vanish. They are then replaced by another militant strain whose own beginning is linked to a predecessor by nothing more profound than drawing from the same cultural pool as its predecessor.

In the seventh century, there were the Kharijites (the first sect of Islam), a starkly puritanical group that assassinated two of the early caliphs. Like IS, the Kharajites thought they knew best what and who were truly Islamic, and what and who were not.

In the 18th century, there were the followers of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, a central Arabian preacher whose followers included Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi dynasty. Believing that the worship of saints and the construction of mausoleums were impious acts, ibn Saud’s army destroyed sites holy to both Sunnis and Shi‘is in Arabia and present-day Iraq, much as IS targets sites from antiquity today.

During the 19th century, Muhammad Ahmad, a member of a religious order in what is now Sudan, proclaimed himself mahdi (redeemer of the Islamic faith), just as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, inventor and leader of IS, recently proclaimed himself caliph (leader of the Islamic faith) — a more prosaic position. Ahmad’s army overran Khartoum, where it massacred a British-led garrison and beheaded its commander.

Between Muhammad Ahmad and al-Baghdadi there were many, many others.

While tempting, it would be a mistake to believe that each militant group “gave rise to” the next (although later militants have sometimes drawn from or been inspired by their predecessors). That would be the equivalent of saying that the ancient Zealots (a Jewish sect that fought the Romans) gave rise to militant Israeli settlers on the West Bank, or that medieval Crusaders gave rise to abortion-clinic bombers.

The right stuff

From time to time (it’s impossible to predict when), some figure emerges in each tradition who puts his own spin on that tradition. To be successful, that spin must capture the imagination of some of that tradition’s adherents, who then try to put it into practice.

A newspaper featuring former al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Ali Jasim/Reuters

Some spins, such as that of contemporary Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis, have sticking power. This is not because they are somehow “truer” than others, but because those who advocate for them are better able to mobilise resources – a core group of committed followers, for instance, military capabilities, or outside support – than others. Most do not.

Al-Baghdadi is one such figure (as was al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden). His spin melds together three ideas that come from the Islamic tradition.

The first is khilafa (caliphate). Al-Baghdadi believes that Islam requires a caliphate — governance that’s in accordance with Islamic law over territory that’s under the authority of a caliph (a righteous and knowledgeable descendant of the prophet).

When his forces took over Mosul in the summer of 2014, al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph and burnished his credentials for the job by changing his name to Caliph Ibrahim al-Quraishi al-Hashimi. The last two names signify he’s a member of the tribe of Muhammad and a descendant of the prophet.

The second idea al-Baghdadi brought into the mix is takfir – the act of pronouncing Muslims who disagree with IS’s strict interpretation of Islamic law to be apostates, which makes them punishable by death. This is the reason for IS’s murderous rampages against Shi‘is; rampages that even al-Qaeda central finds counter-productive, if not repugnant.

Resurrecting the concept of takfir was the idea of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq. His strategy was to use the concept to tighten communal ties among Iraq’s Sunnis by mobilising them against its Shi‘is, thus making post-American-invasion Iraq ungovernable.

Al-Baghdadi has gone one step further, finding the concept useful in his effort to purify the territory of the caliphate which, he believes, will soon stretch across the Islamic world.

Finally, there is hijra, the migration of Muslims from dar al-harb (the abode of war, that is, non-Muslim majority countries) to dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam). Just as Muhammad and his early companions migrated from Mecca to Medina, where they established the first permanent Islamic community.

Islamic State’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq.
Supplied/AAP

IS wants a great incoming of Muslims into the caliphate, both because it needs skilled administrators and fighters and because it considers emigration from “non-Muslim territory” to “Muslim territory” a religious obligation.

A dangerous distraction

According to some commentators, al-Baghdadi brought a fourth idea to the table: an apocalyptic vision. They base this on the name of IS’s glossy magazine, Dabiq (the site in northern Syria where, Islamic tradition has it, the Battle of Armageddon will take place), articles in the magazine and propaganda videos.

It’s not too much of a stretch to attribute an apocalyptic vision to IS — after all, just as every monotheism is prone to militant strains, all are prone to apocalyptic visions as well. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced that the concept represents a significant part of IS’s worldview.

Whatever the future may hold, IS, like some apocalyptic Christian groups, has proved itself so tactically and strategically adept that it has obviously kicked any “end of days” can well down the road (roughly the same distance al-Qaeda kicked the re-establishment of the caliphate can).

Further, much of the IS leadership consists of hard-headed former Iraqi Ba‘th military officers who, if they think about an apocalypse at all, probably treat it much as Hitler’s generals treated the purported musings of Nazi true believers – with a roll of their eyes.

Foregrounding IS’s apocalyptic worldview enables us to disparage the group as irrational and even medieval – a dangerous thing to do. If the recent past has demonstrated one thing, it’s that IS thrives when its adversaries underestimate it.


This is the first article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look for more pieces on the topic in the coming days.

The Conversation

James L Gelvin, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

North Korea: Persecution News Update


The links below are to articles reporting on persecution news from North Korea (the most recent are at the top).

For more visit:
http://www.christianpost.com/news/north-korea-imprisoned-canadian-pastor-hyeon-soo-lim-sign-petition-demanding-freedom-155834/
http://townhall.com/tipsheet/leahbarkoukis/2016/01/20/christian-persecution-reached-record-high-in-2015-n2106873
http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?num=13701&cataId=nk02500
http://www.persecution.org/2016/01/14/korean-american-pastor-detained-in-north-korea-on-charges-of-spying/
http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-detainee-idUSKCN0UQ0PY20160112

Iraq and Syria: Persecution News Update


The links below are to articles reporting on persecution and ISIS news from Iraq and Syria (the most recent are at the top).

For more visit:
http://www.persecution.org/2016/01/21/isis-blows-up-homes-and-churches-to-punish-christians-and-dissenters/
http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-un-idUSKCN0UX0ZD
http://www.christiantoday.com/article/isis.release.16.assyrian.christians/76595.htm
http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/06012016