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.

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.


Islamic-based legislation may be a key issue in this year’s elections.

DUBLIN, February 2 (Compass Direct News) – As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. They say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.”

With legislative elections coming in April and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with several Islamic parties for the July presidential election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. These laws became possible following the enactment of the Regional Autonomy Law in 2000.

The form of these laws varies widely. Legislation in Padang, West Sumatra, requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found “loitering” alone on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested and charged with prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Quran literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism and gambling.

“Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails,” a lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass.

Some regencies have adopted sharia in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, according to Syafi’I Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

“For instance, the Padang administration issued a law requiring all schoolgirls, regardless of their religion, to wear the headscarf,” he told the International Herald Tribune. This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of the country’s constitution, he added. “Therefore the government must assist all religious communities to practice their beliefs as freely as possible and take actions against those who violate that right.”

While Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them. The Committee for the Implementation and Maintenance of Islamic Law (KPPSI) has held several congresses in Makassar, South Sulawesi with the goal of passing sharia-inspired legislation and obtaining special autonomy for the province, similar to that in Aceh.

KPPSI has also encouraged members to vote for politicians who share their goals, according to local news agency Komintra.


‘Threatening’ Decision

In February of last year, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the government saw no need to nullify some 600 sharia-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto’s decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Dr. Mohammad Mahfud, newly re-elected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting sharia-inspired laws.

“[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity,” he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post.

Mahfud contended that if Indonesia allowed sharia-based laws, “then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem.” According to Mahfud, sharia-based laws would promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 sharia-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

“Advocates of sharia-based laws will stress the divine origin of sharia and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They maintain that sharia is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy.”


Empowering Vigilantes

A national, sharia-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation.

The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

“This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI),” Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) told reporters. FPI is widely-regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

“Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community,” she added. “Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values.”

Although several Golkar Party politicians support sharia-based laws, senior Golkar Party member Theo Sambuaga has criticized politicians for endorsing such legislation to win support from Muslim voters. Several major parties openly back sharia laws, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party, and the Crescent Star party.


Key Election Issue

Sharia-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country’s Islamic parties in order to win a majority vote against the Golkar party, allied for this election with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP.

The coalition Yudhoyono could form, however, likely would come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance wrote in September 2008, “The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him.”

In 2004, Yudhoyono partnered with the NU-sponsored National Awakening Party, the National Mandate Party (founded by the Islamic purist organization Muhammadiyah) and the PKS to achieve his majority vote. Analysts predict PKS will again be a key player in this election.

Few realize, however, that PKS draws its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 with a firm belief in Islamic world dominance. Crushed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, members of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they taught in the nation’s universities – influencing the future founders of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Sudan’s National Islamic Front.

The Brotherhood took root at a university in Bandung, West Java in the 1970s in the form of Tarbiyah, a secretive student movement that eventually morphed into the Justice Party (JP) in 1998. Winning few votes, JP allied itself with a second party to form the PKS prior to the 2004 elections.

Since then, PKS has gained widespread support and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to Islamic values. Simultaneously, however, PKS leaders are vocal supporters of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, says the two organizations have much in common. In its founding manifesto, PKS calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Unlike JI, however, “the party can use its position in Parliament and its … network of cadres to advance the same goals incrementally, one victory at a time.”  

Report from Compass Direct News