Comment, Featured

Podcast Review — Caliphate

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The notion of a Caliphate has currency on the Muslim street. In response, American intelligentsia have built a straw man in ISIS. Ready to conflate a ‘caliphate’ with nihilistic murder.

Let me begin by saying, I am coming to this review unlike most. I believe in a caliphate, the last of which ended in 1924. For me, a caliphate represents a form of political organisation that reflects Muslim history, progress, humanity and liberation. I also believe a caliphate would lead the way in showing an alternative path to progress in a turbulent world. At its height, the historical caliphate became a melting pot for ideas, poetry, civility, advancement and tolerance. This is why when Stitcher suggested I may be interested in a new podcast on the subject, I could not but listen.

Rukmini Callimachi’s podcast ‘Caliphate’ tracks the intrepid journalism of the New York Times reporter as she attempts to make sense of the group known as ‘Islamic State’. Trawling through the thousands of official documents that were hurriedly left behind in newly liberated areas and following the first hand account of a Canadian recruit, albeit a suspect one, Callimachi provides an insight into the group’s consolidation of power. Her conclusion, ISIS created a functioning state premised on an arcane law and underpinned by terror, with the help of tens of thousands of foreign born recruits. It may be losing ground, but like its erstwhile forerunner, Al Qaeda, it will resurface to open up new fronts. Its form of franchise terror enabled it to win global leadership particularly with young Muslims wishing to live in an Islamic utopia. The conclusions are comforting to her target audience, reinforcing a now familiar narrative.

The Canadian recruit, Abu Huzaifah, if he is to be believed, asserts an unflinching belief in ISIS ideology to the very end. Although his experience has left him demoralised after witnessing the group’s transgressions. However even after admitting to murder and his role in the group’s state apparatus he remains free. Callimachi’s explanation for why her source has evaded law enforcement is puzzling. She can only suggest the authorities are attempting to leverage his anonymity for information or that Canadian justice requires a high burden of evidence. She does not explore whether he is in fact who he says he is, at one point doubt is cast as to whether he was even in Syria. But she quickly brushes this away as a plot twist takes her to liberated Mosul.

The liberation of Mosul

Let me be candid, western intelligence services have had documented involvement with militant groups and those that support them, planting operatives at every level and directing the strategic realities on the ground. A declassified report obtained by the US public interest law firm, Judicial Watch revealed that America in the early days of the Syrian revolution constructed a counter balance to the Syrian regime by direct funding and support through its Middle Eastern allies or “supporting powers”. The paper disclosed that in coordination with Gulf States and Turkey, the west actively sponsored militant groups. These “supporting powers” desired the establishment of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria, to destabilise Asad’s regime and counterweigh Iranian influence. This is exactly what transpired two years later. What we now know is that the aim was to turn the revolution in on itself until it was deconstructed. In 2014 the veteran journalist Seymour Hersh published an illuminating piece in the LRB arguing that at the same time Obama was back tracking on his “red line” promise, the CIA actively engaged a “rat line”, a back channel highway into Syria. This was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. “Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida” he reported. Turkey kept the supply lines open to ISIS through the border town of Jarablus. According to David Graeber writing in the Guardian, it was within Turkey’s control to put an end to ISIS. In fact not only did it keep the border town open, it went to war with Kurdish forces when they threatened to take it from the militant group. Turkey was an open “recruitment centre” for ISIS and permitted “safe houses” to help foreign recruits travel on to Syria in the early days of the conflict. It seems Callimachi’s intrepid journalism cannot entertain the possibility of America and her allies colluding with all Syrian opposition militant groups as part of their effort to manage the civil war.

The podcast certainly makes compelling listening, reaching the top of Apple’s podcast charts, however it lacks the kind of intellectual rigour the subject deserves. ISIS claims to a caliphate are side-stepped and instead it is taken as a given that by merely making the claim it must be labelled thus forever more, no matter how inaccurate. Islamic law has clear criteria on what qualifies a caliphate and making a declaration from a mosque on Friday is not one of them. This lack of scrutiny is repeated when she analyses ISIS’ ascent to power. She spends some time looking at the ideas that underpin a belief in the organisation and concludes a collection of doctrinal ‘Salafist’ ideas makes one susceptible to the propaganda of caliphate. The implication being the vast majority of peaceable Muslims would reject such a political system as they fail to be moved by Salafi-jihadism. However, this analysis fails to truly appreciate the context of ISIS’ rise and its claim to legitimacy. When the group announced its caliphate in the summer of 2014, it did so knowing that this may purchase it a level of support on the Muslim street. ISIS did not introduce the notion of a caliphate, it cynically attempted to capture an idea that has mass appeal. Muslims may not be aware of the details of a Caliphate, but the Caliphate occupied a central role in Islamic history and is knitted into the period of ascendency Muslims see as a golden age of Islam. Announcing a ‘caliphate’ allowed the militant outfit to recruit but also delegitimise other militant groups in the Syrian arena.

A survey, published a year earlier by Pew, shed light on the intensity of support for Islamic law in Muslim majority countries.

The caliphate, the desire to recreate an Islamic order in the Muslim world, in other words, already had currency with ordinary Muslims and is deeply embedded in a Muslim historical experience. ISIS cynically exploited this to give itself ‘brand recognition’ and the West tacitly colluded. Inevitably, the groups’ nihilism would undermine any genuine Muslim call for a caliphate and further reinforce a hostile western public opinion to any demand for Islamic governance. It would also embolden those on the right and left in America and Europe that can only see Political Islam as a threat. ISIS and the western intelligentsia, to which ‘Caliphate’ largely appeals, are strange bedfellows. Peddling a simplistic narrative. Colluding to erect straw men in beards to knock down one download at a time.

This hostility towards the notion of a caliphate is engineered, and Callimachi’s podcast reinforces the narrative. Western and Muslim minds are being fashioned to resist requests for Islamic polity, deliberately conflating this call with terrorism. This strategy thus far has had some success, no right minded Muslim finds any sense of hope in the Syrian quagmire and the militancy it unleashed. The Arab governments have lost no time in showing the stark choice; accept autocratic stability or descend into sectarian civil war. The challenge for Muslim thinkers is to create a space to advocate for Islamic politics, expressing it as a hope for humanity. The Muslim street remains wedded to Islam, yet those that make up the Muslim political and intellectual medium have been severely shaken by this intellectual broadside. A platform to counter this narrative has now become the need of our time.