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Contest for the great caliphate

17 February 2017

Anthony McRoy on competitive jihadism and a response to it


Jihadism Transformed: Al-Qaeda and Islamic State’s global battle of ideas
Simon Staffell and Akil Awan, editors
Hurst £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age: Islamic extremism and Western Islamophobia
Mike Hardy, Fiyaz Mughal, and Sarah Markiewicz, editors
JKP £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50


COMPETITION is part of life, and jihadism is no exception. We tend to think of Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda (AQ) as being involved in a battle against the West. Jihadism Transformed, a compendium of papers, shows that there is an ideological and sometimes physical battle between these two groups.

Elisabeth Kendall’s first-rate paper on AQ and IS in Yemen, for example, shows how AQ, when it overran al-Makalla, chose not to institute fully fledged shariah, but to compromise with local tradition — a move aimed at consolidating tribal support. This act of tactical wisdom drew denunciation from IS as being theologically deviant.

Although IS emerged from AQ in Iraq, it has developed a different strategy. Whereas AQ sees itself as waging a global insurgency, aimed at expelling the Western hegemony of the Muslim world, which could ultimately lead to a Caliphate, IS reverses this procedure, as Laboud observes in her piece. The emphasis is on obtaining territory and establishing governance on the basis of the shariah.

The actual mechanics of this schism with the AQ leadership led to severe violence with Syrian AQ affiliates. On this basis, we can understand the vehemence with which IS denounces AQ, and vice versa. They are competing for the same demographic — the global Muslim community — and must do so both intellectually and practically.

The IS declaration of the Caliphate and its consequences — specifically, the rush of migrants to its territory both to fight and live under Caliphal authority, examined in Akil Awan’s piece — suggests that, for the moment, the IS Caliphate model is in the ascendancy.

Hijrah (migration to the Islamic land) is a vital theme in Islam, and IS seized upon it to multiply its numbers. Awan shows that the sense of pride is a motivating factor. After all the humiliation of the colonial era, the Arab-Israeli wars, and perceived Western aggression in general, the declaration of the Caliphate boosts the morale and identity of young Muslims in the West, as elsewhere, providing a great recruiting tool. Once IS faces inevitable defeat, one wonders whether AQ will be able to reassert itself.

One of the most important observations of this excellent book is how IS has outstripped AQ in terms of deliberate savagery. IS, unlike AQ, has celebrated savage conduct, such as burning alive a Jordanian pilot, or using children to perform executions. The aim is not just to frighten the enemy, but also to brutalise Muslim society. This means that, increasingly, if IS propaganda is successful, Muslims will be unlikely to condemn outrages by the group. In the light of 9/11 and 7/7, it would have been hard before 2014 to imagine anything more brutal than AQ; can we be sure that something even more savage than IS will not emerge?

The best way to sum up Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age, which focuses on the Amman Message of 2004, is to say that it is well-intentioned but ineffectual — like the Message itself. There are some good chapters — on Islam in the UK, and on recruitment of young British Muslims via cyberspace, for example — but that is largely because of the data presented therein rather than any provision of a solution to the problem of violent extremism. After all, how many people — Muslim or non-Muslim — have even heard of the Amman Message?

It was issued in 2004 before King Abdullah II, and attacks the practice of militants’ excommunicating (takfir) other Muslims, and violent extremism in general. It has received support from various scholars and rulers, but, interestingly, Jamal Al-Shalabi’s paper on confronting Islamic extremism observes that “many people in Jordan do not know about this message despite the repeated references to it in many of King Abdullah II’s speeches.” If that is true in Jordan, where the monarchy is esteemed, how much more elsewhere — not least among the radicalised youth of the West?

Furthermore, as the chapter by Sarah Markiewicz notes, Jordan is “a strong American ally”. This alone is enough to cause disaffected Muslims to ignore anything initiated by its leadership, since they see the United States, rightly or wrongly, as the neo-colonial bully, the heir of British and French dominance in the region. Al-Shalabi’s paper observes the part played by the Palestinian issue as a rallying cry for jihadism. Unless and until such issues, which all flow from the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, are addressed, militancy of this kind will continue.

The other aim of the Message — to counter Islamophobia — is also unlikely to be successful, since the impact on ordinary Western minds of the carnage of the 2015 Paris massacre will shape people’s attitudes far more than what amounts to a well-intentioned press release.


Dr Anthony McRoy is Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Union School of Theology, Wales.

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