A year after the investiture of “Caliph” Ibrahim, ISIS has become an ominously familiar presence, yet we still lack a true understanding of what it really is. It is a difficulty that reveals a tangle of unresolved issues in Islam and the West.

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:24:05

“The Shura Council of the Islamic State has decided to proclaim the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate [...] and to appoint a caliph for the Muslims. [...] With the proclamation of the Caliphate, all Muslims are obliged to pledge allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim and support him. The legality of all other emirates, groups, states, and organisations, becomes null by the expansion of the caliphate’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.” With these words, on 29 June 2014 the Islamic State organisation presented itself to the world as the restorer of the universal caliphate. The value of is claim was legally void, so much so that since then a large group of Muslim scholars and intellectuals from different backgrounds has been keen to refute the legitimacy of the neo-Caliph, but it has had a strong symbolic, media and even political impact. It sealed the transformation of the Islamic State from the “joke” that it had been between 2006 and 2012 into the “tsunami” of today, to take up the formula with which a jihadist ideologue described the parabola of the Islamist organisation. The tsunami has not stopped, and it has even swept vast swathes of territory between Syria and Iraq (now almost 300,000 kilometres2), profaning many people (a multitude of deaths and tens of thousands of refugees, including many Christians) and places (especially the destruction of the rich artistic and cultural heritage of the area) as it advances. Since that 29 June one year ago, the existence of the Islamic State has become ominously familiar. The sophisticated and gruesome images of its propaganda have replaced the austere headshot of Osama Bin Laden in the album of our nightmares and phobias. However, many things about this monster still seem to elude us: one year later we still do not know what to call it, or how to define it. When we talk about it we have judiciously adopted the habit of preceding the words “Caliphate” or “Islamic State” with the word “self-proclaimed,” to keep its claims at a distance, and rightly so. There is no agreement on the acronyms that should summarily identify it: for some it is still ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), for others it is simply IS (Islamic State) according to whether or not they have acknowledged the now universal ambitions of the organisation. But there are those who challenge the very idea of the Islamic State, since it would not be a state, but only a terrorist group, nor would it be Islamic, not having any link with more authentic Muslim tradition. For example, the Obama administration decided to encompass all the jihadist groups in the acronym VE (violent extremism), to avoid any reference to Islam. In the West, others have decided to solve the problem using the Arabic acronym Daish, without realising that this takes them back to the starting point, since Daish is merely the Arabic version of ISIS (al-Dawla al-Islâmiyya fi-l-‘Irâq wa-l-Shâm, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). These are understandable attempts, but deep down they only reveal our inability to frame and tackle the phenomenon. We simply lack the mental coordinates, and with them the words. The difficulty is understandable, however. Islamic State is in fact the manifestation of such a tangle of unresolved issues that it evades any single definition or explanation. There are at least two elements to be considered. On the one hand, it represents yet another evolution of the Islamic awakening that has continued to influence and sully the life of Muslim societies since the end of the 1970s. In this sense, it directly calls on Muslims, and particularly intellectuals and religious authorities, to undertake a thorough review of the way in which Islam has been interpreted in recent decades. On the other hand it is one of the outcomes of a crisis that is at the same time political, social and cultural, affecting the architecture designed for the Middle East after the First World War, accelerated by certain tragic mistakes of recent years (the war in Iraq in 2003, disastrous management of the Arab Spring) and today by the great game pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other in the Gulf. It seems there is no way out of this crisis: the big international players are unable, or do not have the intention to lance the boil; how will they treat the causes that have made its growth possible? As Bernard Haykel, a leading scholar at Princeton, wrote: “The Islamic State will certainly not endure ... What will remain are the factors that have allowed militant politics to flourish in the first place, namely an ideology of religious power and domination, as well as political, social, and economic realities that provide a wellspring of recruits and supporters who feel deeply disenfranchised and increasingly marginal to the flow of history.” The picture is bleak, but in recent days, Pope Francis has reminded us in the encyclical Laudato si’ that “injustice is not invincible.” Is someone willing to take it seriously?