‘Caliphates never corresponded to the myth’

AFP | Screengrab from an Islamic State group propaganda video showing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaiming the creation of the caliphate at a mosque in Mosul, Iraq.

Historian Nabil Mouline, whose latest book examines the concept of the caliphate in the Islamist imagination, discusses the lure of the Islamic State (IS) group with FRANCE 24.


On June 29, 2014, jihadist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the territories in Syria and Iraq under the control of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) a “caliphate”. Issuing the declaration in the Grand Mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Baghdadi announced the group’s new name was “al-Dawla al-Islamiya” in Arabic – or the Islamic State.

In his latest book, “Le Califat: Histoire Politique de l’Islam” (“The Caliphate: Political History of Islam,”) Nabil Mouline traces the concept of the caliphate and its varied manifestations through history. A historian at the Paris-based CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), Mouline is the author of several books, including, “Le Califat imaginaire d’Ahmad al-Mansur”.

FRANCE 24: Is the so-called caliphate declared by the IS group comparable with the caliphate as it existed in the seventh century?
Nabil Mouline: Not really. In fact, like the other caliphates in history, Daesh [another Arabic name for the IS group] uses the institution of the caliphate to justify its approach and its project. If we examine the phenomenon that Daesh represents from the perspective of Arab-Muslim history, for instance, it turns out that this is just a banal manifestation of an exceptional ideology. There have been many Islamist groups in the past that maintain that Islam has “fallen into disbelief” and seek to revive and restore its unity and reinstate the caliphate.

If you look closely, a movement like Daesh is actually derived from modernity. This is a kind of intellectual cut and paste, a hijacking of various ideas and images from the Muslim world and the West. For instance, the movement’s name, the Islamic State, is a Western concept: the state is an institution and a European notion imported into the Muslim world in the late 19th century. The “Islamic” qualifier is a form of identity recognition inspired by the nationalist movements of the 19th century.

F24: For now, regional and Western powers are trying to combat the IS group by military means. Is this an effective strategy?
NM: The military path is one among others. It has been used by many Arab-Muslim regimes against the Islamists from the 1950s, and then by the West. If we weaken Daesh, which will eventually happen, another manifestation of the jihadist ideology will appear elsewhere. The jihadi phenomenon is global, complex and multidimensional. It seems almost impossible to eradicate, but it can be weakened and marginalised. For this, we need a global response, by which I mean a political, economic and social response. In addition, jihadism has an important ideological component and we must fight it in the realm of ideas. This can be achieved through a renewed reflection on Islam and the use of social sciences (history, anthropology, sociology). Returning to the sources -- which means the writings of the founders of Islam and the history of the Muslim world -- will enable us to deconstruct the jihadist discourse and moderate their vision of Islam. By returning to the facts, one realises that the caliphate, so idealised by jihadists, is actually a human institution that can be reconsidered.

F24: You use the term "idealised". Does that mean they do not have an accurate picture of Islam?
NM: The jihadist caliphate is an invented reality, a fantasy. The very idea of the caliphate is both a reality and myth. Caliphates existed in reality, but they never corresponded to the myth. For example, the ulema, or the scholars of Islam, have designated the first four caliphs [after the death of the Prophet Mohammed] as “rashidun” or the "righteously guided," whose rule corresponds with a golden age of sorts. But the history of Islam shows that this was not the case. That period was marked by internecine fighting and other betrayals. They have invented something that never existed. They consider it sacred and are attempting to reproduce it.
That is why we must allow alternative discourses to exist to counter this fantasy that plagues Islam.

F24: Exactly, to counter jihadist ideology and extremism in France, we often explore preventative measures, particularly training imams. What’s your take on this?
NM: Religious institutions are neither representative nor qualified to answer. Moreover, it is difficult to compete with Saudi Arabia in this area given that the majority of books, websites or media for training Muslim clerics are Saudi.
The difference between Daesh and other jihadist movements is communication. They are everywhere, they use social networks, they are recruiting youth. We need to fight, do it with ideas, and by all means.

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