De-Romanticizing the Islamic State’s Vision of the Caliphate

14-02by R. Bennett Furlow, Kristin Fleischer and Steven R. Corman

Calls for restoration of the Caliphate are a regular feature of Islamist extremist communication, most recently and notably that of the Islamic State (IS) who in mid-2014 declared a new Caliphate and named their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as Caliph. This paper analyzes the extremist vision of the Caliphate from a strategic communication point of view, revealing its vulnerability.

Extremists construct a narrative of an ideal system of government that will unite all Muslims under God’s just rule. This narrative is comprised of stories that romanticize previous Caliphates and claim they were undermined by Western powers bent on subjugating the Muslims and destroying Islam. The solution to this downward spiral is restoration of the Caliphate, which will throw off the yoke of oppression and realize the divine plan for all Muslims. Therefore, it is every Muslim’s duty to work toward this goal by abandoning false national identities designed to divide them, and join the fight.

This narrative relies on the three important devices. First, it depends on an imagined community of Muslims that is united across the world—i.e. one in which Muslims who do not even know one another nonetheless identify with one another because of their “Muslimness.” Imagined communities normally depend on institutions of the state for their cohesion. But the extremist narrative rejects the notion of states, so the vision of the Caliphate itself becomes the basis for imagining a unified ummah. This requires the second device, unified diversity, where an idea of the Caliphate is presented in a general way everyone can agree with, while suppressing talk about details—for example, who should be Caliph—that might surface differences in interpretation, causing disagreement and conflict. To achieve unified diversity, extremists depend on the third device, a romanticized history of the Caliphate. They portray the Caliphate as a glorious, shining kingdom on a hill, while editing out inconvenient historical details about the infighting, assassination, civil war, and territorial losses that plagued the Caliphates from the time of Muhammad’s death.

We propose three measures to counter the extremist narrative of the Caliphate: (1) De-romanticize the Caliphate by promoting knowledge of its true history; (2) deconstruct the imagined community by emphasizing the real differences in interests, beliefs, and religious practices among Muslims in different parts of the world; and (3) challenge unified diversity by raising questions about who is qualified to be Caliph, and how this person is to be found among 1.6 billion Muslims.

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