Now a caliphate has been declared, the debate begins

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi has proclaimed himself caliphate, prompting a round of inquiries by experts on th region about what led to this state of affairs.

If there is one positive that has come out of the announcement of a caliphate by the Islamic State (the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant or ISIL), it is the debate it has triggered in Arabic media. “ISIL’s actions are but an epitome of what we’ve studied in our school curriculum,” tweeted Saudi commentator Ibrahim Al Shaalan. “If the curriculum is sound, then ISIL is right, and if it is wrong, then who bears responsibility?”

It is significant that such remarks come as part of a collective soul-searching from intellectuals, religious scholars and ordinary people from within the region.

Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi columnist, published a piece in Al Hayat on Saturday under the title “What went wrong for us to reach this situation?” He referred to a sentence attributed to the vicious Mongolian conqueror Hulagu Khan when addressing Muslims in Baghdad: “I am your sins befalling you.” Khashoggi wrote: “Perhaps it is time to ponder that sentence and work to rectify the mistakes of our ancestors as we live a similar situation, seeing angry young men with a backward thinking and understanding of life and religion eradicating the heritage of centuries.

“As for those who look for a foreign conspiracy, they are escaping the truth, which is that there is something wrong with us. What is it? No one wants to admit that something wrong has happened, and the only things that are moving dynamically forward are the flood [of extremism] and history.”

A second dissection has come from Dr Mohammed Habash, a religious scholar and a former member of the Syrian parliament, in an article titled “Where did ISIL really come from?” Dr Habash argues that extremism is born out of a dangerous mix: the systematic repression carried out by tyrannical regimes along with a “desperate religious discourse” that preaches a “just world” that can only materialise through the caliphate.

Placing blame on preachers, not excluding himself, he wrote: “We did not speak about the caliphate as a political system that is fallible. No, we spoke about it as a sacred symbol of unity and that anything – even values and principles – has to be subordinate to the realisation of it … ISIL did not arrive from Mars; it is a natural product of our retrograde discourse. Talk about the caliphate has always provided a way to justify our defeats, failure, losses and inability to catch up with the rest of the world.”

Dr Habash concludes with a counsel: “What we need is a revolution within the Muslim mindset that takes it back to the true Islamic values of freedom, justice, human dignity; away from the sacredness of the caliphate … to a political system that simply governs the affairs of people.”

Similar arguments took place on social media. While most critics took on historical figures to demonstrate how fallible they were, even supporters of the Islamic State highlighted dark moments in Islamic history to justify the brutality of their group. One supporter on Twitter, for example, cited a massacre carried out by a famous Muslim warrior who reportedly slaughtered thousands of captives after his victory in a battle against the Persians. Arab historians justified the killing as part of the psychological warfare against an existential enemy at the time.

Much of the criticism in Arabic media has been directed at Islamists either for failing to condemn the Islamic State strongly enough or for being responsible for the discourse that at least partially inspires such jihadist groups.

Examples of weak responses by Islamists include an argument put forward by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) for the rejection of Abu Bakr Al Baghadi’s claim to acaliphate as “void”.

The SMB said his caliphate was illegitimate because he had never shown his face in public – one of the main conditions for a legitimate imam in Islam is that he is known. The embarrassing argument was refuted after the video of Mr Al Baghdadi’s Friday sermon in one of Mosul’s largest and oldest mosques was released.

A similar petty argument had been made by the Syrian Salafi cleric Adnan Al Arour, who said that he would pledge allegiance to Al Baghdadi had the latter shown his face in a video. These statements indicate how, in terms of ideology, Islamists and jihadists share more in common than either wishes to admit. One Jordanian Islamist told me through Twitter: “Islamic movements, even though they call for a caliphate and dream of it, believe it should be restored by them [and not by other Islamists].”

This Jordanian Islamist wrote on Twitter: “Frankly, ISIL is the product of certain religious legacies shunned by Islamists due to either ignorance, shame, fanaticism, blind loyalty or opportunism.”

Reporting on Mr Shalaan’s comments, the UAE-based news site 20fourMedia cited a statement by former member of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, Abdullah Al Zelfa, as saying that the Muslim Brotherhood was the group that shaped the school curriculum in the kingdom. These statements might be part of a blame game, but they are indicative of a raging debate that might lead to a process of revisionism in the Arab world.

Hassan Hassan is a research associate with the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @hxhassan