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How ISIL’s bid for a new caliphate taps historical yearning

July 1, 2014 at 6:14 PM EST
How does ISIL's declaration of a new Islamic state complicate the military and political problems already challenging the Iraqi government? Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to examine the history of the term “caliphate” and what threats ISIL poses across the region.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Margaret, this government in Iraq already having enough problems. What does this announcement of a caliphate mean in addition to that?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I think what it showed today, Judy, is, we have always known that this group, which called itself ISIS, then ISIL, we had called it now the Islamic State, was a military threat as it’s rolled down Iraq.

And the well-trained, supposedly, U.S.-trained Iraqi army just fell back and melted away. What we saw today on display in that parliament was that it’s also a political threat, because while it has a cohesive sort of message and unity, what you see in Baghdad is that after really 10 years of some kind of governing, they have yet to create an inclusive, cooperative kind of national identity in which all Iraqis feel a part.

And so when you talk about a unified Iraq, essentially, it’s already happening de facto slow motion what this ISIL or Islamic State is calling for, which is you have got a kind of Kurdish area breaking away in the north, a Kurdistan, a kind of very radical version of a Sunnistan in the central portions, and in the south, heavily Shia, in the Sunnistan part, it crosses into — in Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the term caliphate? You pointed out this is, what, over 1,500 years old. Why are these ISIL, these extremists using that term, that idea?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Well, that’s a great question, because it is a very old-fashioned term.

But what it implies is that it has great resonance for Muslims worldwide. Muslims feel that they were — and they were — a great civilization, which, as we described in the piece, for hundreds of years ruled vast swatches of this whole region, all the way as far north — if you go into churches in Budapest, you will see mosaic tiles, Ottoman tiles.

So — and then all of that could sort of be crushed and carved up in a secret agreement literally 98 years ago by the French and the British. There’s this — and that explains why they’re having to operate in artificial borders to them, why the Arab world and the Muslim world has fallen so behind in development.

And that’s a debatable point, but that is the sort of the mythology. And so when you use the term caliphate, if you think about, for Muslims, remember the term Christendom used to really mean something and have resonance for Christians worldwide.

The idea of the ummah, the idea there’s a large Muslim greater sense of community, it taps into that, and that that great civilization could be brought so low evoked share humiliation. So when you say we’re reestablishing the caliphate, that’s a bid for greatness. It just has a lot of emotional, historical and religious punch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as you have been reporting, Margaret, it’s not just Iraq that is threatened by this. It’s the entire region.

How is — what are the other — who are the other players who are affected?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, most of the focus has been right now that, well, this is threat to al-Qaida. And it certainly is, because al-Qaida always talked about this, and it actually, other than attacking Westerners and other Muslims, they have never actually taken and ruled territory.

And, already, the group that call themselves ISIL has done that, so that’s the first thing. But I think it’s a greater threat to actually the rulers of Muslim-majority countries all over the region, most of whom are ruling over states with these artificial borders.

Egypt’s different. Egypt — you ask any Egyptian. He may be secular, he may be religious. He’s Egyptian. But Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, some of them U.S. allies, are really — they have got this messy mix of sectarian and ethnic groups inside.

They view for power, but they’re still — and it may be, what’s the nature of the government or who’s going to rule, but it’s still following the old European playbook. And what al-Baghdadi was saying today was, he was dismissing all that. Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis. All earth is Allah’s.

And so what he’s saying essentially is those very concepts of those states are illegitimate, and it’s kind of a subversive thought, I think. It’s not that they’re about to take over Lebanon or Jordan tomorrow, but it’s to suggest that if those states are illegitimate, maybe their rulers are too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, there’s no shortage of something for to you report on now.

MARGARET WARNER: There really isn’t, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, thank you.