By: Rajinder Kumar
The implications of the declaration of a caliphate by the followers of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have not been fully realised by the international community, particularly the Islamic countries. By its very concept, a caliphate is not confined to areas currently held by the ISIS or to Muslim communities/ countries, but extends to the whole world. I will henceforth refer to the ISIS as the Caliphate-Baghdadi.
By declaring al-Baghdadi amir of the caliphate, a challenge has been thrown to all other jihadi groups to either recognise his leadership and submit to his command, or contest it by taking him on. Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda now has serious competition for the leadership of jihadi groups. Being in control of substantial territory and having no dearth of funds, the Caliphate-Baghdadi is likely to benefit from desertions from other Sunni jihadi groups and declarations of allegiance from other Islamist terrorist groups across the globe
In Islamic thought, the “ummah” represents a universal world order ruled by a caliph in accordance with the shariat, modelled after the community founded by Prophet Muhammad at Medina in 622 CE. It includes Jews and Christians living within its territory as separate, albeit inferior, communities. Since the concept of a caliphate does not recognise the nation state — the only legitimate entity, the ummah, encompasses all Muslim lands — the Caliphate-Baghdadi has openly challenged the legitimacy of governments of all Muslim countries of the Middle East. There is a possibility of some sections in these countries declaring their allegiance to the caliphate, thus exacerbating the latent discontent in almost all of them. It is to be seen how the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey react to this development.
Shias in general and Iran in particular should be the most worried by the Caliphate-Baghdadi, which considers Shias to be apostates who should either be forced to return to the original faith (the Salafi version of Sunnism) or be annihilated. The persecution of Shias in Iraq under Saddam Hussein was reciprocated after the fall of his regime in 2003. In fact, the genesis of the Caliphate-Baghdadi can be traced to Shia atrocities on Sunnis after the formation of the Nouri al-Maliki government with Iranian patronage. In Syria, too, there was widespread repression of Sunnis under the Shiite Assad regime.
The failure of al-Qaeda to carry out any spectacular action against the “enemies of Islam” in recent years has caused disenchantment among potential recruits in the West. The Caliphate-Baghdadi is likely to rekindle their interest, and many of them could proceed to the conflict zone in the Middle East. Al-Baghdadi is also likely to call upon his followers to carry out attacks in the lands of “infidels”, specially the US, to prove his global reach and capability.
Russia and China are also likely to be targeted. Chechen and Dagestani Islamic groups could declare their affiliation to the Caliphate-Baghdadi. While China has leveraged its clout with Pakistan to largely escape al-Qaeda-led terrorism, there is every possibility of Uighur Islamic groups delinking themselves from al-Qaeda and affiliating with the Caliphate- Baghdadi. Central Asian republics, already under threat from pro-Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) terrorist groups, are likely to be immediately affected. The movement of youth from radicalised groups in South Asia to the Caliphate-Baghdadi is also likely in the coming days.
India should be worried about the emerging situation in the Middle East. A large number of Indians have gone there, mostly illegally, for employment. We need to accept that we have absolutely no capability to intervene in the situation in any way. Even countries that may have some sort of link to the Caliphate-Baghdadi are unlikely to prove much help. However, no harm is likely to come to such Indians, as it would not serve the objectives of the Caliphate-Baghdadi. Rather, the caliphate would need them to run essential services in the areas under its occupation. The only threat is of getting caught in the crossfire.
India could face economic distress as a substantial share of our crude oil comes from that area. International restrictions on the import of crude from Iran further limit our options. The economic collapse of Iraq, a major trading partner, would impact our exports. There is also a major security risk of some radicalised Indian youth, particularly those influenced by the HuT’s ideology, joining the Caliphate-Baghdadi. The HuT has covertly established strong roots among a section of educated and tech-savvy Indian Muslim youth and is also making inroads among SIMI cadres. This might lead to the import of another strain of international terrorism into India.
A way out could be for Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei to ask his protégé, Iraq PM al-Maliki, to step aside and make way for a non-sectarian leader, so that the march of the Caliphate-Baghdadi could be slowed by placating non-radicalised Sunnis. Khamenei should not stand on prestige because of his rivalry with Ali al-Sistani, the main religious leader of Iraqi Shias and a moderate figure. Khamenei must realise that in the absence of political reconciliation with moderate Sunnis in Iraq, it will be difficult to prevent the Caliphate-Baghdadi from spreading its activities to Iran. As a gesture of goodwill, restrictions on oil imports from Iran should be eased. Unless the global community, particularly the countries of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the Western bloc led by the US, Russia and Iran take immediate steps, the threat of widespread jihadi terrorism and takeover by anarchist forces looms ominously over the world.
The writer, former special director, Intelligence Bureau, handled the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan