July 22, 2015


How Islamic State's Succession Plan Could Destroy It (Noah Feldman, 7/21/15, Bloomberg View)

Leaked intelligence reports say that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the titular head of Islamic State, is delegating authority in anticipation of his untimely demise. That raises some timely questions: Can you have a caliphate without a caliph? What will happen to Islamic State if Baghdadi is killed? And, by extension, how much effort should the U.S. and its allies put into trying to target and kill him?

The answers are tricky. As a matter of classical Sunni constitutional thought, a caliph may indeed delegate his authority while remaining as the caliph. Yet the separation of the caliph's role from actual military command, a hallmark of much actual Islamic history, would still be anathema to the Islamic utopia the Sunni militant group is trying to achieve. The loss of the caliph would therefore be a significant setback to recruitment efforts abroad. [...]

[T]he caliph was also supposed to be the actual ruler of the community of the faithful, which a conquered Arab caliph couldn't convincingly claim to be.

The creative solution was dreamed up by the scholars of Islamic constitutional thought. The caliph would remain caliph in name. But he would "voluntarily" delegate worldly authority to govern to a "sultan," or ruler, who didn't need to be an Arab or a Qurashi. Thus the conquerors could rule -- in exchange for a promise to observe the forms of Islamic law so dear to the scholars.

The upshot was that the caliph was no longer the actual ruler, but more of a religious figurehead. This remained the case for most of the middle ages, until the Ottoman sultans reclaimed the caliphate with some doubtful genealogy.

This history matters because Islamic State's claim to fame is the reinvention of the caliphate, which Kemal Ataturk ended shortly after World War I when he deposed the last of the Ottomans. Baghdadi claims to be both the actual ruler of territory -- which in a way he is -- and a descendant of the Quraysh, as well as a scholar and a man of moral purity -- which he rather plainly isn't.

Under the scholars' version of Islamic constitutional law, Baghdadi can delegate all the military authority he wants. As caliph, he doesn't have to monopolize military or political authority. The structure of Islamic State could therefore be highly diffuse and diversified without harming his religious claim to be the true caliph. After all, many legitimate caliphs didn't actually rule at all.

But what's legally permissible may be politically damaging. Islamic State has gained much of its global popularity by presenting itself as an Islamic utopia -- not simply "an" Islamic state but "the" Islamic State par excellence. Young people who weren't prepared to join al-Qaeda simply to fight and die are eager to join Islamic State, because they want to participate in constructing an ideal Islamic society.

...nevermind try governing anywhere.

Posted by at July 22, 2015 4:30 PM

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