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In this column, Farhang Jahanpour – former professor and Dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, who has taught in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford for 28 years – examines the historical background to the emergence of ISIS and argues that it is basing its appeal on reinstatement of the caliphate.In this column, Farhang Jahanpour – former professor and Dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, who has taught in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford for 28 years – examines the historical background to the emergence of ISIS and argues that it is basing its appeal on reinstatement of the caliphate.

When, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) suddenly emerged on the scene and in a matter of days occupied large swathes of mainly Sunni-inhabited parts of Iraq and Syria, including Iraq's second city Mosul and Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and called itself the Islamic State, many people, not least Western politicians and intelligence services, were taken by surprise.

Unlike in the Western world, religion still plays a dominant role in people's lives in the Middle East region. When talking about Sunni and Shia divisions, we should not be thinking of the differences between Catholics and Protestants in the contemporary West, but should throw our mind back to Europe's wars of religion (1524-1648) which proved to be among the most vicious and deadly wars in history.

Just as the Hundred Years' War in Europe was not based only on religion, the Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Middle East too have diverse causes, but are often intensified by religious differences. At the least, various groups use religion as an excuse and the a rallying call to mobilise their forces against their opponents.

From US encouragement of Saudi and Pakistani authorities to organise and use jihadi fighters following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, to the rise of Al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, followed by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and military involvement in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, it seems that the United States has had the reverse effect of the Midas touch, in the sense that whichever crisis it has touched has turned to dust.

Now, with the rise of ISIS and other terrorist organisations, the entire Middle East is on fire. It would be the height of folly to dismiss or underestimate this movement as a local uprising that will disappear by itself, and to ignore its appeal to a large number of marginalised and disillusioned Sunni militants.

In view of its ideology, fanaticism, ruthlessness, the territories that it has already occupied, and its regional and perhaps even global ambitions, ISIS can be regarded as the greatest threat since the Second World War and one that could change the map of the Middle East and the post-First World War geography of the entire region, challenging Western interests in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

When Islam appeared in the deserts of Arabia some 1,400 years ago, with an uncompromising message of monotheism and the mantra "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God", it changed the plight of the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula and formed a religion and a civilisation that even now claims upward of 1.5 billion adherents in all parts of the world, and forms the majority faith in 57 countries that are members of the Islamic Cooperation Organisation.

Contrary to many previous prophets who did not see the success of their mission during their own lifetime, not only did Muhammad manage to unite the Arabs in the name of Islam in the entire Arabian Peninsula, but he even managed to form a state and ruled over the converted Muslims both as their prophet and ruler. The creation of the Islamic umma, or community, during Muhammad's lifetime in Medina and later on in the whole of Arabia is a unique occurrence in the history of religion.

Consequently, while most religions look forward to an ideal state or to the "Kingdom of God" as a future aspiration, Muslims look back at the period of Muhammad's rule in Arabia as the ideal state. Therefore, what a pious Muslim wishes to do is to look back at the life and teachings of the Prophet, and especially his rule in Arabia, and take it as the highest standard of an ideal religious government.

...

Edited by Phil Harris
IPS
LEHTIKUVA / AFP PHOTO / HO / Islamic State group’s Al-Raqqa site

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