From the American standpoint, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) represents a foreign policy disaster: political turmoil has continued in Iraq despite the U.S. ending military operations in 2011.
President Obama made ending the war in Iraq — which began with the 2003 invasion that led to the ousting of decades-long leader Saddam Hussein — a primary cause of his 2008 campaign. It took the commander-in-chief three years to complete his goal, and American troops left Iraq as a democratic state under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with an uncertain yet seemingly promising future. Although Iraq was torn apart by sectarian violence during the American occupation, their autonomous government finally seemed secure.
Only three years later, President Obama was announcing a return to combat in Iraq by authorizing air strikes in the country. His administration was urging Prime Minister al-Maliki — once a persecuted Shia dissident under Hussein’s primarily Sunni regime — to step down. Five days ago, al-Maliki left his office. He will be succeeded by Haider al-Abadi. The new government will take office amidst pressing and valid fears that ISIS is advancing towards the capital city of Baghdad.
In terms of maintaining military and political stability in Iraq as it is now known, Obama and al-Abadi have a tough road ahead of them. ISIS has only grown stronger, taking over strategic locations in northern Iraq and attracting an international group of jihadists that threaten to destabilize governments in both Iraq and Syria (which is supported by Russia and thus further complicates the foreign policy approach from the U.S. perspective).
In terms of the group’s religious, cultural and historical context, however, ISIS’s role in the Middle East is more significant than many may believe. The group has declared that its mission is to establish a caliphate, or a sovereign state that will govern the world’s Muslim population through a central leader or caliph — in this case Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or “Caliph Ibrahim.”
In a series of audio recordings recently posted online, the group emphasized its intent by rebranding itself as “The Islamic State.” Its intent, according to the BBC, is to establish its borders from Aleppo in Syria to Iraq’s Diyala province. This expands the region which ISIS originally intended to control (in Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq) into parts of Syria affected by the country’s civil war.
The establishment of an Islamic state would affect Sunni and Shia muslims around the world, as well as the current governments in power in the Middle East and around the globe.
The last existing caliphate is commonly recognized as the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed in 1924. There have been several, less widespread declarations of caliphates that have followed, as well as numerous governments operating under Sharia law with varying degrees of strictness. None, however, has seemed as likely to succeed as The Islamic State.
The rough equivalent to this type of religious authority would be the pope, the worldwide leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, there are numerous Christian sects that either do not recognize or directly oppose the pope’s authority. ISIS’s caliphate would be a similar, modern-day scenario, albeit with borders stretching much further than an area like Vatican City. Many muslims will celebrate the establishment of a centralized authority, and many will oppose it — a dynamic that has plagued all religions throughout centuries of war.
Caliphates have existed since 632, the year of the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Early disputes as to Muhammad’s rightful successor led to what is now known as the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims — another crucial component of ISIS’s mission.
ISIS consists of Sunni extremists, and many of their acts of violence have been carried out against Shia muslims in addition to Christians, Yazidis and other minority religions in the area. Their rise to power would threaten the lives of Shia muslims around the world.
The violent persecution of non-Sunni muslims has lead the U.S., the U.N. and several other nations to classify ISIS as a terrorist organization. Even al-Qaeda, once perceived as the largest jihadist threat to the Western world, cut ties with the group for their senseless brutality.
The implications of the Islamic State are widespread for Muslims around the world, and particularly for the religious minorities located within the organization’s borders. The American involvement in Iraq was undoubtedly a factor in the region’s current turmoil, but President Obama is once again getting the country entangled in a war drastically different than the one started by his predecessor. The struggle for power in Iraq and Syria is a foreign policy nightmare for the United States, but it has implications that profoundly affect the entire world.