Event ReportsPublished on Mar 19, 2015
Islamic State (IS), metaphorically a "baby" of al-Qaeda, may not survive for a long time when public fascination with it wanes, says Dr. Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies and director of the Institute for Transregional Study, Princeton University, USA.
IS may not survive for long: Dr. Bernard Haykel
Dr. Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies and director of the Institute for Transregional Study, Princeton University, USA, has said that Islamic State (IS), metaphorically a "baby" of al-Qaeda, may not survive for a long time when public fascination with it wanes.

According to Dr. Haykel, the reason for this predicted waning in popularity is that the concept of Islamic State or Caliphate is very complicated and given the various interpretations of Islam, it is difficult to arrive at a unitary definition of caliphate.

Issues such as borders, currency and community are areas where Salafist interpretations are very different from Westphalian norms and yet are essential to a nation state. This automatically puts IS at a theological crossroads where adoption of some of these features would dilute their supposed theological purity. This may lead either to collapse or mutation as the recruitment bank of disenfranchised youth within the West Asia region is significant, Dr. Haykel argued while delivering a talk on the emerging politics of West Asia and North Africa at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, on March 19.

Giving a broad picture of the Islamic political movement in the Middle East, Dr. Haykel pointed out that during 1970s a variety of actors emerged in the region in different forms -violent actors like al-Qaeda and non-violent like Muslim Brotherhood - against the established regime. He emphasised that the rise of these actors was not solely ideological in nature but also a result of contingencies that emerged because of identity politics, unemployment, economic policies of the government and various interventions in the region.

To contextualise this point of view, Dr. Haykel posed a few relevant questions such as: Why particular Muslim ideologies are violent while others are not? Why Indian Muslims are not as influenced by the ideologies of the Islamic States in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as compared to the rest of the world? Why ISIS or al-Qaeda and other radical groups seem unable to recruit from India even though India has the second largest Muslim population in the world.

Dr. Haykel identified four reasons that make Indian Muslims different from the Muslims in the Middle East. Sharing his experience with few Salafi scholars in India at Jamia Salafia, one of the prestigious Salafi institution in Varanasi, he said, "If you compare their (Salafis in India) ideology with the ideology of the IS you will find similarity in terms of interpretation of Islam. However, they have a different view when it comes in Indian context." This is because they are quite optimistic towards the Indian democracy and have a feeling of being stakeholders in the Indian political system and the development of the country. Second, most Muslims in India are from the lower castes and they are still struggling with their socio-economic problems. Therefore, there is a little chance to engage in any activities outside of sustenance. Third, the community had lost its traditional elite during partition and since then has been leaderless and rudderless with a consequent power vacuum that has resulted in great devolution of interpretation, not subject to a single authority. Fourth, most of the Islamic learning centres in India are apolitical and were against the partition and this has since been imbued into the nature of Indian Islam.

Dr. Haykel also gave a broader perspective on the IS, terming it an extreme form of Wahabism. However, it is very different from al-Qaeda in terms of dealing with the matters. The IS has more resources, both financial and intellectual - especially in terms of interpretive traditions of religious texts and the jurisprudence that ensues from it. For instance, al-Qaeda felt that the world is against Islam and so had the broadest possible target set. On the other hand, IS felt that the problem within had to be solved first by establishing a caliphate similar to the one that was in Medina during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore it has focused narrowly in Iraq and Syria to deal with local problems.

However, the life they gave people under their control was orderly though harsh as was their treatment of their opponents. However they are also providing social goods in the area under their control within their limited resources. He differentiated this from Taliban rule which he claimed was thuggish, followed no rule of law, and based more on local tribal traditions of Pashtoonwali. On the other hand, IS's rule though harsh and brutal was mostly delivered as per a deep understanding of Islamic jurisprudence.

On Saudi Arabia's approach towards the IS, Dr. Haykel pointed out that Saudi Arabia has a policy of zero tolerance towards terrorism in theory that is hard to enforce in practice. However given the Salafi emphasis on ijtehad (the right to interpret texts for oneself) and their duty to "speak truth to power" IS interpretations are deemed extremely logical and have a large following within the Kingdom. As a result, there is practically no basis within the rule of law to ban differing interpretations as this would strike at the heart of Saudi salafism itself. This makes a difficult task for the government to manage the situation. Moreover, there is a feeling among the Saudis that the Assad regime in Syria which killed thousands of Sunnis is more dangerous than the IS. Similarly, they also see Iran's role in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen against the Sunnis as dangerous. Despite the IS threat, therefore it is seen as lower down the list of priorities - making the big challenge for Saudi Arabia - the management of ISIS.

Dr Haykel said it is a very challenging task for Saudi scholars to counter the ideological challenges of the IS which attracts young rebellious Saudis as opposed to the sedate, state centric interpretation of the ulema.

(This report is prepared by Sikandar Azam, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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