In declaring a caliphate, ISIS is posing both geographical and temporal political challenges. As I have discussed elsewhere, the very name of the group in its transformation from Al Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State if Iraq and Syria [or the Levant] inherently challenges accepted international borders. The geographical challenges are clear: the group, both in straddling the sovereign states of Iraq and Syria, and in inherently signaling its intention to take territories beyond these limits through the ambiguity of the final word in its name, the Arabic al-Sham. Indeed, along with its quite well-known successes in taking vast sections of Iraq, ISIS continues to take territory in Syria, most recently in towns near Aleppo.
The group also operates with a temporal challenge: while caliphates have existed at various points throughout history, ISIS is clearly trying to hearken back to the very earliest eras of “Islamic empire,” as William McCants says in this CNN video-clip on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s role as the imam center of ISIS called “ISIS Leader: ‘See You Guys in New York.’” As McCants (Brookings Institution) points out, al-Baghdadi is seeking to present himself as the ruler of the entire “Islamic World”—an all-encompassing goal that can be seen in ISIS’s efforts to rebrand itself as IS, as simply “the Islamic State.”
The medieval world does not simply lie in ISIS’s efforts to challenge modern sovereignty and assert a trans-national Islamic state associated with Islam’s pre-modern status as an expansive, imperial domain (not unlike, it must be noted, the Western and Eastern Christian empires of the Middle Ages). As the CNN video-clip ‘See You Guys in New York’ states, recent US attacks by the “so-called Crusaders” have increased the prestige of ISIS within the Islamic world, channeling the hostilities that many Muslims feel concerning the series of transnational invasions driven by the Western Christian ideology first marshaled by Urban II in his chilling 1095 Clermont speech (seen here in 5 translated versions presented by Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook).
As is clear from my recent post on journalistic reactions to ISIS, and as is clear from the clear fascination with the “corporate” sensibilities and communications savvy evidenced in Brian Todd’s reporting in the chillingly titled clip ‘See You Guys in New York’ (the quotation comes from a statement al-Baghdadi made to Kenneth King, commander of Camp Bucca, after he had been captured some 10 years ago in Fallujah), ISIS has been very effective of late in reaping even more massive shock than it has already sown from its incredibly shocking military campaigns. In focusing on al-Baghdadi’s carefully orchestrated appearance as a “holy” and “gentle” man, even as he leads an organization that advertises such actions as “crucifixions” and other spectacular “executions,” Brian Todd and his CNN team make clear that ISIS has been making extremely effective use of bringing together both ultra-modern communications techniques and pre-modern geographic and temporal sensibilities.