Kajal Basu is already doing early in his tenure as Tehelka’s editor what I expected him to—produce well-constructed and richly detailed content that presumes a certain level of intelligence, education and literacy among its readers. It is a tough battle to not yield to the temptation of the lowest common denominator that many in the Indian media have already done. His excellent piece ‘The Other Side of ISIS’ is an example of what to expect under his leadership. That journalism ought to be well-crafted scholarship is something Kajal understands intuitively.
In particular, the piece focuses on its main theme of how internationalist the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). What struck me is this passage in the piece: “In many ways, ISIS has a more internationalist doctrine than any militant group till date — certainly more internationalist than former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s catchy but meaningless “doctrine of international community”. “Rush O Muslims to your state,” al-Baghdadi had said in his Ramazan-eve speech. “Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s.” As a beckoning, it is far more seductive than any “coalition of the willing” that Obama can conjure up: It speaks not just of a unitarian pan-Islamism but of a gigantic, borderless, stateless caliphate.”
It is a disturbing perspective which may or may not come to pass depending on how the world in general and the Islamic world in particular chooses to deal with it. There is the overarching unitarian pan-Islamic aspect to the crisis in the Middle East but as Kajal illustrates under that amorphous cloak there are more complex pieces operating in the ruthless real world of oil politics and trading that I find equally powerful. As an illustration of just how complicated this whole sordid clusterfuck is can be gauged by the sheer number of the terrorist groups as well as their leaders and their increasingly hard to keep track of names. I think universities should start offering doctoral programs in just cataloguing their names and affiliations.
Kajal zeros in on something significant when he concludes his piece saying this: “Many mujahireen are not directly affiliated with the Islamic State, or even the recently formed Jabhat Ansar al-Din. But they share the ISIS’ goal, which essentially entails instituting Islamic governance. Most of them declare they are neutral with regard to the infighting that has haunted the Syrian jihad from its first week.
These are the denominations that the Obama administration isn’t paying much attention to. But it might be prudent to keep in mind that the Chechens gave Russia the shakes. Using none of the brutal flamboyance of British and American mujahireen, the Chechens might just give the COTW (Coalition of the Willing) a long-haul migraine.”
The idea of “a gigantic, borderless, stateless caliphate” that Kajal talks about is easier stated than achieved because it necessarily and inordinately depends on the Muslim populations in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia which together number over 700 million people. There could well be some percentage of Muslims in these four countries that is sympathetic to aspects of “a gigantic, borderless, stateless caliphate” but the number is not even remotely close to giving it any realistic chance at all. There are powerful cultural forces in all these four countries which attenuate, moderate and even fundamentally influence their respective Muslim population’s worldview.
In all of these countries, the Muslim population is deeply invested in their individual well-being as a nation-state rather than a stateless caliphate and not in the least because three of them are officially Islamic republics. In most ways that matter, the Muslims in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia have already got their own system of government that they have by and large chosen of their own volition. They have no compelling reason to want to be part of a caliphate simply because it sounds grand. In the case of Muslims in India, notwithstanding their well-known disaffections with the state and society, they are very much an intrinsic and defining part of the country’s gloriously rich pluralism. For an idea like that, however absurdly lunatic, to work it requires a critical mass of people to support it and an expanse of territory to house it. I seriously doubt if that is going to be in the foreseeable future. Of course, someone can always make the argument that there are Muslims who are already living in such a caliphate inside their minds irrespective of which country they live in. But then there are also Hindus or Christians or Buddhists or Jains or whoever who are already living in their own versions of Puritanistan. There is no cure for that.