The Lingering Dream of an Islamic State

The Lingering Dream of an Islamic State by Azadeh Moaveni – New York Times

It was inevitable, a young lawyer in Tunisia told me, that the first attempts at a modern Islamic state would flounder. Young Muslims had grown up under the paradigms of nationalism, European racism and harsh police states, he said. They carried these inherited behaviors into the caliphate formed by the Islamic State, a place that was supposed to be just and colorblind but instead reveled in violence and was studded with mini neocolonial enclaves, where British Pakistanis lorded over local Syrians, and Saudis lorded over everyone. It would take one or two generations to unlearn these tendencies and deconstruct what had gone so wrong, he said. But he remained loyal to the idea — partly because the alternative he currently lives under is worse. “When the police become the state itself,” he said, “it is truly terrifying.”

Seven years ago, when the Arab Spring rumbled through the region, there was genuine hope that Arab nations from Tunisia to Bahrain might reshape themselves in response to the calls from their publics for decent governance, a minimum standard of living and the rule of law. But the old orders proved resilient. The aftermath produced only collapsed states, open conflicts or even more intense repression. This grim reality — the virtual unreformability of the Arab nation-state, forever unpopular, but always protected by the West — was part of the appeal of the Islamic State. It remains undisturbed today.

The world has declared the defeat of the self-proclaimed caliphate, which has been reduced from controlling large, populous swathes of Iraq and Syria to a small enclave in the desert. The collapse has been accompanied by abundant discussion about what comes next: What to do with fleeing fighters? Who will prevail in intra-jihadi squabbles?

Almost none of this discussion has considered the impact of the Islamic State on the dream of some form of Islamic homeland, which predated the militants’ caliphate. If anything, it has been revitalized by this failed experiment in Islamic governance, among everyone from young, disenfranchised professionals and activists in the Arab world to at least two generations of European Muslims, middle-class and marginalized alike, who feel increasingly alienated by societies in which they were born.

The word “caliphate” burst into mainstream Western discussions in 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a territory of God, calling out to Muslims everywhere, “Rush, O Muslims, to your state,” reminding them that the idea of the nation was irrelevant to Islam, that “Syria was not for the Syrians” and that the earth belonged to Allah. In the West, the dusty antique sound of that word, “caliphate,” together with the Islamic State’s phantasmagorical violence, made the pronouncement seem delusional, a reflection of Mr. Baghdadi’s apocalyptic vision…

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