Caliphate’s modus operandi and EU external relations

, by Davide Zurlo

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Caliphate's modus operandi and EU external relations

The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) can mainly be traced back to two intertwined situations: the political turmoil which followed the demise of Saddam Hussein (2003) and the regional instability caused by the Syrian Civil War (2011). This complex scenario was essentially the “perfect storm” which allowed for IS to emerge and establish a de facto state, seizing vast swathes of territory precisely at the detriment of Iraq and Syria. In late June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi even appointed himself caliph, thus reviving an old Islamic institution, the Caliphate.

Abu Bakr did not declare a kingdom or a republic; nor did he appoint himself king or president. For those who are not familiar with Islamic studies, this decision may appear rather empty of significance. Nevertheless, as the term “caliph” historically implies both temporal and spiritual authority, the implications of this choice should not be underestimated, since the caliph is considered the ruler of the Ummah, the Muslim community. However, in order to sustain its claims, the IS had to achieve a state of legitimacy in which both the caliph and the Caliphate could have been deemed legitimate from an Islamic perspective.

Legitimacy becomes essential in the explanation of IS conduct in foreign affairs

Legitimacy is an achieved condition, ultimately the consequence of the process of legitimation (Kurtz 1984: 302). IS seeks religious legitimacy, unlike states such as Italy or the UK, which derive their legitimacy from the international principle: while the former concept entails collective agreement on a religious basis, the latter has more to do with Western secularized diplomatic practice based on mutual recognition of sovereignty, a concept which serves as the basis of the international society of states. Hence, legitimacy becomes essential in the explanation of how the IS conducts itself in foreign affairs since from an Islamic perspective the legitimation of the caliph’s authority requires the shared agreement of the Ummah regarding his election. Thus, the yearning of IS for religious legitimacy holds sway insofar as it condemns the IS to the pursuit of a particular conduct in international affairs. So far, the grim reality for the men of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is that their claims have been widely rejected by the Muslim community.

By and large, diplomacy is usually conceived as ‘a response to the possibility of violence’ (Constantinou 2013: 142), or latu senso ‘the conduct of relations between states and other entities with standing in world politics by official agents and by peaceful means’ (Bull, 1995: 156-7). However, to what extent could the behavior of the IS be deemed diplomatic? Perhaps its conduct in international affairs is best described as anti-diplomatic. IS openly shuns the Western-like secularized practice of diplomacy, banned as idolatrous, choosing instead the way prescribed by al-Qutb and al-Faraj. That is why the IS does not abide by international agreements regarding diplomatic immunity and the law of war. In fact, the IS anti-diplomacy is geared towards convincing the Muslim community of the legitimacy of the Caliphate and entails an utter rejection of the official (and secularized) mainstream channels of communication.

When the terrorist group Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) released a photo of the kidnapped Aldo Moro - at the time one of the most influential personalities in the Italian government - it appeared the following day on the front pages of 45 major newspapers worldwide (Der Derian 1992). Therefore, the Brigate Rosse was able to reach distant territories without ever leaving home turf: so does IS nowadays at a larger scale. Plus, having no embassies or officially appointed diplomats, the IS establishes direct communication through the far less controlled conduits of TV and Internet.

The threat ‘is not territorial, as in the case of conventional war, but temporal: its power is increasingly derived from the instantaneous representation and diffusion of violence by a global communication network’ (Der Derian 1992: 116). In this regard, Amaq and Dabiq [1] played a pivotal role in spreading IS propaganda and messages through the virtual domain. The shrewd use of technology allows the IS to bypass traditional channels of official communication, making IS anti-diplomacy fast and far-reaching, having thus the capacity to circumvent physical distance.

Religion in EU’s external relations: a neglected dimension?

The strategy of the IS entails carefully planned ruthlessness and logic. Mainstream diplomacy is the management of international relations by negotiation (Nicolson, 1950: 15), but the anti-diplomatic mode of operating modus operandi deployed by the IS, where mainstream diplomatic channels of communication are bypassed and ridiculed on a religious basis, can be considered antithetic to the Western conception of diplomatic practice, developed as a mediation of mutual estrangements between states (Der Derian 1992: 110). In this context, the EU could play a vital role in preventing a new Abu Bakr from declaring another caliphate by engaging in counterterrorism activities - and it should do so not solely through the immaterial realm, but also by enhancing the religious literacy of its officials, its fonctionnaires.

In fact, in February 2016, following a resolution adopted by the European Parliament, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker brought into being the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the EU, appointing Ján Figel to this role three months later. As a matter of a fact, in 2013, EU Member States approved the “EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief”, a document that gives the policy framework for the mandate of Ján Figel. The guidelines represent the essential tool to support FoRB both in EU external relations as well as in EU international cooperation and development.

Engaging with national authorities and institutions, civil society, human rights organizations, and more importantly, with religious leaders, can be a significant step capable of sapping the energy of future terrorist groups. Furthermore, EU diplomacy should be wedded to a more pragmatic approach towards the promotion of respect for diversity on religious grounds by supporting inclusive intercultural and interreligious dialogue processes in the EU territory and in its Southern neighborhood. Beset by the consequences of migration, the EU should acknowledge that terrorism will not be stymied solely by mere rhetoric: concrete actions need to be envisaged in order to fill the gap between the two shores of the Mediterranean.

 Bull, Hedley. (1977/1995) The Anarchical Society. A Study of Order in World Politics. London: Macmillan.
 Constantinou, Costas M. (2013) Between Statecraft and Humanism: Diplomacy and Its Forms of Knowledge. International Studies Review.
 Der Drian, J. (1992) Antidiplomacy. Wiley-Blackwell.
 Kurtz, D. (1984) Strategies of Legitimation and the Aztec State. Ethnology 23: 301-314.
 Nicolson, Sir Harold George. (1950) Diplomacy. Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.


[1The Amaq News Agency is an outlet launched in 2014 and it is linked to IS. Dabiq was an online magazine, the expression of IS propaganda.

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