On the 29th of January 2014, a man dressed in a traditional black thobe climbed the minbar of the magnificent centuries-old al-Nuri mosque – well-known for its leaning minaret overlooking Mosul – and declared the (re)establishment of an Islamic caliphate. His name was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State (IS). The eponymous organisation pledged to bring an end to the ‘Sykes-Picot borders’ –a reference to the border drawn in the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War –and to offer an alternative to the un-Islamic, despotic and corrupted Arab rule in the region. While the world received the unprecedented announcement with a degree of fascination and puzzlement, we wondered what the scope of this declaration would be and what it would mean for other violent and non-violent actors advocating for the centrality of Islam in social and political affairs of Muslims. And so, we embarked on a four year exploration of the IS which took us to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. We were looking at the IS in the context of the post-2010 Arab uprisings. On our journey, we interacted with policy makers, academics, journalists, civil society organisations, religious leaders and ordinary citizens who had sometimes been displaced byt he region’s raging conflicts. We also travelled across centuries, trying to situate –to better make sense of –the rise ofIS in the development and evolution of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and its most violent form, Salafi-jihad. Adopting this historical approach, coupled with our detailed analysis of IS’ discourse over the three years of its Caliphate (June 2014-July 2017) helped us identify and catalogue the core characteristics and claims of the IS. In doing so, we identified the weaknesses at the heart of the group’s programme and the structural shortcomings of its mission. These are of course common trait of Islamists –whether they use violent or peaceful means to achieve their goals –in the MENA region, but to us none had thus far had the effect and influence of this Caliphate.
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