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ISIS: Storm in a Teacup or Real Threat?

On the morning of June 30, various media channels reported that ISIS declared the Muslim “caliphate” stretching across Iraq and Syria.

ISIS refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or Levant), a Sunni Muslim extremist and militant group, currently led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

One of its major aims is to restore the glorious earliest days of Islam by re-establishing the strong Islamic rule throughout the lands, known as the Caliphate, and applying the Islamic law.

It began as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) around the summer of 2006, representing one of the jihadist Sunni Muslim groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq, which sought to defend Muslim lands against the non-Muslim invasions of Iraq, as well as the growing Shiite Muslim threat.

In 2011, with the emergence of the Syrian civil war, it became ISIS.

Interestingly, the declaration of the caliphate coincides with the beginning of the most holy Muslim month, Ramadan, in which pious Muslims observe the practice of fasting from dawn to sunset.

Declaring the “caliphate” on this first day of the most sacred Muslim month brings a significant religious flavor to their proclamation.

In addition, ISIS renamed itself “Islamic State,” most likely to make room for the expansion of its territory beyond Iraq and Syria.

Immediately, ISIS’ supporters produced a new map for the Middle East describing a “five year expansion plan” of the Islamic Caliphate.

While this “caliphate” declaration could be merely a storm in a teacup or an attempt to gain international attention, it still speaks volumes about its ideology.

This declaration serves as a fulfillment of the voiced desire of its leader to restore the old and most pious dream of the Muslim Sunni State, the caliphate.

His real name is Ibrahim Ê¿AwwÄd al-BadrÄ« al-SamarrÄ’Ä«, but he renamed himself after Abu Bakr, the first pious caliph (successor) after Muhammad, according to the Sunni tradition and announced himself as the Caliph of the Muslims.

Obviously, this ISIS “caliphate” dream could be thwarted because of various factors:

1. Lack of soldiers–the maximum reported number is 10,000.

2. International political resurgence opposing ISIS.

3. Strong Shiite crescent, including Iran, Hezbollah and southern Iraq.

4. Political diversity and disharmony within ISIS.

5. Rejection by other Sunni militant groups (nine groups reported), such as al-Qaida, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

However, it would be far from wise to take such incidents and actions lightly because ISIS has become the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world.

When they succeeded in occupying Mosul, Iraq, they released the first official ISIS passport in which they swear, “We will deploy armies to defend the holder of this passport if harmed.”

Moreover, Abu Bakr, who used to be known as the unseen leader, made his first public appearance in a video delivering a speech (celebrating Ramadan) in a Mosque in Mosul, Iraq.

In the video, Abu Bakr, completely dressed in black, called all Muslims to recognize and obey him as the Caliph.

ISIS stated that he was following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who, according to a Muslim tradition, was wearing a black turban in the glorious day of his victory over his enemies in the conquest of Mecca (630 AD).

Underestimating the growing threat of ISIS is not wise. It is reported to have succeeded in suppressing (or better, plundering) many regions of northern and western Iraq, including the famous oil city, Mosul.

They now control an area of land that exceeds five times the area of the Republic of Lebanon, including very strategic cities on the Turkish-Syrian and Iraqi-Syrian borders and northeastern parts of Aleppo, the second most important city in Syria.

They have raised their black flags, with the Muslim creed or declaration of faith written in the middle, not only in cities, but also over churches in cities like Mosul, Iraq.

They declared responsibility for the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, promising the Lebanese more attacks.

One of the latest reports affirms that ISIS forced “more than 30,000 people” to leave their homes in eastern Syria in the city of Shuheil.

ISIS views Islam as both a religion and state. In their terms, Islam must rule; it is both leadership and worship.

They recognize only their version of Islam, applying Islamic law based solely on their interpretation.

While they are Sunnis, they fight against other Sunni Muslims. Moreover, they fight against various Shiite Muslim groups as well as against the Kurds.

Most recently, Abu Bakr, in his first speech after the announcement of his Islamic “caliphate,” “vowed to lead the conquest of Rome as he called on Muslims to immigrate to his new land to fight under its banner around the globe.”

This demonstrates ISIS’ dream to revive what they view as the best days in Islam after the prophet–the days of the Rashidi Caliphate, during which the Muslims conquered the Byzantine Empire, the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

Some may tend to mock ISIS and their “minor” military achievements, considering it delusional to write about the growing power of ISIS.

However, history teaches us that we must never underestimate the mixture of tyranny and religious ideology.

We should acknowledge the threat of ISIS, which is driven by religious zeal to restore what they believe to be the best days of Islam.

Today in the West, some may sarcastically laugh at the new appointed caliph, while some in the east have already given Abu Bakr and ISIS their oath of allegiance.

The Middle East is wounded by several groups claiming to be Muslim. After the significant defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood in many countries, now it has to deal with the growing power of ISIS, or as they renamed it: IS.

Ayman Ibrahim is a Coptic Egyptian who has a doctorate in Islamic studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is currently working on his post-doctoral work in Islamic history. You can follow him on Twitter @al2ostaz.