A caliphate, according to Muhammad Qasim Zaman in the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, “symbolizes…the classical history of Islam and of the Muslim community. The early caliphate was not only the force behind the military expansion of the Arab Muslims immediately after the death of Muhammad, it was also the institution that kept the Muslims together as a religious and political entity. For all the adverse views that abound about the Umayyads in Arabic historiography, it was through their caliphate that the political survival of the Muslim community was assured. And it was in the framework of the caliphal state under the Umayyads and then under the Abbasids that the religious and cultural institutions of Islam evolved. The formation of Islam, its intellectual life, and culture in the first centuries is, in short, not merely intertwined with but inconceivable without the caliphate."
A digital caliphate, for obvious reasons, is slightly different according to Abdel Bari Atwan in his book Islamic State:The Digital Caliphate in that the insatiable need for survival certainly still exists. However, IS’ use of technology has made survival more probable which in turn has made the group a more prevailing presence in the Middle East and around the globe. Atwan writes, “Islamic State has been able to encompass a territory the size of Great Britain as a result of a perfect storm of political, historical, cultural, and technological circumstances. From recruitment and propaganda, to directing simultaneous military actions at great distances apart and consolidating allegiances with like-minded groups, IS has used the Internet and digital communications with great skill and inventiveness competently fending off threats from global intelligence bodies and military opponents."
Atwan wants his readers to recognize that the power possessed by the Islamic State is very real and continues to mature due to lucrative social networking strategies, unmonitored maneuvering from popular website to popular website, and persuasive digital marketing campaigns that target youth groups and easily influenced individuals in need of validation or an understanding of their own purpose in a world connected and disconnected at the same time. Islamic State with a mix of history, subtle commentary, hard-hitting journalism and shocking interviews with members of the State provides the reader with a rich and contemporary text that focuses its attention on how much bigger and imposing this initiative has become since Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011. Immortality, in essence, has become a reality through branding, savvy web development, and high definition viewing.
Atwan asserts that immortality has its own corporate model and its own “brand,” which ironically is death. For Islamic State’s enterprise to continue this “brand” has to be marketed and the way to market it is to recruit or employ a variety of young, impressionable professionals who are familiar with the “product”: coders, information technology specialists, online marketers, web developers, video game creators, filmmakers, journalists, photographers, editors, radio personalities, hackers, etc. Islamic State now is a big business and like with any big business, the best way to get the message out is to have a digital presence. The mass media landscape is vast, it is growing, and it is the perfect place to communicate one’s message even when it promotes violence, murder, and hatred. Atwan writes, “IS realizes that it has to keep pace with the Internet generation in order to remain relevant. Thousands of Twitter accounts, RSS feeds, and messaging networks provide a constant stream of battle reports and news about life in Islamic State. Thus they keep potential recruits and supporters engaged, counteract the propaganda efforts of the enemy, and share news…"
Later in Islamic State, in the chapter entitled “Consolidation and Expansion,” Atwan speaks about how the digital caliphate started on July 1st, 2014, although “there has been an almost unbroken succession of Islamic caliphates, in one form or another, for 1,300 years, with the only significant gap occurring between the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and 2014." The caliph, the successor of the Prophet Muhammad, is also “the undisputed head of state,” and after “Muhammad’s death, the first caliphate was established by his followers and family to continue the religious, judicial, and social systems he had established.” Throughout the years, caliphs have proclaimed themselves as such or have been chosen because of hereditary reasons; the current self-proclaimed caliph is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who according to Massimo Calabresi, writer for Time, that along “with his ambitious territorial goals in the Middle East, al-Baghdadi has elaborated an apocalyptic vision of a final battle between the forces of radical Islam and the West. In a Ramadan sermon delivered in mid-2014, he declared slavery to be the universal human condition: Muslim believers indentured to Allah, while nonbelievers are the rightful property of Muslims. He also said the time of death for each man and woman is pre-ordained, implying that all killings must be the will of Allah.”
According to Time Baghdadi was the second most influential person in the world after Angela Merkel in 2015. Much of that has to do with his authoritarian but stellar leadership qualities. Islamic State, very much like any efficiently run government, has a power structure that is meticulously detailed by Atwan. Baghdadi has two deputies that communicate to “the lower runs of the hierarchy.” He has The Shura Council that deals with legal and religious items and complaints associated with those two items (just recently the leader of this council, Amr al-Absi, was killed in an Aleppo air strike). He has The Security and Intelligence Council, The Military Council, The Economic Council, The Education Council, The Islamic State Institution for Public Information, and The Provincial Council. Along with these, there is a cabinet that deals with everyday matters and this cabinet consists of “a general management official, an officer for prisoners and hostages, a general security overseer, finance representatives, people in charge of new arrivals of foreign and Arab jihadists, and those who arrange transport of suicide bombers…a coordinator for the affairs of martyrs and women, as well as somebody responsible for rigging improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and bombs." Just like any good leader, he has surrounded himself with capable, savvy, and loyal subordinates that are more than willing to his bidding.
Atwan goes to great lengths to make sure that his readers understand that Islamic State is not a new conception and that the origins of how the State grew into popularity and prominence started years before in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. His “Origin” chapters are an in-depth study of the rise of Salafi-jihadists, al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISI, and the Assad dynasty (among dozens of other groups vying for power in the Middle East). These chapters, admittedly, are a bit dizzying because they chronicle a multitude of names, dates, and eventual takeovers but the reader does get the full scope of the corruption, the disorganization, and the violence that has taken place in these chaotic countries over the last fifteen years. Atwan is particularly condemning of Bashar al-Assad, how his “regime brutally put down the rebellion, resulting in more than 200,000 civilian deaths” and how in “a very short space of time, secular and relatively modern Syria became the arena for the most extreme sectarian polarization, tearing the country apart and causing regional and international super-powers to align themselves on either side of the proxy battleground."
What is so brilliant about Islamic State is that this work is mostly journalistic in tone but Atwan carefully picks and chooses moments to make scathing or insightful commentary. Nearer to the end of his work, Atwan states that the Islamic State “is more powerful, more effective, more ruthless, and more worrying than anything that has gone before,” but their “achievements on the ground lend it unprecedented credibility." It is this sort of honest and straight-forward assessment of the situations in the Middle East that makes Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate so compelling along with his realistic views that it is here to stay as long as it has the means to market itself globally, and to a disenfranchised and alienated youth culture tired of not having a powerful enough voice to spark meaningful change. Yes, Islamic State is brutal and calculating but they are organized, they are persuasive, and they know how to market themselves. In turn, they have become a success story.
Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Composition and Communications at SUNY Cobbleskill. He has published in Film and History, Scope, The Journal of American Studies of Turkey, and The Common Good: a SUNY Plattsburgh Journal on Teaching and Learning. He focuses on around mass media, mainly film and composition.