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Sunni Muslims Declare New Caliphate, Is It For Real?


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. We've been hearing a lot these past few weeks about the extremist Sunni militants who call themselves ISIS and have taken over large parts of Iraq. On Sunday, to mark the beginning of Ramadan, ISIS rebranded itself simply the Islamic State. It announced that this new, so-called state was the return of the caliphate. The caliphate was a Muslim kingdom ruled by descendents of the prophet Mohammed. For more, we've got historian Juan Cole on the line. His latest book out today is "The New Arabs: How The Millennial Generation Is Changing The Middle East." Welcome to the program.

JUAN COLE: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: Now, what does it mean in the Muslim world when a group declares itself the new caliphate?

COLE: Well, it's a little bit odd because there hasn't been a recognized caliph since at least 1924 and I think for most of the Muslim world you go back to the medieval time since there has been one. So it's anachronistic.

MONTAGNE: Though for the group itself, what is it trying to say to the world?

COLE: Well, it's a claim on religious authority, but this is a relatively small guerrilla group, a few thousand fighters, who've had success in making political coalitions in northern Iraq because the Sunnis there feel oppressed and desperate, but it's faintly ridiculous.

MONTAGNE: You know, we know the Muslim world is divided between Sunni and Shia - where does this whole concept of a caliphate fit into that?

COLE: Well, it is a Sunni political institution of the medieval period. After the prophet Mohammed died in 632 in Medina, there was a question of how he should be succeeded - who his vicars should be. And just as in Christianity, you know, Protestants have a preference for the teachings of Paul perhaps and Roman Catholics tend toward Peter. So in Islam, the Shiites rallied around the prophet's son-in-law and cousin, Ali, whereas the Sunni tradition believes that he was properly succeeded by a series of notables chosen by consensus from the same tribe as the prophet, the Quraysh.

MONTAGNE: So, in a sense, for a Sunni group to declare its lands that it's grabbed, a caliphate, that is saying something to the Shias.

COLE: Well, it is, in a way, in the sense that the Shia reject the Sunni idea of the caliphate, but it's mainly an attempt to rally the Sunnis. And it is also a response to European colonialism because the narrative of these people is that the European colonialists divided up the Muslim world, which had been united - or at least more united - under the Ottoman rulers some of whom claimed to be caliphs. And so by having a center of religious authority that would unite the 1.5 billion Muslims, they could more easily stand up to the West.

MONTAGNE: Now, you know, the caliphate was something - a caliphate - was something Osama bin Laden was trying to create. It's worth remembering, obviously, he failed to do that. Is there any reason to think that this small group will succeed where he failed?

COLE: Oh, no, as I said, it's in the urban centers of the Muslim world in Cairo and Jakarta - the vast majority of people would be offended. This is not something that's likely to have much success. And remember, as you say, Mullah Omar of Uruzgan in Afghanistan made similar claims and I think almost nobody accepts those.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

COLE: You're very welcome.

MONTAGNE: Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and his latest book is called "The New Arabs." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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