Marco Werman: Actually, talking to the other side during a conflict may be the only hope for ending it. In Iraq, the fighters of the Islamic State are doing their communicating mainly through bullets and violence. There has been just one video from the fearsome leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and one thing that stood out was his desire to create a whole new geopolitical fact on the ground, a literal Islamic State, or caliphate. It's an ancient and abstract idea, so to get a handle on what it means, I spoke with Islam scholar, Tarek Masoud, an associate professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Forgive my ignorance, is a caliphate something that's actually mandated in the Quran? Why is there a need for there to be a caliphate, or is there no need?
Tarek Masoud: Well, it's not mandated in the Quran but there is obviously a precedent going back to early Islamic history. Remember, the Prophet Muhammad wasn't just the messenger of God. He was also the temporal leader of the community of Muslims. And so when the Prophet Muhammad died, his best friend and son-in-law became the caliph, the successor to the Prophet Muhammad and basically there was a caliph, a leader of the entire Muslim community, somebody called the Commander of the Faithful, all the way until 1924, so it's something that's deeply embedded in the Muslim historical experience. After the caliphate was dissolved in 1924, lots of Muslims have yearned to bring it back.
Werman: What then is a caliphate supposed to be? Do you have an ideal caliphate?
Masoud: I'm not sure there's an ideal caliphate. I think if you were to inject these young men with sodium pentothal, these people who joined the caliphate, and asked them "What do you really want out of ISIS?" they wouldn't tell you necessarily something about the application of Islamic law. That might be part of it but what they really want is to harken back to some imagined glorious period where the Muslim community was the #1 political and military power on this planet, where the Muslim empire extended all the way from Spain to the other side of the world. That's what they really look for because they feel today, Muslims are weak, divided, American and Western troops have free reign of Muslim lands, Muslim homes are not secure anywhere. Of course, the pictures out of Gaza I think just further reinforce this feeling that some of these people have that what's needed is for Muslims to unite and once Muslims unite, then these kinds of things, these tragedies will not happen to them. I think that's what these people are about.
Werman: Are Muslims around the world going "Wow, Iraq and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they're capturing those glory days of Islam"?
Masoud: I think absolutely not. I think, first of all, ISIS - we're reading about a lot of people joining ISIS but it's still a fringe group. In fact, even among radical Islamists who might be most hospitable to this idea that you've got to resurrect the caliphate, there's a huge amount of disagreement. So no, I absolutely don't think there's any kind of consensus that this represents the caliphate -
Werman: And yet in London, on good 'ol Oxford Street, there are people handing out leaflets in support of the Islamic State. So who are they?
Masoud: Yes. So those are basically supporters of a fringe group in London called al-Muhajiroun that is led by a quite colorful and insane character named Anjem Choudary. So look, there have always been people like this for whom, again, support of the idea of ISIS is perhaps striking a blow as what they see as Western imperialism. But again, I don't think this means that Muslims in London or any Western capital are thinking about migrating to Iraq to live under the Islamic State.
Werman: So maybe not support for the caliphate as perceived by the Islamic State but are there Muslims who do think that there ought to be a caliphate somewhere in the world?
Masoud: Sure, absolutely. But again, once you start interrogating the vision for the caliphate, you see there are very different ones. I'd say the vast majority of Muslims are pretty much happy with the nation states that they live under. If you ask them "Do you support the caliphate?" Even those who said yes probably just think of it in kind of notional terms, not as a real government that would actually unite Muslims from Indonesia to Morocco.
Werman: Tarek Masoud from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, thanks very much for unpacking this for us.
Masoud: Thank you Marco.