As the world mark's the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first public appearance at the Great Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq. In a fiery sermon, the man who claims to be the leader of the first Islamic caliphate since 1924 in effect declared war against the non-Islamic world. Across the globe, especially in Europe and America, his words were greeted with ridicule and scorn. I would urge a less dismissive and much more analytical response.
Just like the Meccans who 14 centuries ago dismissed the Prophet Mohammed, only to later submit to him as the founder of the world's second largest religious community, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is currently seen as nothing more than a transient figure. This reaction should be tempered by remembrance of a previous dismissal, especially by American policy makers, when Osama bin Laden issued his fateful fatwa in 1996 declaring war on the United States.
In his sermon, al-Baghdadi makes clear that the formation of the Islamic caliphate is merely a means to an end. That end is defined in terms as brutally stark as they are unambiguous: revenge. In the words of the new caliph, "By Allah, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator."
Who are the targets of al-Baghdadi's uncompromising hatred? In general terms, he defines them as "the crusaders and the atheists, and the guards of the Jews!" In addition, those political rulers within the Muslim world who, in his view, are agents of the above enemies, are also included on the target list. This would include advocates within the Islamic world for pluralistic democracy, since this contradicts, in al-Baghdadi's worldview, the will of Allah, as manifested in Islam's shariah law.
Much of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's polemic was devoted to annunciating contemporary grievances against the Muslim world which, in his strident mindset, cry out for a powerful vengeance. More than 20 specific references were made in al-Baghdadi's sermon. Perhaps surprisingly, the Israel-Palestine conflict ranked only seventh on the caliph's list, preceded by references to violence against Muslims in Burma, Kashmir, the Philippines, Bosnia and the Caucasus. The offending states include Russia, India and China, as well France (its sin being laws passed by the nation's legislature for promoting the separation of church and state, which included restrictions on the wearing of the hijab). Iran is also singled out as anti-Islamic, its Shiite form of Islamic governance regarded as apostasy and heresy, the most grievous of all anti-Islamic offenses in the eyes of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers.
In Islamic jurisprudence and shariah texts, holy war or jihad can be conducted against unbelievers and apostates. An extension of this theological rationale for waging war in the name of God is the division of the world into the House of Islam and the House of War, the latter encompassing the unbelievers and apostates. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has very dramatically appealed to his followers in a warlike sermon, calling on them to follow him as their leader as he wages war for the propagation of Islam by exacting revenge on the entirety of our planet that falls outside the new caliph's definition of the House of Islam.
There will be a tendency to ignore or belittle Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in much of the world. However, irrespective of what one may think of his merciless manner of waging war and general lack of humanity, I think that, looked at objectively, there can be no denying that Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a remarkably charismatic and able leader of the international jihadi movement.
Extremist notions in religion are not the monopoly of Islam. In times past, the most savage religious wars have been waged in the name of Christianity. In the seventeenth century the Thirty-Years War between Protestants and Catholics wiped out one-third of Germany's population. In 1850 Hong Xiuquan, a Chinese religious fanatic, became convinced he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, chosen by God to bring Christianity to China through the sword, and he launched the Taiping Rebellion. When the rebellion was finally suppressed in 1864, between 20 and 40 million Chinese were slaughtered, making this religious war the second bloodiest military conflict in history. And that was with weapons that were very primitive by current standards.
The lessons of history itself should compel us to take Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's promise to wage a ferocious worldwide war of vengeance against those he sees as the enemies of God with the utmost seriousness. His sermon in Mosul may very well mark the opening shots of the Third World War, and the most ferocious religious conflict since the Taiping Rebellion.