AMMAN, Jordan — Jordanian Islamist groups have rejected the announcement of an Islamic caliphate by al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) on territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria, a move they see as a “rush job,” “forced” and “illegitimate.”
The Sunni militant organization declared itself a caliphate on June 29, renamed itself “Islamic State“ and proclaimed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph of the Muslim world.
Salafist and al-Qaeda spiritual leader Assem Barqawi, better known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the most influential voices in Salafist Islam, dismissed the declaration of a new caliphate in a lengthy statement posted July 1 on his website branding the group “deviant” and against the principles of both Islam and Sharia.
The cleric was detained for 16 of the last 21 years in Jordanian jails before being released from prison earlier in June, after serving a five-year prison term on allegations of posing a threat to state security and recruiting jihadists to fight in Afghanistan.
Many see the release of the fierce IS critic a move for Jordan's security as the movement has swiftly gained large swaths of territories in eastern Syria and western Iraq, posing a threat to the kingdom that has lately stepped up security measures at its borders.
About 100 demonstrators in Jordan’s southern city of Maan had raised the IS black battle flag amid protests against the government late in June, and security analysts have estimated that at least half of the approximate 2,000 Jordanians who are fighting in Syria and Iraq today are affiliated with IS.
Maqdisi’s influence and his criticism toward IS could help reduce Jordanian and regional Islamists’ enthusiasm for the newly established caliphate.
“Maqdisi is highly respected by jihadists, and not only in Jordan, as he used to be one of the prominent thinkers of al-Qaeda and Salafist jihadists worldwide,” Oraib al-Rantawi, director-general of the Amman-based Al-Quds Center for Political Studies and expert on Islamic movements, told Al-Monitor.
“His statement will have a direct impact on many of the jihadist and Salafist movements in the region, and it will make them reluctant to positively receive the declaration of the caliphate and call for jihad by Baghdadi,” Rantawi said.
Maqdisi declared he was not alarmed by the declaration of the caliphate, calling it a “rush job,” and that "whoever hastens something prematurely will be punished by being deprived of that for which he fights."
The al-Qaeda cleric, originally from a small town near Zarqa, northeast of Amman, served as spiritual mentor to the late Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Iraqi al-Qaeda leader behind hundreds of beheadings, bombings and kidnappings during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and considered the founder of what is today IS.
Zarqawi was eventually killed by a US airstrike in Baghdad in 2006.
Denouncing the extremism of the Islamist group that, according to him, is shedding the blood of other Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and setting a bad example for the youth across the region, Maqdisi said he had received death threats ahead of the release of his statement from rival groups for being allegedly biased against IS.
But this has not prevented him from stating “what is just.”
“Some people's claim that I'm only listening to one side is incorrect. I shared my prison cell with [IS] supporters who used to communicate with factions in Syria and came to me with information from the [IS] organization. I listened to all the parties.”
Saying that all jihadists were eventually wishing for the return of the caliphate, erasure of borders and raising the banner of unification, Maqdisi said the extremes for such a declaration must be met in reality on the ground before an announcement can be made, going on in his statement to challenge the premise of the newly established state.
"Is this caliphate going to be a safe haven for all the vulnerable people and a shelter for every Muslim? Or will this name become a hanging sword over Muslims who disagree with them? Will this lead to the abolishment of all Islamic emirates that came before their declared state, and will it invalidate all the other groups that are engaging in jihad for the sake of God in all fields before them?" he wrote.
Sheikh Hamza Mansour, Jordan's Islamic Action Front leader, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the kingdom, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview that he believed “a caliphate should be established with the people’s consent, or else it would just be imposed on people.”
“This is not the first time a caliphate has been announced. It happened before in Afghanistan and also in Iran when [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei called himself the Imam of the Muslims. … This is just one incident,“ Mansour said, labeling the IS announcement an “extravagance.”
“The declaration, however, will surely have repercussions on the overall region. The effect is not about the caliphate or whatever you call it, but for the war itself in Iraq and Syria that might spill over to neighboring countries,” Mansour said.
Mohammad Shalabi (Abu Sayyaf), head of the Jordanian jihadist Salafist Movement, said he would wait until Muslim leaders and clerics have expressed an opinion on the declaration of the caliphate before commenting on it, local media reported.
“This is not only a row between Jordanian jihadists and [IS] — almost all the Salafist jihadists in the region are divided over the declaration of the caliphate, in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia, in the Gulf states, in Yemen,” Rantawi said, adding this was not a new row within the jihadist movement.
“Even during the Zarqawi era in Iraq in 2005-2006, there were serious disputes between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan led by Osama bin Laden. They were against Zarqawi’s extreme approach, especially against ordinary Shiites, Christians and some other Sunni jihadist movements during the US occupation. It was the same discussion, the same argument. The same that bin Laden and current al-Qaeda leader [Ayman al-] Zawahri had with Zarqawi.”