GIGA Focus International Edition English

The Caliph’s New Clothes: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

Number 6 | 2014 | ISSN: 1862-3581

  • On 9 June 2014, fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pushed deep into Iraq from Syria. Within a few days they had taken over the west of the country and advanced to just outside of Baghdad. On 29 June 2014 they declared the formation of the “Islamic State” and a new caliphate.


    For the first time, jihadists are in control of a contiguous, transnational territory in the Middle East. However, with the designation of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as “the Caliph” – the religious and political leader of all Muslims – they may have overreached, ideologically and politically.

    • The rapid success of ISIS in Iraq has several causes: Iraq is politically and ethnically divided and in some places without centralized power. ISIS already had a territorial base in Syria and some Iraqi towns under its control; extensive resources in terms of weapons, money, and fighters; and Iraqi allies in the fight against the unpopular government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad.

    • By adopting the early Islamic concept of the caliphate, ISIS is appealing to many Muslims’ longing for cultural authenticity, religious purity, and political unity. It is not fulfilling this promise, however, because its brutal approach is dividing societies and even scaring off many Sunni Muslims – whom it claims to defend.

    • Inherent to the caliphate is a claim to sole political and religious representation, which neither the existing Muslim states nor most Sunni religious authorities will be willing to accept – not to mention the numerous religious and ethnic minorities in the region.

    • The advance of ISIS has intensified the fragmentation of Iraq and could accelerate the dissolution of the single state there. However, a breakdown into individual ethnic-confessional micro-states would not do away with ISIS. It would also not solve the country’s problems, but rather multiply them.


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      How to cite this article

      Rosiny, Stephan (2014), The Caliph’s New Clothes: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, GIGA Focus International Edition English, 6, Hamburg: German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA),


      The GIGA Focus is an Open Access publication and can be read on the Internet and downloaded free of charge at According to the conditions of the Creative-Commons license Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0, this publication may be freely duplicated, circulated, and made accessible to the public. The particular conditions include the correct indication of the initial publication as GIGA Focus and no changes in or abbreviation of texts.

      The German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) – Leibniz-Institut für Globale und Regionale Studien in Hamburg publishes the Focus series on Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and global issues. The GIGA Focus is edited and published by the GIGA. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the institute. Authors alone are responsible for the content of their articles. GIGA and the authors cannot be held liable for any errors and omissions, or for any consequences arising from the use of the information provided.

      Dr. Stephan Rosiny

      Dr. Stephan Rosiny

      Former GIGA Team member

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