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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Cartographies of fear: Who wants a bigger Caliphate than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

Over the past few months the al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām (ISIS or ISIL)the jihadist militant group active primarily in Syria, swept through the Syrian-Iraqi border and, benefiting from the support and know-how of some of Saddam Hussein's army officers, pressed on for Baghdad virtually through the Mosul and Tikrit highway. 
Its unprecedented success was too good not to make maximum use of. ISIS promptly renamed itself al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah  - Islamic State - shedding its limiting territorial aspirations of its earlier phase. It did so by proclaiming the end of the territorial demarcation of the Middle East that came to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement and by designating itself as the modern-day Caliphate. To add to the gravity of this emotionally loaded move, the establishment of this new Caliphate was said to be proclaimed 'one hundred years from the start of the dismantling of the last - Ottoman - caliphate', a claim that, despite its arbitrary character seems to have been received by some as a sign of divine approval for the project.
The Islamic State, exploiting the vacuum left by a weak and sectarian Iraqi central government enjoying the thinnest of legitimacy has been able to gain control of an extensive part of Eastern Syria and of Iraq's Sunni triangle, attempt encroachments in the area controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government and lay siege to the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobanê (otherwise known as Ayn al-Arab) that allows it easy access to the Turkish border and continuity of its territorial gains in Northern Syria and Iraq.

Keen to consolidate itself in the minds of the Muslim world as well as of the Western publics as a force to be reckoned with IS quickly after its rapid advance towards Baghdad issued a statement that gave an idea of its territorial aspirations. The IS was aspiring to extend its reach to a substantial part of the Dar al Islam. To mark this, a map of uncertain provenance was circulated through twitter. Although the map constitutes a rendition of previous ones crafted by sympathisers of the IS and other similar groups, it is important to point out that there are serious reservations as to whether it depicts the Islamic State territorial ambitions.On June 3 2014 ABC News published this map — also cited by — which was “purportedly published” by ISIS and “widely shared on Twitter.” According to ABC, the “terrifying” map was “published at the same time that ISIS announced the creation of a caliphate.” But ABC News didn’t actually trace the image to ISIS, and instead relied on a tweet of the image from American Third Position (A3P). As a sceptical reader pointed out, “This is one of those ‘garbage in, garbage out’ stories, since the source of ABC News’ was Twitter.” 

What was surprising was the map's selectivity and, possibly, lack of 'unrealistic' ambition. As one can see, the map depicting the territorial aspirations of the IS (above), despite its detail, does not extend into SE Asia to include countries such as Bangladesh, Malaysia or Indonesia, yet it extends to the entire Iberian Peninsula (including the north, historically seat to Christian dynasties that eventually presided over the Reconquista. Austria and Slovakia are also included despite the fact that historically they have remained outside the Dar-al-Islam. Similarly in Africa and Asia substantial discrepancies between the historical expansion of Islam and what the map depicts.Perhaps this surprise was shared by the Daily Mail who was quick to notice and, of course, 'make up' for the omission of the cartographers working for the Islamic State by issuing its own rendition of the territorial claims of the Caliphate (left) including India whose security doctrine contains a strong dose of Islamic threat. 

Needless to say that this, latter map, went viral over the internet as it was seen by many as more 'authentic', more believable than the map based on the IS statements of intent. In addition to its rapid territorial expansion and its sleek communications campaign, the IS acquires more substance as Western media like Daily Mail construct a suppereality that exceeds IS's or its supporters' own sense of the feasible.  

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