1. The declaration of the Caliphate: the caliphate declaration was undoubtedly intended to stir in the hearts of Muslims around the world a new hope for renewing their glory days as of old. Every Muslim child learns, justifiably, about the greatness of the Arabs and Muslims in the days of the caliphates. The Arab Peninsula was dominated by Muhammad’s armies during the Prophet’s lifetime. Between his death in 632 AD and the year 640 AD, Syria, Palestine and Egypt were captured from the Byzantines and Iraq was taken from the Sasanian Persian Empire. In just a few years, the Muslim Arabs overthrew the Persian Empire, captured additional territories previously held by the Byzantines and dominated all of North Africa. In the year 711 AD, the Umayyads captured Spain and in 725 AD they already dominated a part of southern France to the west and a major part of India (Sindh province located in today’s Pakistan) to the east. When young Muslim Arabs compare these amazing conquests and the establishment of such a magnificent empire within just a few years with the status and circumstances of Muslim Arabs in today’s world – they are deeply troubled. ISIS attempts to lure those Muslims by promising glory and greatness.
2. The Caliphate and Shia Islam: the reign of the first three Muslim caliphs is regarded by Shi’ite Muslims as a reign of plunder, as they robbed their leader, Imam Ali, of his right to the caliphate. Shi’ite Muslims hate the Umayyads mainly because they killed Imam Ali’s son, Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, and they hate the Abbasids because they oppressed the Shi’ite Imams. Accordingly, anyone declaring a caliphate also declares war against Shia Islam.
3. The Caliphate, Baghdad and the Abbasids: the new Caliph chose a very meaningful surname: “The Baghdadi”. This means that he regards Baghdad as the center of the future empire, as was the case under the Abbasid Empire (749 AD to 1258 AD). Why the black flag and uniforms? The black flag is regarded as the flag of the Prophet Muhammad (admittedly – without the white lettering on it). But the black flag is also the flag of the Abbasid caliphs whose center was Baghdad. Under the reign of the Abbasids, black uniforms were very common in the military and administration. The Chinese of the Tang Dynasty, for example (whose reign partially overlapped the Abbasid Golden Age) called the Abbasids “the Black-Robed Arabs” and “The Black Flags”. So, as far as the color of choice is concerned, the new “Caliphate” identifies itself as the successor to the first four Islamic caliphs followed by the Abbasids – but not the Umayyads.
4. The Caliphate and Saddam Hussein: Saddam never declared himself to be a caliph, but his conceptual connection with the Abbasid Caliphate centered in Baghdad was profound. One of the nicknames attached to his name was “Al-Mansur”, which means “Victorious by the grace of God”, but that was also the name of the most important Abbasid caliph (who ruled between 745 AD and 775 AD). Saddam also gave names derived from the Abbasid history to numerous military units he established. On the other hand, he detested the Umayyads who ruled from Damascus. He often spoke evil of the founder of the dynasty, Muawiya, and praised Imam Ali, the beloved imam of the Shi’ites, who fought Muawiya. In some of his speeches, Saddam even compared Hafez al-Assad to Muawiya and himself, by inference, to the Shi’ite Imams Ali (who ruled from Iraq) and his son Hussein (who was killed in Iraq in 680 AD). So, as far as the central role of Iraq and Baghdad is concerned, Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi is Saddam’s disciple. As far as hatred of the Shi’ites is concerned, however, there is no comparison: admittedly, Saddam was disappointed and furious when the Shi’ites revolted against him in March 1991, and even expressed his frustration about it in private conversations, but in his public speeches he spoke against the “traitors” rather than against the Shi’ites as a community or a religious congregation, and even left several Shi’ites in the top echelons of his administration and military untouched.
5. Beheadings: “Fida’i Saddam” were the only element in Iraq who used beheading in executions. It was their normal practice to violently drag a girl or a young woman from her home to a nearby square, force the local inhabitants to watch and then have her beheaded with a sword. The charge was normally prostitution, but in most cases they beheaded female members of families of which one of the men was a member of an anti-regime underground movement.
6. Islam: until the mid-1980s, the Ba’ath regime was secular, but at that time Saddam decided, for pragmatic considerations of public support, to “Islamize” the party and the state. In the 1990s, this process received a substantial boost. Between the years 2000 and 2003, Saddam himself repented, as indicated by internal documents of the Iraqi regime currently held by the Pentagon. Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi is a product of the last decade of Saddam’s reign. Saddam’s Islam was moderate, but he is dead and buried, and religious moderation died and was buried with him.