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The new Islamic caliphate and its war against history

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, on Sunday. (Reuters/Stringer)

ISIS, the Sunni jihadist group whose fighters now control a vast swath of territory in Syria and Iraq, punctuated its astonishing rise last weekend with the declaration of an Islamic state, a new "caliphate" to which Muslims everywhere must pay obeisance. "Here the flag of the Islamic State, the flag of tawhīd (monotheism), rises and flutters," read the group's statement, posted online in various languages. "Its shade covers land from Aleppo to Diyala," referring to territory in Syria's north and Iraq's east.

The new caliph is the militants' shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. My colleagues have already explored what this declaration means for ISIS (now also referred to simply as "IS", for the Islamic State), an al-Qaeda splinter group that is at odds with its extremist parent. The restoration of a caliphate is the stated objective for many jihadist organizations, eager to overthrow the 20th century nation-state system grafted onto the Middle East after World War I.

During their offensive through Iraq earlier this month, ISIS fighters reportedly bulldozed an earthen bulwark on the Iraq-Syria border. A statement posted alongside a picture of the bulldozer claimed the group was demolishing the "Sykes-Picot" border that divided the two countries, nations the militants deem artificial creations by European colonial powers.

"This symbolic action by ISIS fighters against a century-old imperial carve-up shows the extent to which one of the most radical groups fighting in the Middle East today is nurtured by the myth of precolonial innocence," writes historian Malise Ruthven in the New York Review of Books.

The "Sykes-Picot border" is a reference to a secret agreement hatched in 1916 by two leading British and French diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot. The two countries covetously eyed the lands of the crumbling Ottoman Empire -- a World War I enemy -- and, alongside Russia, agreed to its partition into separate spheres of influence and control. This flew in the face of separate, more public deals made with Arab leaders, offering guarantees of an independent Arab state with Damascus as its capital in return for support against the Ottomans.

What followed after World War I is the source of justified grievance in the Arab world. While the victorious Allies affirmed the national aspirations of Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks and other Eastern Europeans who once lived under the Ottoman yoke, they did not afford such courtesies to Arabs seeking their own independence. The French soon sent troops into Syria and brutally cracked down on nationalist dissidents; the British retained control over modern-day Iraq's oil fields and turned the port city of Basra into a strategic stop along the route to its colonial dominions in India. British Arabists like T.E. Lawrence who had helped engineer the Arab uprisings against the Ottomans were left bitterly disappointed by the double-dealing of their masters.

The independent countries that did emerge in the decades thereafter (and after another World War) did not directly reflect the boundaries drawn up by Sykes and Picot. But they did carry the imprint of European meddling: the sectarian partitioning of Syria and Lebanon, the invention of Jordan, the deeply divisive creation of the state of Israel.

That legacy hangs forever over the Middle East's turbulent politics almost as a moment of original sin. In recent months, a host of commentators have gestured to the "unraveling" of the Sykes-Picot consensus as civil war and political crisis in Syria and Iraq collapse borders and have led to new conversations about the partitioning of the region's polities. This is a narrative that ISIS is probably all too happy to embrace and propagate, casting itself as an avenger of history and the next heir to the caliphate after the Ottoman Empire.

And this is where that narrative becomes immediately suspect. For centuries, the Ottomans held sway over a vast, complex and diverse empire, home to many ethnicities and faiths. Despite the various injustices of its rule, it had a reputation for tolerance. The puritanical, bloodthirsty zealots now running riot in Syria and Iraq have been desecrating graves, destroying crosses and executing non-Sunnis. They would have not fit well among the Ottomans.

Moreover, the "artificial" boundary between Iraq and Syria was a creation of Ottoman rule, with the land once known as Mesopotamia organized into the three Ottoman "vilayets" of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. It's important to remember such nuance, suggests Financial Times' Roula Khalaf, before pointing the finger at European perfidy:

Syria and Iraq referred to specific geographic entities long before the collapse of the empire. Under the British and French mandates, the main protestation over borders was about the partitioning of Greater Syria into several mini-states, with one part also added on to Lebanon. The separate entities did not survive for long, linking up with Damascus in an independent Syrian state. To blame Sykes-Picot is to ignore the fact that territorial nationalism is deeply entrenched in Arab states today, despite the repeated outbreak of sectarian violence.

The real problem, writes Khalaf, is "the tragic failure of successive postcolonial governments to build inclusive states." Drawing lines on a map a century ago did not make the hideous bloodshed we see now inevitable. She also argues that harping on Sykes-Picot obscures more recent events that have in their own way redrawn the map, such as the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. That -- and not the collapse of the last caliphate -- is the more likely reason we're seeing the rise of a new one.