Democracy Lab

9 Things to Avoid When Creating Your Own Caliphate

If you want to rule for 1,000 years, don't touch my daughters or my cigarettes.

Dear Abu:

First of all, do you mind if I call you Abu? Look, nothing personal, but I understand that your name is a bit of a crock; apparently you weren't even born in Baghdad. And as for that new title of "caliph" that you've given yourself -- well, who am I to stop you from shooting for the stars? But look here: A little humility wouldn't hurt.

I've just taken another glance at the video of you earlier this month, when you topped off the success of your jihadi army's latest military campaign by taking to the pulpit of the Grand Mosque in Mosul to proclaim the creation of a new caliphate. Yeah, I get that the "Islamic State in Syria and Iraq" was a little bit of a mouthful. But isn't proclaiming the "Islamic State" as a worldwide caliphate getting a bit ahead of yourself?

The history of past attempts to create Islamic states is not particularly inspiring. The Iranian revolutionaries managed to do it, but they, of course, are Shiites -- whom you don't even really consider to be Muslims. The Saudis and some of the other Gulf Arab states try to live by strict fundamentalist rules, but they're all monarchies, which you don't like, either. (Only God should rule over humankind, amiright?) The kind of system you're trying to set up now is closer to the ones established by the Afghan Taliban or Ansar Dine, the North African jihadists who imposed their version of sharia on northern Mali for a year starting in 2012 -- essentially a military dictatorship founded on a superstrict interpretation of Islamic law. In some situations, such as the civil war in Syria (or pre-Taliban Afghanistan), this form of government might actually look better than the alternative of bloody anarchy. But so far it doesn't look like a recipe for enduring stability.

You aren't even the first one to claim the founding of a new caliphate since the original one ended back in 1924. Muslims in India and Africa have declared their own caliphates at various moments over the past 150 years only to see those attempts end in ignominious failure. More recently, nascent Islamic states have foundered on their striking urge to offer safe havens to terrorists, which has ended up putting them in the cross-hairs of well-armed Western governments. I think you're aware of this dismal track record. Otherwise, I don't think you would have made that appeal to Muslim professionals to contribute urgently needed professional expertise. You know you'll have a big challenge ahead if you're going to prove to a skeptical world that you can govern.

I'm not a Muslim (as I think you probably guessed from my name), but my travels around the Islamic world have given me opportunities to sample the views of people who have lived under these experiments in extreme Islamic rule -- and what I've heard is mostly a lot of complaining. So if you're really determined to push ahead with those plans for building an Islamic state, there are a few things you might want to keep in mind:

1. You might want to think twice about wearing a Rolex. One of the major reputational advantages that puritanical jihadists enjoy around the Muslim world is the perception that they're idealists, resistant to worldly temptations. By wearing a flashy watch during your speech in Mosul (see photo above), you've given a gift to your enemies. If people begin to get the impression that you're just as corrupt and blinged out as the rulers in Baghdad, you'll have a hard time getting traction.

2. Don't ban music. Afghans and Malians have treasured musical traditions. But their respective Islamist adventurers decided to prohibit music as "un-Islamic" (a highly debatable interpretation of the holy texts -- though I know you could care less what I think on the matter). Needless to say, the prohibitions tended to be deeply unpopular and made the jihadists look like ignorant outsiders.

Of course, your supporters have been sending death threats to a Kurdish pop artist over her new video. Way to make friends and influence people.

3. Think twice about punishing girls for alleged immodesty. Soon after they took power in northern Mali, the jihadists sent patrols around Timbuktu to detain any young women seen outside their homes wearing anything other than full head-to-toe hijab. That really didn't go over well. Halle Ousmane Cissé, the mayor of Timbuktu, told me how he had complained to the Ansar Dine leaders: "I told them, 'You want to change our religion into another religion. You throw our wives and daughters into our houses and beat them in front of us. And then you want us to love you?'"

Predictably, you and your buddies have started doing the same thing in the territory under your control. Maybe Sunni Iraqis will appreciate your efforts to enforce puritan morality. But I wonder. Nobody ever likes the Vice and Virtue Police.

4. Don't vandalize ancient cultural relics. The jihadists who ruled in Timbuktu decided that some of the items in the city's famed collection of ancient manuscripts didn't conform to "proper" Islamic teachings, so they tried to destroy them. Locals took that as a serious insult to their own cultural traditions. (It also helped to destroy Timbuktu's reputation as a tourist destination, one of the main pillars of the local economy.) The Taliban notoriously destroyed the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas, which probably blotted the group's international reputation more than any other thing they did in the pre-9/11 period.

Now you seem to be on the same track, if your appalling destruction of the Tomb of Jonah in Mosul is any indication. According to the latest reports, some Mosul citizens are even banding together to defend the city's monuments against your onslaught. Don't you guys ever learn?

5. Try not to include too many foreigners in your army. Most Syrians and Iraqis consider themselves to be Syrians and Iraqis just as much as they do Muslims. One reason the Iraqi tribes rose up against al Qaeda in the 2006 Anbar Awakening was because they resented the foreign jihadists telling them how to live. (The American occupiers, though irritating enough, didn't presume to marry local women or impose their own religious doctrine on the population -- which made them the lesser evil in the eyes of tribal leaders, who ended up taking their side against the jihadists.) Likewise, residents of Timbuktu found it equally hard to bond with the non-African, non-Arabic-speaking jihadists who were part of the Ansar Dine contingent that took over the city. Some reporting from Syria suggests that you're already having problems with this -- like that story about Omar the Chechen, a big, bloodthirsty dude from Russia. You might want to get a handle on this.

6. Don't alienate local notables. That's another big lesson from the Iraqi tribal revolt against al Qaeda, when influential tribal leaders finally decided they'd had enough of you guys lording it over them. Modern-day Islamists don't tolerate possible challenges to their power. But such attitudes invariably inspire a backlash from local elites that your enemies can exploit. In Afghanistan, even the leaders of one of the country's biggest Pashtun tribes turned their backs on the Taliban and sided with the Americans. Now it looks like some of the sheikhs in northern Iraq are already tiring of their alliance with you against the hated government in Baghdad. Good luck with that.

7. Don't prohibit little pleasures. The Taliban prohibited the fond Afghan pastime of kite flying. The Iranians crack down on TV satellite antennas -- with the predictable effect of making them even more desirable. And now you've decided you're going to ban smoking? Smart.

8. Don't spread disunity among Muslims. Islamist militias in Libya have made themselves unpopular (among other things) by blowing up the tombs of Sufi saints, who are denounced by ultraconservative Salafists as examples of "false Islam." Unfortunately for the Islamists, though, it just so happens that many Libyans feel more at home with the Sufi brand of Islam than with the sere and alien Salafism that 21st-century holy warriors want to ram down their throats. That's one of several factors that have persuaded them to vote against the Islamists whenever they've had a chance. Your own crew managed to earn a rebuke from al Qaeda itself for, in part, those attacks you staged on Shiite shrines in Iraq. Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Osama bin Laden's deputy, scolded you and your friends: "In the absence of popular support, the Islamic mujahid [holy warrior] movement will be crushed in the shadows." Exactly.

9. Don't declare yourself a caliph.

That's a highly polarizing move that will alienate many other Sunni Muslims. Sure, everyone wants to see the caliphate restored -- OK, not everyone -- but even zealots, as it turns out, have very different ideas about how to do that. So proclaiming a caliphate is a great way to anger people who might otherwise be on your side.

Oh, but wait. You already did that.

So where does this leave us? I have no doubt that there are many Muslims around the world who approve of the idea of an Islamic state. Most of them associate the idea with law and order, high standards of justice, and a strict moral code that all contrast sharply with the corruption and viciousness of most of the leaders who currently rule in the Islamic world. Yet most of those who claimed to make this dream a reality chose to impose it on subject populations by brute force -- usually inspiring chaos and mayhem in the process. By declaring a caliphate, you apparently thought you were going to rally the globe's Muslims around your cause even while demonstrating your resolve to rest of the world and deterring action against you. But your actions may actually have the opposite effects. (And yeah, your persecution of Mosul's indigenous Christians certainly hasn't helped your global PR effort.)

The gap between high Islamic ideals and what actually ends up happening in places like ISIS-controlled Iraq is wide. So, Abu, one final bit of advice: maybe you should actually try listening to what the people you're supposed to be ruling actually want. You might be surprised to hear what they have to say.

Francois Gatete/YouTube

Democracy Lab

The Woman Who Came Back from Hell

How Rwanda's Pentecostals are keeping the demons of the past at bay.

In April 1994, as Hutu extremists launched the campaign of mass killing that would come to be known as the Rwandan genocide, 10-year-old Rebecca Umwali took refuge with her parents and siblings in their local Catholic church. Government officials were encouraging members of the Tutsi minority, like Rebecca's family, to seek safety in churches, traditionally regarded as places of refuge. This time that promise turned out to be a cruel hoax. Once the church was full, an ethnic Hutu militia attacked. Armed with guns and machetes, they killed Rebecca's mother, father, and seven of her nine brothers and sisters. Rebecca survived only because the body of a tall woman fell on top of her, hiding her from the killers. For days afterwards she hid herself in a tree, emerging only at night to forage for food in the ruins of her village.

Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. "It was a place where there was always twilight," says Rebecca. "It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world." For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. "I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power."

It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and "accepted Jesus as my king." At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her "inner peace." Today she travels around the country, telling her story at emotional revival meetings where listeners respond ecstatically to her account of personal redemption. "After the genocide we had many different emotions," says Rebecca. "Everyone was looking for the place where he can get healed, get peace, and where he can pray." Pentecostalism, for her, is just the place.

Rebecca's story will undoubtedly sound outlandish to those who don't share her faith. Yet the recent history of her country has a way of giving a peculiar resonance to tales of demonic forces at work. Many Rwandans, it turns out, have made journeys that sound like Rebecca's -- journeys often tied up with the extraordinary traumas inflicted by mass murder and its aftermath. (The photo above shows the bloodstained clothing of genocide victims in Ntarama Church, now a memorial to the 5,000 people who were killed there in April 1994.) In a country whose lack of resources means that qualified therapists are few and far between, and where truth and reconciliation efforts have been largely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the crimes committed, many people have sought -- and seemingly found -- consolation in religion.

Before the deaths of close to 1 million Rwandans in the 1994 slaughter, roughly 65 percent of Rwandans were Catholics. But many have since turned away from the church: A 2011 study from the Pew Research Center found that the number of Catholics had dropped post-genocide, to around 50 percent of the population. Many of those who have abandoned Catholicism have gravitated to Protestant denominations of Christianity -- or even to Islam.

The reasons are complicated. The current Rwandan government as well as many ordinary Rwandans accuse the Catholic Church of complicity in the genocide, citing the notorious cases of church officials and priests who participated in the killings. Experts caution against such generalizations, pointing out that there were also priests who fell victim to the slaughter, some in the attempt to protect their parishioners. (The Vatican, for its part, continues to dispute any institutional involvement in the genocide.)

Yet even among Rwandans who don't accept the broader version of the church's guilt, there's still a palpable sense that the genocide marked a radical break with the old ways of doing things -- including adherence to the traditional faith. While it's hard to come by precise figures, many Rwandans say that there's been a clear shift toward other religions. And Pentecostals, charismatic Protestants with an intense belief in the power of the Holy Spirit (including the controversial practice of speaking in tongues), have seen some of the strongest growth.

In this respect, Rwanda is following a broader African trend. Pentecostalism is surging in popularity across the content. That 2011 Pew study found that 44 percent of the world's 279 million Pentecostals live in sub-Saharan Africa -- a figure that translates into 123 million people. (The sociologist Peter Berger, who notes that the modern Pentecostal faith was launched by an African-American preacher in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, has described Pentecostalism as "the fastest growing religious movement in history.")

Gerard van't Spijker, a Protestant theologian who lived in Rwanda for many years, notes that, a generation or so ago, European or American missionaries were the ones bringing Pentecostalism to the Africans. Now, he says, many of the new churches are being founded by "enthusiastic young preachers" of local origin. "In their message there's a very strong appeal to middle-class Christians, an appeal to a new generation of well-educated people in the cities." Pentecostals avidly embrace the notion of the "prosperity gospel," the idea that faith will express itself in worldly material success. Many Rwandan Pentecostal churches offer their parishioners job training and business classes.

Marie Louise Ingabire, a 27-year-old café manager and university student from the southern Rwandan city of Butera, fits van't Spijker's upwardly mobile profile. Yet when you ask her why she converted to Pentecostalism from her family's Catholicism a few years ago, she dwells less on her new faith's push for prosperity than its sense of community and its emphasis on powerful feelings. She now attends services in her local Pentecostal church at least two times a week. "In Catholicism everything is fixed," she says. "It's like a formula that doesn't change. In Pentecostalism you can praise God the way you want. Your emotions aren't stopped. You pray the way you feel it."

That emphasis on shared emotion (including plenty of rousing music and preaching) helps to explain why so many Rwandans are drawn to the Pentecostal message. Rose Mukakimenyi, 37, lost much of her extended family in the genocide, prompting an intense spiritual search. "My focus was to pray, and praying was the basis of finding peace," she recalls. "Praying in Catholicism didn't do that." She smiles as she recalls her conversion to Pentecostalism 14 years ago -- in terms that have strong overtones of group therapy: "When they sing, I feel peace. When we pray, I feel we are like a family."

Her friend, 26-year-old Thitien Nsabumukiza, has a dramatic conversion story of his own (involving an elaborate, dreamlike vision of his Pentecostal mother, who desperately wanted him to join the faith). Now he works as a deacon at his local church, leading a 53-member prayer group and doing his best to woo new believers -- a stark contrast, he says, to the days when all he wanted was to take revenge on those who had orchestrated the killing of so many of his fellow Tutsis: "After I was converted by the power of God, God gave me the power of healing rather than killing," he says. "Now I have new eyes, and I'm a servant of God."

It should come as little surprise that the lives of so many Rwandan Pentecostals dovetail with their faith's intense focus on personal transformation. For those who survived an event that claimed the lives of so many others, talk of "rebirth" or "resurrection" has a powerful immediacy. "They taught me that being baptized in water means dying with Jesus Christ and then being resurrected," says Rebecca Umwali. "You emerge as a new person. I was baptized and became a Pentecostal."

Religion is clearly not a panacea for Rwanda's problems. The Pentecostal Church itself is hardly immune to the temptations of power and wealth, as some of the recent scandals within its leadership demonstrate. And the appalling actions of the spiritual leaders who participated in the horrors of 1994 (including, indeed, some Protestant pastors) should serve as a reminder that the religiously minded are also just as prey to human frailty as anyone else.

Yet one suspects that many Rwandans will continue to turn to religion as a source of consolation and community. For Rebecca and so many others, it's their faith that helps them to keep the demons at bay.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images