John Kerry has just called Isil “psychopathic monsters”. True, but there’s more. Benjamin Dueholm, an associate pastor of a Lutheran church in Illinois and co-editor of a theological journal, has a fascinating theory on ISIL.
Writing for Aeon magazine, he describes the brutal extremist group as a “cosplay Caliphate”, a deadly fantasy that feeds the same urges as Tolkien. And he quotes New York artist Molly Crabapple who also spoke of a “’cosplay Caliphate’, a dress-up festival of blood-soaked nostalgia whose very pretensions to antiquity mark it as the rankest kind of modern innovation.”
What, some might wonder, is a cosplay Caliphate?
According to Wikipedia (fount of all knowledge), the term “cosplay” is a Japanese portmanteau of the English terms costume and role-play. The term was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi while attending the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles. Apparently, a broader use of the term “cosplay” applies to any costumed role-playing in venues other than the stage.
This is all very interesting but what does cosplay have to do with ISIL with its austere interpretation of Islam, its grotesque acts of cruelty and its cunning facility with social media?
Mr Dueholm suggests that there is something that sets ISIL apart and it is the idea of the Caliphate.
The position, as he points out, “has been gone from Islam in anything but name for 1,000 years, the caliph has to meet certain requirements: he must control territory, must enforce sharia law within it, and he must descend from the Quraysh tribe, the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad (the Ottoman emperors claimed the title into the 20th century, but their claim is widely rejected because they did not descend from the Quraysh).”
The idea of a return to the Caliphate, he admits, is both exotic and ridiculous. But the idea of a transnational Islam has a powerful appeal for people caught between different identities – a European whose ethnicity belongs outside Europe, for example. And he quotes Nick Danforth writing in Foreign Affairs last year: a Caliphate “is a political fantasy – a blank slate” for the demands and ambitions of local politics.
The fact that its appeal hinges on what Mr Dueholm calls “historical dress-up” is an interesting idea.
And then consider the link he makes with The Lord of the Rings. “To find a story of a sovereign authority long lapsed in kingship but still entitled to the allegiance of all the just, and fated to reappear at an auspicious moment, we need look no further than The Lord of the Rings,” writes Mr Dueholm. The epic is a bit like “literary cosplay,” he says, and Aragorn’s “return to his long-vacant ancestral throne” underlines the problem of legitimacy and allegiance.
Even Arwen, Aragorn’s half-elven, half-human betrothed, who is forced to choose between elven immortality and a mortal life with the restored king, symbolically burns her passport (as do European ISIL recruits).
But the issues of Aragorn’s legitimacy persist though “many of Tolkien’s readers”, argues Mr Dueholm, “thrill to the notion of finding a king to whom they can pledge their swords without scruple or hesitation.”
The divine right to rule – in literature and in life – has become nothing but cosplay.