Caliphate Anyone?

Farish A Noor

Posted Aug 19, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Caliphate Anyone?

By Farish A Noor

Communities have their own ways of dealing with crises of all kinds:
structural, institutional, functional or cultural. But what is even more
interesting is to see how each community, or sections within each community,
deals with such crises and the antidotes that are offered as the panacea for
all that is wrong in the world.

In such a depoliticised world bereft of ideologies that are taken seriously
and political vocabularies that work, the trend seems to be to offer
culturalist solutions to problems that are fundamentally
structural-economical. Hence the return to the politics of authenticity and
nostalgia that we see all around us lately: As the ravaging effects of
globalisation make themselves felt and seen around us, so many communities
seem to have retreated to the protective blanket of cultural essentialism,
falling back on unreconstructed myths of the past or equally vacuous notions
of collective purpose that often deny the contingencies of individualism and
personal agency.

In the Indian subcontinent the reaction of the Hindu right was to show two
fingers to globalisation via recourse to a politics of nostalgia couched in
terms of a politicised myth of Indian greatness and uniqueness. In the Far
East the discourse of ‘Asian values’ was the foil used to fend off calls for
democratisation, transparency and reform. Why, even in the West the
fall-back position of claiming a singularly unique Western civilisational
origin seemed the immediate refuge for those who could not cope with the
provincialisation of Europe in an increasingly plural and cosmopolitan world
where movement of capital and ideas was becoming commonplace.

What of Islam and the Muslim world? Well the answer to that was given a week
ago in Indonesia where a massive rally was held in the stadium of Jakarta,
organised by none other than the Hizb’ut Tahrir (HT) movement of Indonesia
who had invited their fellow HT activists from all over the planet, to
re-affirm their determination to overturn the dominant paradigm of the
modern nation state, wage war against the evils of Secularism and democracy,
and to restore the fabled Caliphate as the sole and primary political agent
on the Muslim landscape. Delegates from other Hizb’ut Tahrir chapters from
the Middle-East and Asia were present, and HT chapters all over the world
(such as Malaysia next door) held similar rallies to mark their defiance of
their own respective states and to hasten the return of the Caliphate. I was
reminded by a slogan painted on a bus in London by that other pro-Caliphate
group al-Muhajiroun, that read: ‘The Islamic state: Coming soon to a country
near you’…

Hizb’ut Tahrir’s historical origins give us some idea of how it has evolved
to become what it is today. Set up in the early 1950s as a reaction against
the occupation of Palestine and the defeat of Arab Muslim power, the
movement has been committed to the struggle against Secular democracy from
the beginning. This was based on the HT’s premise that modern secular
democratic politics serves only to further the ends of nationalism, which
they regarded as profoundly un-Islamic as it placed national identity and
belonging above belonging to the global Muslim ummah. The HT was against the
pan-Arabism of Gammel Abdel Nasr and the Arab nationalists and socialists of
the 1960s, and has been calling for the return to the Caliphate ideal hence.

No-one would doubt that the paradigm of the nation-state, based as it is on
the Westphalian model, is problematic to say the least. And we can all agree
that nationalism has shown its uglier side time and again all over the
world, leading to the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe to militarism in
Japan and Southeast Asia. Having said that however, it should also be
remembered that nationalism was used against itself in the anti-colonial and
anti-imperialist struggles of the 1930s-40s and that many a liberation
movement still see the securing of an independent nation-state as one of the
first goals to be achieved in any struggle for self-determination. Anyone
who doubts that should talk to the Palestinians, Tibetans or East Timorese
who will tell you how and why they were – and remain – prepared to die for a
nation-state of their own, despite the misgivings of Hizb’ut Tahrir.

What is more worrisome however is the trite and shallow logic at work among
groups like the HT who simplistically think that the nation-state can simply
be overturned and superceded by any means necessary, while failing to note
that in the current age of globalisation this flawed and faulty apparatus
may, ironically, be the only defensive tool we have left against the
predatory moves of global capital. It is fine to talk about global
solidarity between Muslims, a shared Muslim identity and common sets of
values etc, as long as we also recognise that this grand Muslim history was
not without its own share of problems and contradictions. For a start, HT’s
love of the Caliphate ignores the fact that the Caliphs and great Sultans
and Emperors of Islam in the past were not all just men (though they were
all invariably men, and not women) and that the great Caliphates were also
home for double-standards, exploitation, class and racial segregation and
violent hierarchies as well.

Why do Muslims still entertain such nostalgic longings for an
unreconstructed past that is, at best, two-dimensional and caricatural? Have
we not evolved a political vocabulary that exceeds the narrow confines of
the mythical universe of the Arabian Nights and Aladdin? Or has the Muslim
world grown so jaded, so bereft of ideas and focus in direction that myths
and fantasies will do in the absence of rational, workable solutions?


Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum
Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University,
Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site