The Mundane Face of the Global Caliphate
By Farish A. Noor
Today there is much talk, accompanied by some degree of unnecessary speculation and fear-mongering, about the claims and ambitions of Islamists who seek to create a global Caliphate as the panacea for the ills of Muslim society worldwide. That such talk of a pan-Islamic global project would spook the spooks of the international anti-terror industry is, of course, not entirely surprising for nothing seems to agitate the public more these days than the idea of a couple of Muslims getting together and plotting the imminent take-over of the universe.
There are, presently, a plethora of Islamist organisations and mass movements who have taken the notion of the global Caliphate as their goal. Groups like the Hizb’ut Tahrir openly proclaim their vision of a pan-Islamic world; while mainstream Islamist parties ranging from the Ikhwan’ul Muslimin of Egypt and the Arab world to the Jama’at-e Islami of South Asia to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party of Malaysia have also spread their networks and contacts beyond the host countries where they first emerged. International conferences bring together Islamists from all corners of the globe with the frequency we associate more with international governmental or business conferences; and the internet has already created a virtual Islamoscape where Islamists from every country on the planet may interact simultaneously in real time. In many respects, such a global pan-Islamic universe already exists, and it can be said that the pan-Islamic world is a virtual empire where the sun never sets.
Yet looking beyond the narrow concerns of securocrats obsessed with the threat of Islamic terrorism, we need to peer beneath the discursive carapace of this grand project and understand its true import and what it hopes to achieve.
In my discussions with Islamists from Pakistan to Indonesia, I have been struck by the common appeal of them all: They long to create a global pan-Islamic space where belonging to the same faith community is the only passport one needs to travel across the Muslim world unrestricted. In many respects, this is reminiscent of the travels of Ibn Battuta, the celebrated Muslim traveller whose journeys took him across Africa and all the way to Southeast Asia and beyond. Ibn Battuta was, of course a bad traveller and a fussy tourist who insisted all the time that he be served halal food and live in comfortable familiar surroundings that did not offend or contradict his Muslim sensibilities. What he sought then, and what Islamists today seek, are the same: The freedom to travel across the globe while remaining comfortable in the safe confines of a Muslim universe.
The global Islamist project can and should be seen in this light as well, for this is yet another aspect of its ambitions. Though it is sometimes couched in somewhat aggressive, if not militarist, terms of conquest and expansion, the yearning is fundamentally a mundane one.
What is it that these global Islamists seek? On one hand the project is restorative in nature: It seeks to restore to the Muslim world the cosmopolitanism and universalism that it once professed but lost with the coming of European imperialism. The Muslim world, we should remember, was global in outlook and its outreach, and Muslim merchants, scholars, diplomats and mystics travelled across the world with ease and regularity that was guaranteed by the presence of long-established networks, itineraries and a communicative infrastructure that were the sinews of this global system.
On the other hand the pan-Islamist vision is also one that is guided by the longing for safety and comfort, where itinerant Muslims feel the need to belong to a globalised world that is safe, or at least not hostile to them. In the same way that itinerant merchants and scholars of the past depended on letters of introduction and guarantees of safe passage that would allow them to travel with ease, likewise the global Islamists today seek the same assurances from an international order that ought to be protecting them. Hence the appeal to Muslim identity and a common faith and value system as the guarantee that their mobility would not be restricted.
This yearning for mobility, freedom of movement, the right to live and settle anywhere, all happen to be pragmatic, mundane and material concerns that are in fact universal and are symptoms of the globalised age we live in. The longing for an extended Islamoscape with an unbroken frontier that extents and expands continuously can and should be seen as part of the evolution of a Muslim consciousness and sensibility that is global in its scope and outlook, the pining for a global Muslim citizenship so to speak.
Already we see the first real material evidence of such a global network in the making around us: Talk of a global Muslim currency (the so-called golden Dinar) that was dismissed as pseudo-economic froth not too long ago has gained momentum and is being taken seriously by some of the more developed Muslim countries in the world. Likewise the idea of a common Muslim trading bloc, to demonstrate the combined purchasing power of the so-called ‘Muslim dollar’ and its market. The landscape of the Muslim world today is littered with hundreds of ‘Muslim hotels’ and resorts that cater to the culturally-specific needs of Muslims, whatever they might be. And there is even talk of the world’s first ‘Islamic car’ – a project mooted by the governments of Iran and Malaysia – to help Muslims travel around the world in the comfort of a Muslim environment, albeit confined within the four doors of the passengers’ cabin.
In many respects it is not surprising nor unexpected that Muslims today would have such global ambitions for we do live, after all, in a global age and where the very idea of global citizenship – underpinned by the values of cosmopolitanism and universalism – are in common currency. How does this global Islamic vision differ from that of other faith communities, who likewise wish to create a safe space for its adherents the world over; and crucially, how does this global outlook differ from the universalist claims and ambitions of global capital, that has brought us a host of safe spaces and safe networks of communication and movement from the ubiquitous Hilton hotels that are universally uniform to the phenomenon of a McWorld where the staple diet of urban denizens in many countries today happens to be Cheese Burgers with French Fries (or Freedom Fries, as they re-christened recently)?
Looking closer at some of the global Islamist networks that span the globe today, such as the Tablighi Jama’at (the world’s biggest Muslim missionary movement), the network of Islamist parties with transnational or supra-national ambitions, Muslim guilds and trading groups, Sufi mystical networks and the like, we can see that they all share family resemblances with the more mainstream modes of globalisation that is capital-driven. This is not to say that Islamist networks can be likened to Mc Donalds or cast as a franchise business with branches to be opened around every street corner. But it does mean that much of the talk of pan-Islamism and the creation of global Islamist networks we have seen the world over thus far is not as alien or exotic as we might think. Fundamentally, the fundamentalists are concerned with something far more mundane and ordinary, which is to provide a service that meets a need that has become all the more prevalent in the late-Capitalist globalised age we live in: This is the sense of global citizenship and the feeling of belonging to a globalised world where one is no longer a stranger to the other.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org research site.