The Return of the Caliphate?
By Dr. Javeed Akhter
President Bush has been talking about the conflict in Iraq as a war between advocates of freedom and those who seek to establish “a totalitarian Islamic empire reaching from Spain to Indonesia.” In a recent statement Secretary Rumsfeld warned that leaving Iraq prematurely would be a disaster because “Iraq would serve as the base of a new Islamic Caliphate to extend throughout the Middle East, and which would threaten legitimate governments in Europe, Africa and Asia.” Secretary Rumsfeld is not the only administration official to raise the specter of the return of the Caliphate. Eric S. Edelman, the under secretary of defense for policy, Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, and Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American commander in the Middle East, have all raised the “beware of the Caliphate” slogan.
This administration has shown that it is much disciplined in the use of words and phrases to convey its message. President Bush in spite of his malapropisms and his difficulty with ad lib remarks is clearly very good at it. The rise of a new Islamic super state appears to be the latest in a series of rationales advanced by the administration to bolster lagging support for the war in Iraq. It may also be the weakest.
The administration points to statements by bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives that establishment of a Caliphate is one of their goals. That is giving irrational Al Qaeda rhetoric legitimacy it does not deserve.
The idea of the Caliphate resonates among some extremist youth like those attracted to groups like the Hizb ut-Tahrir. The ideology of this group has the establishment of the Caliphate as its central goal. The way they visualize this Caliphate to generate revenue and govern, which is expounded on their web site, is so naïve that it is laughable. They may nevertheless attract Muslim youth who are frustrated at the status of the Muslim world and its leadership.
It is this frustration that finds an echo among most Muslims. There is general despair at the leaders of Muslim majority countries that seem pliant like silly putty in the hands of the West. These leaders seem to sell out their countries for petty greed and head shabby authoritarian regimes that are uncommonly brutal to their own people. The Muslim on the street perceives the weak, fractured and unimaginative leadership of the Muslim world as a major reason why longstanding conflicts as in Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir remain unsolved. They blame these ineffectual leaders for not protecting Muslim civil and human rights in many areas of the world.
The idea of resurrecting the Caliphate, however, does not find any traction amongst mainstream Muslims. “It’s like saying the Christians will be united under one banner,” says Akbar Ahmed a well known Muslim scholar. “It sounds nice, but whose banner will it be?” In particular the possibility that a Shia dominated country like Iraq would be the base for an Islamic Caliphate with hegemony over a largely Sunni Islamic world would be considered by most experts to be extremely unlikely. Times have changed and the chances of any authoritarian empire like the Caliphates, whether Sunni or Shia or secular controlling the Muslim world simply are as good as the Chicago Cubs winning the “World series.” Most of the larger Muslim majority countries like Indonesia, Turkey, Malaysia and Bangladesh, are already governed by democratic systems. Iraq is on its way and given half a chance other countries would follow suit. Democratic governance and not the Caliphate is the future of the Muslim world.
Language that resurrects medieval fears like the emergence of an Islamic super state “reaching from Spain to Indonesia” reinforces the misperception among Muslims the world over that Bush administration’s war on terror is a war against Islam. Historians would agree that during the era of Muslim Caliphates there were major advances made in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, sciences, mathematics and medicine. The Caliphate era is a period in Muslim history that invokes nostalgia and justifiable pride.
The administration may try and make a case for staying in Iraq in using more realistic scenarios like reducing security risks and stabilization. President Bush has said repeatedly that the war on terror is not a war against Islam or Muslims. He should stay with his old rhetoric.
Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of a Chicago based Muslim American think tank “The International Strategy and Policy Institute” and a member of the “Muslim Public Affairs Council” and editor of the book “The Nature and structure of the Islamic world.”