Islam and Islamism: Global Caliphate or Prelude to Democracy?
Posted Dec 10, 2005

Islam and Islamism: Global Caliphate or Prelude to Democracy?

Part I: An “Islamic Caliphate”?

    America and the entire world are now engaged in a Fourth World War, the third being the Cold War between the forces of freedom and totalitarian Communism.  The Fourth World War is partly a war of semantics.  American policymakers still speak of the “free world” now pitted against an even more dangerous form of totalitarian threat subsumed under the catchwords “Islam” and “Islamism.”  The new totalitarians, in turn, speak of Neo-Con Satinism to describe America.

  In his epoch-making position paper, “Do These Two Have Anything in Common,” published in The Washington Post of December 4, 2005, Zbigniew Brzezinski castigated President Bush and his advisers for their new-found fondness in comparing Islam with everything that Americans have learned to hate.  For almost forty years, Brzezinski has ranked second only to Henry Kissinger as the chief guru of the permanent foreign policy establishment, best represented by the Council on Foreign Relations and its prestigious think-tank, the Aspen Institute.  He was personally responsible for the selection of Jimmy Carter as the Democratic Party’s choice to run for the presidency in 1976, and President Carter appointed him to head his National Security Council.

  Zbig Brzezinski warns against President Bush’s defense of his foreign policies by demanding “nothing less than a complete victory” against “Islamic” terrorism.  Brzezinski writes, “In making his case, the president has repeatedly invoked the adjective ‘Islamic’ when referring to terrorism and he has compared the ‘murderous ideology of Islamic radicalism’ to the ideology of Communism. ... His speeches, though occasionally containing disclaimers that he is not speaking of Islam as a whole, have been replete with references to ‘the murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals,” ‘Islamic radicalism,’ ‘militant jihadism,’ ‘Islamofascism,’ or ‘Islamic Caliphate’.”

  This demonization of Islam as a religion by using the adjective Islamic in referring to the “other side” in the Fourth World War is what Bzzezinski calls “a domestic political ploy” and “a dangerous semantic trap.”  Brzezinski warns that by asserting to his detractors “you are either for me or against me” President Bush and his advisers are undercutting the possibility of making common cause with the billion non-radical Muslims in the world against those self-proclaimed Muslims who are committed to universal destruction. 

  One might also be concerned that the Neo-Con strategy of “creative destruction” is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by countering terrorism with terroristic counter-terrorism, as I have spelled this out in my article, Creative Destruction: Exposing the Ideological Roots of Modern Terrorism. [1]  This constitutes the exact opposite of the paradigm of thought, first developed by Brzezinski in 1967, known as “peaceful engagement.”  During the Third World War this was designed to support the forces for peaceful change in Russia while deterring the Communist totalitarians by the U.S. Air Force’s stated mission of “peace through power.”  Although Brzezinski has not specifically revived this very effective two-pronged strategy in the Fourth World War, the implications of his seminal position paper of December 4th, 2005, are obvious.

  The danger of the Republican Party’s new strategy of mimetic warfare against Islam as a religion is that it is based on gross ignorance of classical Islamic thought.  This ignorance plays into the hands of extremists who are motivated either by utopian visions of their own totalitarian power or by blind hatred resulting from their abandonment of hope in the very possibility of building a better world.  By adopting the Muslim extremists’ own use of Islamic terms like “jihad,” and totally un-Islamic terms like “Islamic Caliphate” and “Islamic State,” one legitimizes their perversion of all religion, and especially the one they claim as their own.

  The terrorists who are hijacking Islam for their own global suicide mission are perverting Islamic terminology in what is known as mimetic warfare.  This is the use of symbols or words in subliminal warfare to influence the thinking of the opponent and of one’s own followers without them knowing that they have been surreptiously brain-washed.  Perhaps the most striking example is Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s use of the term “Islamic Caliphate” to describe the ultimate goal of the terrorists.  In effect, Rumsfeld is waging mimetic warfare against himself by accepting the enemy’s lexicon.  He is like a blind mouse blundering into the enemy’s better mousetrap.

  On December 4th, the same day that Brzezinski condemned the practice, SecDef Donald Rumsfeld spoke at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and warned that al-Qaida leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden want to turn Iraq into “the base of a new Islamic caliphate to extend [their power] throughout the Middle East, which would threaten legitimate governments in Europe, Africa and Asia. This is their plan. They have said so. We make a terrible mistake if we fail to listen and learn.”

  The terrorists’ use of the term “Islamic caliphate” is dangerous not only because they do indeed want to destroy all governments that oppose their murderous vision, but because they are attempting to brainwash all Muslims into thinking that their concept of a totalitarian caliphate is Islamic.  If the terrorists can persuade their enemies to adopt their language and therefore portray terrorism as Islamic, half the battle is won.  Al Qa’ida has already captured Rumsfeld in the snare of its mimetic warfare.

  The enemies of Islam as a religion could not be so ignorant, and even malicious, if they were not buying into the perversions of Islam by Muslims even more ignorant than themselves, and if Muslims in the Sunni world had not been brain-washed for centuries by supposed scholars paid by un-Islamic tyrants.  This thesis is explained in my articles, “Playing into the Hands of the Extremists? (Hilali-Khan Qur’an Translation),” (9/29/02), and “Religious Extremism: Muslim Challenge and Islamic Response,” 09/01/02).  For every stereotypical characterization of Islam, there have always been more than enough Muslims to “prove the case.”  And this will continue to be true until Muslims succeed in filling both the intellectual and spiritual vacuums that are still the dominant characteristics of the Muslim world.

  Perhaps Rumsfeld is only ridiculing Al Qa’ida, but it sounds like he believes that a political caliphate is Islamic, despite the fact that almost all of the great scholars opposed this concept both in theory and in fact, and were imprisoned for their insistence on the purity of Islamic teachings.  This included Ibn Taymiya, who is cited by Muslim radicals but who bitterly opposed the very concept of a caliphate based on political power.

  Ibn Taymiya, and indeed all the great scholars of the classical period of Islam from the third through sixth centuries, anno hegirae, shared the same paradigm of reality that motivated the Founders of America.  The genius of America is its self-definition not as a geographically circumscribed territory, or as an ethnically unique or pure people, or even as a social, economic, and political community of citizens, but as a paradigm of thought and aspiration. This makes it unique in the world, though some Jews in Israel and many Muslims in Pakistan may claim that their countries were created for a similar purpose.

  Those who would politicize America or politicize Islam as opposites may claim to be fundamentalists in the sense of emphasizing fundamentals, but, in fact, they are what Naveed Sheikh in his book, The New Politics of Islam: Pan-Islamic Foreign Policy in a World of States, calls peripheralists.  Juxtaposing America and Islam as rival claimants to universality contradicts what this universality is all about.  It contradicts the common genius of both as mutually reinforcing expressions and pillars of a single epistemic community.

  As explained in a lengthy chapter of my unpublished book, Shaping a Common Vision for America: Challenge and Response, many chapters of which have been published in  extremism comes from failure to distinguish the ontology or oneness of origin from the epistemology or plurality of manifestation. There can be no oneness or tawhid without diversity and pluralism, because the very diversity of Creation exists to manifest in its coherence the existence of the One. The Quran states that God designed human beings to have different colors, languages, and even religions, in order to get to know each other as distinct communities and as signs of God.

  Extremism comes when cultic Sufis objectify Ibn ArabiҒs concept of wahdat al wujud or unity of existence as reality rather than as subjective experience (wahdat al shuhud), and claim exclusive, “gnostic” knowledge of the “true” trans-Islamic umma, a spiritual elite that excludes those not in the know, especially those of other world religions.  See my lengthy article and book chapter, “Oneness of Being: Fact or Fiction.” [2]

  Extremism comes when pan-Islamists operationalize a unity of belief in a human community of what Naveed Shaykh calls monist monolithism rather than in a boundless love for all of Gods creation in what he refers to as a transcendent Islamic cosmopolis.

  Extremism comes especially when people substitute a political institution for themselves as the highest instrument and agent of God in the world, when they call for a return of the Caliphate in its imperial form embodied in the Ottoman dispensation.  It comes when they call for what Shah Wali Allah of India in the 18th century called the khilafat dhahira or external and exoteric caliphate in place of the khilafat batina or esoteric caliphate formed by the spiritual heirs of the prophets, who are the sages, saints, and righteous scholars.

  In the late Abbasid period of classical Islam, the political scientists of the day, in Naveed SheikhҒs words, delegitimized both institutional exclusivism and, critically, centralization of political power Ӆ by disallowing the theophanic descent of celestial sovereignty into any human institution.  In other words, they denied the ultimate sovereignty claimed by modern states since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years War over religion.  This watershed in European and world history elevated states to the ultimate level of sovereignty, in place of the divine, thereby relegating religion to the periphery of public life or excluding it and with it morality altogether.  This secular understanding of the “state” is why the neologism “Islamic state” is so oxymoronic.

  The Abbasid scholars, faced with a gradual process of creeping despotism, denied the divine right not only of kings, but of every human institution, and they condemned the worship of power and privilege that had brought corruption upon the earth.  For insisting on this foundation principle of Islam, all of the greatest scholars throughout Muslim history were imprisoned, some for years and decades, but this is precisely why Muslims traditionally have considered them to be great.

  As pointed out in my article cited above, “Religious Extremism: Muslim Challenge and Islamic Response,” [3] the Hanbali scholar, Ibn Taymiya, completed the process of deconstructing the ontological fatalism of caliphatic thought by restricting the role of the caliphate to what Abu Hamid al Ghazali had called an ummatic umbrella functioning only to protect the functional integrity of Islamic jurisprudence rather than to govern politically.  Ibn Taymiya asserted that the unity of the Muslim community depended not on any symbolism represented by the Caliph, much less on any caliphal political authority, but on ԓconfessional solidarity of each autonomous entity within an Islamic whole.  In other words, the Muslim umma or global community is a body of purpose based on worship of God.  By contending that the monopoly of coercion that resides in political governance is not philosophically constituted, Ibn Taymiya rendered political unification and the caliphate redundant.

  Probably not one Muslim in a thousand is at all familiar with any of the great Islamic tradition, which is why the extremists have a substantially free reign to fill an intellectual vacuum.  The extremists prefer to ignore centuries of Islamic wisdom by trying to use “strict constructionism” as a literalist means to resurrent the externals of an idealized founding era or else to scrap this in favor of a hypothecized original intent based on what the early Muslims supposedly would have wanted and said if they were living today.  Both of these forms of extremism ignore the entire corpus of traditionalist Islamic thought. 

  The world is caught in the cross-fire between two universalist utopias, one that poses as Islamic and the other that poses as American.  Each of them threatens the other because they ignore their common past.  In America, modern extremists, both religious and secular, ignore the traditionalist pursuit of order, justice, and freedom as the necessary bases and interdependent goals of self-government under the ultimate sovereignty of God.  Instead their ultimate goal is either order or freedom, or one in the name of the other, but both without any content of justice.     

Part II

Islamism: Prelude to Democracy?

  The principal rival to Muslim radicalism under the name of Islam is known as Islamism.  The suffix “ism” is used to designate a movement designed to turn the religion Islam into an ideology or to justify the political pursuit of power as an essential core element of Islam or as a substitute for it.

  The nature, past, and prospective future of Islamism are well analysed in dozens of articles published from 1990 to 2004 in the scholarly Middle East Affairs Journal, of which for some years I was the Managing Editor.  Nowhere, however, has this subject been so objectively analysed as in an article, entitled “Is Islamism a Threat? A Debate,” in the December 1999 issue of the Middle East Quarterly, [4] a journal that most Islamists and many non-Islamists consider to be a mouthpeace of Likudist Zionism.

  This debate, moderated by the MEQ’s senior editor, Patrick Clawson pitted Clawson’s mentor, Daniel Pipes, and Martin Kramer, professor at Tel Aviv University, against the two most knowledgeable non-Muslim experts on Islamism, namely, John Esposito, head of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and Graham Fuller of the RAND Corporation and formerly Deputy Director of the National Intelligence Estimates staff in the Central Intelligence Agency.

  Cicero, who sometimes is called a Co-Founder of America, although he died 2,000 years ago, once said that before one starts a discussion on anything whatsoever one should define terms.  Although the four discussants would never even have tried to define something so subjective as “terrorism,” they had no difficulty agreeing on a definition of Islamism, at least for purposes of discussion.

  Martin Kramer stated, “It is Islam reformulated as a modern ideology.  Whereas Islam was traditionally conceived as being in a class with Judaism and Christianity, Islamism is a response to ideologies that emerged in the modern West - Communism, socialism, or capitalism.”  Graham Fuller said, “Islamism is largely snonymous with political Islam - an effort to draw meaning out of Islam applicable to problems of contemporary governance, society, and politics.”  John Esposito, a man of few words (sometimes), stated, Islamism is “Islam interpreted as an ideology to support political and social activism.”  Daniel Pipes was even more terse, commenting only “Ditto.”

  My own perspective agrees with Kramer’s and Esposito’s definitions of Islamism as an ideology.  I would question Fuller’s definition of it as “political Islam,” but only because traditionally Islam cannot be hyphenated into the extremist categories of political and non-political Islam.  Islamism is the political ideology of Muslim academicians educated in the West.  They may or may not be Islamic depending on whether they follow the benign track of its founder Hassan al Banna at the beginning of the twentieth century or the rejectionist track of Syed Qutb in mid-century, who popularized what can only be called an inevitable “clash of civilizations.”

  The next subject was how to distinguish Islamism from other rival claims to authority, such as “Wahhabism,” which I define as the pro-establishment sect popularized by the government of Saudi Arabia, and the related movement that Pipes calls the “Taliban project” in Afghanistan.  The Taliban, unwisely trained by the Saudis and unwisely supported initially by U.S. strategists, reflect a related but revolutionary, anti-establishment mindset known as “Salafism.”  This mindless ideology defines itself as the return to the pure origins of Islam before intellectuals allegedly started polluting it with what is now known as the maqasid al shari’ah or universal principles and purposes of Islamic jurisprudence that lie at the heart of classical Islamic tradition (and now unfortunately have been dead in the Sunni world as a paradigm of thought for six hundred years).

  Martin Kramer proposed that Islamists, Wahhabis, and the Taliban all want to return self-consciously to a mythical past, and that “what you see in Islamism is an appeal for change couched in the language of the return to something that has been lost.”  Esposito agreed with this statement but qualified it by his statement that, “Some Islamist thinkers and writers, often urban mainstream professionals, see themselves going back to then come forward ... and in so doing they reinterpret Islam.”

  The next issue was what is the Islamist agenda.  This, in my view, is the most important question for an American policy-maker, because shaping an agenda is the link between theory and action.  Specifically, what priority do the Islamists place on coming to power either as a means or as an end in itself.

  Fuller conceded that, “The majority of Islamists are interested in coming to power, as all politicians want to come to power.”  Esposito qualified this, however, by observing that often “people in their twenties and thirties who have been political activists now opt for grassroots social and cultural change as the way to transform the system.  They seek to Islamize society, not challenge the government, which leads to violence and repression.”  This process of evolution was what some of the articles in the Middle East Affairs Quarterly at the time of this discussion were calling Islamism’s “maturation.”  This evolution was evidenced by the fact that extremists generally were abandoning the Ikhwan or Islamists and forming or joining separate movements dedicated to change by violence and destruction.

  The issue then became whether Islamism’s maturing into a non-violent movement stemmed from the fact that the Qutbian strategy of confrontation had miserably failed to accomplish its goal of grabbing political power at the top, so that a temporary tactic, like the Communists’ one-time tactic of “peaceful co-existence,” could buy time until revolution could be accomplished by building power slowly from below or even by the long-range acquisition of improved weapons of mass destruction.

  Pipes claimed that the so-called moderates among the Islamists in fact are extremists in sheep’s clothing and that their highest priority is to impose their own version of Islamic law. 

  Esposito considered this to be a paranoid conclusion, though he did not put it this way.  Instead, he pointed to leaders like “Abd al-Karim Sarush, an Iranian intellectual [and classical Shi’a) who wants to see the clergy out of politics.  He holds that if a society is Islamically-oriented from below then that’s going to be reflected in the laws.  But, he’s not talking about the shari’ah, rather about culture and values.  He’ll say that the same thing can happen in an overwhelming Christian or Jewish society; it doesn’t have to be a Jewish state or a Christian state. ... It’s not necessary formally to take power.”

  Fuller opined that, “Historically, yes, the shari’ah has been the focus of Islamist thinking, but today, application of the shari’ah may be taking a second place in the thinking of many. ... So I doubt that applying the shari’ah is the sole goal or even the chief priority of Islamists.” 

  Neither Fuller or Esposito discussed the revival of traditonalist Islamic thought either in the spiritual awareness of powerfully growing Sufi movements or in the further jurisprudential development of the sophisticated code of human responsibilities and rights known as the maqasid al shari’ah.  This apparent blind spot in the thinking of both Fuller and Esposito was shown by Fuller’s amazing comment that, “The shari’ah is actually extremely limited in what it talks about and stipulates.”  Kramer caught Fuller in a classic touche by observing that, “You’ve gone one step further than the Islamists.  The Islamists reduce Islam to shari’ah.  You’ve now reduced the shari’ah to hudud [punishments].”

  Returning to the key issue of the Islamist agenda, if there is such a thing, Kramer defined Sarush not as an Islamist but as a “post-Islamist.” He noted, “Post-Islamism is predicated on the understanding that political power is out of reach.”  He seemed to conclude that Islamism in Iran has no future, which might indicate that the future in Iran would become a bi-polar confrontation between reactionary and liberal extremists, with little room for anything in between.

  Kramer exclaimed, “What is my point here?  The common view, that power moderates Islamists, is wrong.  Weakness moderates Islamists.  It’s distance and exclusion from power that have created the possibility of some new thinking.  But, in power, Islamists could easily gravitate back to an exclusionist position.”

  Esposito disagreed, saying, “The question will always be, when somebody’s speaking in opposition what will they be like in power?  Context often changes people and leads many leaders to take on different roles and policy positions.”  Fuller added, “The Turkish Islamists have changed considerably, and you can say it’s in accordance with reality.  In Jordan, the Muslim Brethern has taken major steps toward the question of whether women should even vote, and also whether women candidates can run.  They now say it is acceptable to cooperate with non-religious parties, even leftist parties.  Once you’re brought into the system, you are forced to react to those realities.  To me that’s the good news.”

  Kramer countered, “Actually, the Turkish and Jordanian cases confirm what I argued earlier - that necessity drives Islamists to reach some kind of accommodation. ... Your optimism about Islamism rests upon hypothetical cases and what-ifs.  But real-world experience compels pessimism.”

  Pipes reinforced this view by commenting, “I’ll muddy the waters by making an analogy.  John [Esposito] referred earlier to differences in political culture, and that is a valid point.  Political culture explains why the Communist Party of Italy differed so much from its counterpart in Russia.  Fair enough.  Nevertheless, had the Communist Party come to power in Italy, I believe it would not have willingly relinquished power.  The democratic ideals that it had proclaimed for decades [in order to come to power] would have been abandoned for the sake of power.  The methods would have been gentler than Stalin’s, of course, but they still would have been anti-democratic.  ... Yes, Islamists realize they must adapt to circumstances, to the prevailing political culture, but if their ultimate goal is utopian, as it is, then they have compelling reasons to look beyond these realities in the hope of establishing a totalitarian regime.”

  The next issue in the discussion was Islamism’c causes.  Pipes admitted: “I was brash enough in 1983 to publish a book, In the Path of God, that contained a thesis to explain the rise of Islamism that sixteen years later I cannot subscribe to.  This taught me to be wary of over-arching theories. ... I’ve come to the point, I confess, that while I cannot offer an overall theory for Islamism, I’m also unconvinced by any of those that others make.”

  Fuller distinguished the radicalism that flouishes in failed states and the moderate opposition that can emerge under oppression.  He asserted, “Islamism is today the primary vehicle for the advancement of change and the overthrow of despotic regimes.  It hasn’t gained this position due to its purely liberal aspirations but rather because these authoritarian regimes have driven all other challengers out of politics.  I would love to see liberal democracy as the primary movement in the Muslim world today, but we look in vain for strong liberal movements.  In part, the liberal concept is weakly developed and there’s very little grassroots understanding or support for it.  This is not altogether surprising; liberalism is often closely associated with the Westernized elites that go to Cannes or Disneyland for vacations, educate their kids in the States, and speak English or French at home.  Whether we like it or not, it is the Islamists who are left to press the cause of change; they are the ones who represent the grassroots, close to the neighborhoods and to ‘the people’. ... I’m deeply concerned by the lack of an alternative, the absence of a reformist movement, leaving us only with Islamists who are indeed quite untested.”

  This uncertainty among the experts, both friendly and hostile, about the nature and future of Islamists and Islamism led to the final question, namely, what should U.S. policy be toward them and toward the countries in which they are active.  All four of the discussants agreed that one cannot lump together either all Islamists or all countries, but should deal with them separately case by case.  The issue came down, however, to a universally applicable choice between promoting evolutionary change and imposing stability at all costs. 

  Esposito emphasized that America must recognize the right of Islamists to participate in the political process and the right to self determination.  Kramer countered that this right should depend on whether the existing government in any country is friendly to U.S. interests.  He gave as an example the case of Tunisia, where Bourguiba and now Ben Ali have ruthlessly persecuted the Islamists for many decades and condemned even Rashid al Ghanouchi to death, even though he is probably the most moderate Islamist in the world and has been attacked by many Islamists as a pacifist.  On the other hand, one of America’s staunchest supporters in every foreign policy issue is Ben Ali.  Referring to “the peace process” as the single top priority issue in U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East and North Africa, Kramer declared, “I would begin by giving the benefit of the doubt to those regimes amenable to the United States and to its interests in the region, and I would most definitely withhold the benefit of the doubt from those regimes, Islamist or not, openly declaring themselves opposed to those interests.”

  Esposito countered that, “When defining U.S. interests, we have to be careful of the extreme kind of Cold War tendency to say that as long as somebody goes along with us on matters we consider important, we accept almost any human rights violations.  For long-term U.S. interests, that creates too many problems.” 

  Fuller expounded further, “I would like to see the United States make some particular effort to show that it is not necessarily at war with Islamism.  Rather than signaling that any time Islamists appear we will do our best to throttle that movement in the cradle, we should open-mindedly view its potential to influence political and economic reform positively.  We pay a high price for a knee-jerk response to Islamism.  We can stifle change in the short run but not in the long term, for the Middle East desperately needs change - of regime, of society, and of nearly everything else.  American policy today, by and large, has been strongly on the side of preserving an undesirable status quo at all costs, which means that we’re leaning towards an explosion rather than an evolution.”

  Kramer’s only defense was, “You’re forgetting the fact that the United States has interests, and any government’s first obligation is to pursue its interests. ... Now, if on the margins of the pursuit of those interests it can also make advances in the areas you’ve outlined - human rights, democratization - very well.  But you cannot abdicate the pursuit of national interests, and cut yourself off from the powers that be, in order to pursue a dubious experiment in political engineering.”

  Explosion or evolution.  That is the single most important choice in American foreign policy.  The discussion in 1999 between the two leading skeptics about Islamism and their two leading opponents is significant if only because the same arguments apply equally today and have for decades, yet the policies that inevitably must lead to explosion have consistently won the day.  For those who plan on a day by day basis, this is the easy way out, but it is ultimately suicidal for all concerned.

  Will there be a global caliphate? Certainly not.  But the effort to establish one in an era of asymmetric warfare may destroy civilization.  Will there be an evolution toward democracy in the Muslim world.  Perhaps, but only if Muslims can win their own battle against those who are trying to pervert everything Islamic into everything that is not.  Muslims can win this battle against their own renegades only if American foreign policy promotes homegrown economic and political democracy throughout the Muslim world as the prelude to long-range stability and as part of its mission as a moral leader of the world.  America is by far the most powerful country in the world, but this can be exercised in its own enlightened self-interests only if this power is used to promote a foreign policy of principled justice as the source and essential content of peace and freedom.