Talisman Gate

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Calling All Caliphs

October 12, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion > Printer-Friendly Version

Calling All Caliphs

October 12, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/21392

President Bush gave a seminal speech on October 5th, but few people took notice. He correctly described the war against terror as a clash of ideologies and drew comparisons to the fight against communism: America has embarked on a make-or-break struggle against a grand and terribly ambitious terrorist strategy. Thus, it is not enough to deny the terrorists the means to enact their evil tactics, but their ideas and goals must also be challenged and discredited.

So what is the strategy of the terrorists? According to Bush, the terrorists seek to "establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia." Thus terrorism is a means to hoist a totalitarian ideology upon a reluctant population rather than some form of protest against Western domination. Furthermore, identifying this goal at this time is a brilliant move because the radicals themselves have yet to articulate this message, and there is a simple reason as to why they've been procrastinating: declaring the reestablishment of the caliphate is going to be messy, and disillusioning.

The romantic notion of resurrecting the Islam Empire under a ruling caliph is unworkable and will lead to infighting and chaos among the ranks of the bad guys; this unreachable goal marks the weakest clause in their self-defeating vision for what comes next after jihad.

A quick review of the Islamic caliphate: After 23 years of proselytizing for his new revolutionary faith and managing a nascent, albeit provincial, mini-state, the Prophet Muhammad died, leaving no clear-cut successor. One faction of Muslims - nowadays called Shias and numerically comprising a quarter of all Muslims - believe that Muhammad had indeed appointed his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as heir apparent. Ali's sons, Hassan and Hussein, were the only surviving grandchildren of Muhammad, and the Shias still argue, 1,400 years after the fact, that the sanctified progeny of Ali were robbed of their just right to rule by a counter-revolutionary elite that had governed Mecca before the advent of Islam.

The Sunnis, on the other hand, came up with the idea of the caliphate, literally, the "succession" to the prophet. The first four are revered as the Righteous Caliphs, but three of them were assassinated in tumultuous power struggles. The first two effectively picked each other, while the third was selected by committee and the fourth (Ali, the patron saint of the Shias) rallied some support behind him and them proceeded to fight off all those who questioned his rule. One such upstart was Mu'awiya, the nominal head of the counterrevolutionary ancien regime, who after Ali's assassination established a new form of Muslim government through dynastic rule. But the last Ummayad caliph in Mu'awiya's line was murdered a century later in Damascus by the rival 'Abbassids, who went on to establish their own dynasty that lasted for five centuries. The Mongol hordes over-running the Islamic capital Baghdad in the mid-12th century put an end to that, and the destitute 'Abbassids found refuge in Cairo, where they were reduced to showcase caliphs, lending legitimacy to one warlord or the other embroiled in factional coups and counter-coups.

The Ottomans then came along, but they found no use for the office of the caliph until the 18th century, as the frontiers of the last great Muslim empire receded in the face of renascent European and Eurasian powers. The caliph became the spiritual, rather than temporal, leader of Muslims left behind "infidel" lines. Hasty myths were spun that had the last ailing caliph of the 'Abbassid line give up the mantle to the Ottoman conqueror of Cairo, and thus the title was transferred unto a Turkish dynasty. Even that came to an abrupt end on March 3, 1924, in Istanbul, when Mustapha Ataturk annulled the office of caliph.

Abdul Mejid II, the Last Caliph in the Ottoman line

Therefore, the idea of who gets to lord over the Muslim community has been a tad bit controversial, to say the least. So why has the reestablishment of an institution that had brought turmoil, civil war, and rupture to the world of Islam become the stated goal of the Bin Ladens and Zarqawis? Because, like every political campaign, the jihadists need to come up with a blueprint as to what the day after jihad would look like. And after they are done with expelling the infidels and eradicating the Shia heresy, and after pushing the Jews out into the sea, and after the liberating Spain and conquering Rome, who is going to collect the garbage? Who is going to fix the potholes in the street? The only form of government the jihadists can turn to is the one that mirrors the tradition of the prophet and the early Muslims, and that would have to be the caliphate.

Of course, the inherent danger is that they might actually come-up with a viable and well studied formula. Should they enunciate a logical framework for what an Islamic Empire would look like, their recruiting pool for terrorist foot soldiers would expand exponentially. But it won't be so easy. From the get-go, no one in the jihadist camp wants to talk too audibly about this matter, lest this person be seen as vying for the post of caliph. So whereas fundamentalist literature covers every nitty-gritty detail to do with jihad, the actual discussion of what comes next is couched in very general and fluid terms.

And then there are all these archaic conditions: according to one tradition, both Zarqawi and Bin Laden are disqualified from running for the post because the caliph must be from the Quraysh tribe, which is the tribe of Muhammad. The 'Alids, Ummayads and 'Abbasids fit this category, but not the Ottomans, so maybe there are hidden loop-holes somewhere in this confusing, ad hoc process.

Given time to ponder and compromise, the jihadists may figure out a formula, so let's light a fire under their camp and keep bombarding them with the question "Who is going to be caliph?" This would throw them into utter confusion; what are they fighting for exactly? If it is to reestablish the Islamic Empire, then how do they intend to govern it, and how would they go about picking a caliph? They should be taunted into announcing the name of a candidate, and not simply stating a concept.

Therefore, under these circumstances and during this most auspicious month of Ramadan, I would like to formally announce my own candidacy for the post of Shadow of God on Earth and Caliph of All the Muslims. I would like to see the jihadists emerge out of their ideological black holes and spell out why I am not eligible to run, and who exactly is.

We must not allow the crazies to set the timetable in this ideological war. On paper, America has enough Muslim allies with pliable clerical institutions to bring this debate on the caliphate out into the open. The initiative for attack must be seized by embarrassing the jihadists in the eyes of their would-be recruits: they must be immediately dared into articulating their vision for what comes next. In the meantime, democracy as a model of government would seem far more viable for the Middle East than the idea of the caliphate with its legacy of upheaval and cataclysm.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

October 12, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion > Printer-Friendly Version