By Ameer Ali –
Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or IS in short named its captured territory and polity as the Caliphate there had been a chorus of admonition, condemnation and denigration of the institution of the caliphate from political leaders, journalists, Islamic organizations and even academics. They all seem to have agreed quite justifiably that the IS’s caliphate is neither a replica of its medieval predecessor nor a modernised version of it but an artificially concocted moniker adopted for convenience to win popular legitimacy for its criminal enterprise.
Even before IS, Osama bin Laden, called for an Islamic caliphate in his public messages to the umma. Likewise, one of the primary objectives of Hizb al-Tahrir, a non-violent Islamist organization founded in 1953, is to resurrect the caliphate and return to the rule of shariah. Earlier to that, the Muslim Brotherhood fathered by Hassanal Banna of Egypt in 1928 also envisioned the caliphate as the final destiny of political Islam. In short, although as a multi-ethnic and transnational empire the Islamic caliphate disappeared after 1924, as a concept and vision it has outlived that historical institution and since IS’s declaration that concept has entered into the popular political lexicon raising much anxiety and heat.
In reality the spirit of nationalism and creation of the nation-states in the wake of decolonization and liberation movements have divided the Muslim umma now more than ever before. Religion has proved again and again a failure to unite the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual umma. The break-up of Pakistan into Bengali speaking and Urdu speaking countries and the political turmoil and division in Iraq and Syria along ethnic and sectarian lines are glaring illustrations of the failure of Islam as a religion to unite Muslims. In this context even to contemplate a project to bring the fifty-seven countries that form the OIC under the umbrella of a transnational caliphate is impracticable in the extreme.
Yet, in the weekly sermons on Fridays the imams of practically every mosque rarely fail to pray for the souls of the earliest four caliphs of the seventh century and to remind the faithful of the glories of at least the Abbasid Caliphate. A number of independent surveys conducted internationally show that the belief in a shariah based governance in a politically united umma under a caliphate is widely prevalent not only in majority Muslim countries but also amongst their diaspora elements in the U.S., UK, EU and Oceania. What does keep this belief alive? Does the caliphate today have a different connotation from what it meant in the past?
There is a view that resonates among a group of Muslim intellectuals that the caliphate at present represents not a project for the recreation of the dead medieval polity but a metaphor representing the yearning amongst Muslims to reorder the postcolonial world designed by the former masters of colonialism and managed by today’s imperialism. To be precise, it points out to the loss of a centralized Muslim power and influence in the making and management of the world order.
Historically, it is true that at every step in the making of this order the Muslim world had no participation at all. To start with, the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that gave birth to the family of nation-states and laid the edifice for the evolution of current political order was solely the effort of warring Christian factions and their supporting rulers of Europe. Later, after World War I at the Paris Conference of 1919, which led to the League of Nations, there was no Muslim leader except the British picked Prince Faisal from the Hijaz, which later became Saudi Arabia. After a prolonged and bitter remonstration by the French, Faisal was allowed to address the conference in which he demanded full independence to a unified Arab territory, but at the end his plea was rejected and the former Ottoman territories were carved out between the French and the British and the Mandatory System was created. The roots of today’s convulsion in the Middle East (a geographical nomenclature innovated by the colonialists) could be traced back to this colonial grand conspiracy.
Again after the Second World War, when Israel was implanted by the British and its allies the Arabs were kept in total darkness and their protests were ignored. Even today at the United Nations though there are more than fifty Muslim countries represented in the General Assembly not one of them has a place in the Security Council. The Muslims feel frustrated if not livid that they who form nearly one-fifth of humanity have no place in the most powerful decision making body in the world, a concern already was raised by the former President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he address the UN in 2012. It is the lack of a strong Muslim power, in the wider perception of the umma, which Islam and its followers being mocked around all around the world.
Outside the UN, there is China, Israel and India, all armed with nuclear weapons, to raise their concern on behalf of the world Chinese, Jews and Hindus respectively and the world cannot afford to ignore their concern. Who is there with that sort of strength and influence, the Muslims ask, to speak for them? Even the Catholics when they face trouble anywhere in the world have the Vatican to speak on their behalf and the world listens. Thus, in the world arena the Muslims feel they have been orphaned after the elimination of the Caliphate. There is therefore a thirst and hunger amongst the umma for a strong Muslim super power that can stand at par with the other such powers and be counted on the world stage. There is none at the moment. Will there be one in the future?
The caliphate need not be a transnational hegemon as it was originally, but instead can be any one country or union of countries but with economic strength, political stability, democratic freedom, tolerance for dissent and above all an indigenously developed technological and military strength. What matters is not the name but the stature of that polity. IS hijacked the name but in essence it is a criminal enterprise that will wither away eventually. To the 1.6 billion Muslims the hanker for a caliphate or super power will still remain and there will be several experiments and failures until the law of probability makes one to succeed. For that to happen the existing rotten Muslim regimes pandering to the wishes of their Western masters should be got rid of.