Bush and the Caliphate
Karl Vick of the Washington Post does his readers an enormous favor by explaining the idea of the Sunni Muslim caliphate, its history, and why many Sunnis want it revived.
The article also contains a critique of Bush’s recent speech in which he warned of the caliphate ideology of al-Qaeda, saying it wished to establish the institution from Spain to Indonesia. The problem is that a caliphate is an ideal for many Muslims who have little sympathy with al-Qaeda, and framing the conflict as America versus a revived caliphate alienates them.
There are different conceptions of the caliphate, sort of a Sunni papacy. At some points in history the caliph was both a temporal and a spiritual leader. But over time there was a separation of religion and state of sorts in medieval Islam, and civil rulers such as the Buyids or Seljuks exercised material rule, reducing the caliphs of the tenth through thirteenth centuries to largely a spiritual function. The Mongols ended the caliphate in 1258. The Ottoman sultans attempted to revive it from 1880, though their claim was not universally accepted. Ataturk abolished this revived caliphate in 1924. There were big debates in places like Egypt about whether Sunni Muslims needed a caliphate, and then then king of Egypt put his hat in the ring as a contender for caliph. But modern nationalism was taking hold, and the nationalist leaders of countries such as Egypt had no desire to see an alternative power center created. So the caliphate lapsed again, to the dismay of Muslim nationalists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir, who want it recreated.
‘ Some experts warn that such a reservoir of feeling illustrates the risk of framing the Iraq war as a contest of ideologies.
“I think the smart thing to do if you’re the president of the United States is to sort of de-Islamicize the problem,” said Kirstine Sinclair, a University of Southern Denmark researcher who co-wrote a book on Hizb ut-Tahrir. “Talk about security risks instead. When you talk about expanding the war on terror to talk about states with an Islamist agenda or even the caliphate, you stir up emotions and you’re actually creating the clash of civilizations.”
Numerous polls show the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have sharpened solidarity among Muslims and antipathy toward Americans. “To tell you the truth, I don’t see even see them as humans anymore. America is a pig,” said Orel, who is in his eighties. The trend appears greatest among the very people whom the radicals aim to mobilize. ‘
The US government has a policy on al-Qaeda, which is that it must be destroyed as a movement. But it needn’t have a policy on the caliphate per se, which is the Sunni Muslims’ business.