IN a recent article in the Guardian titled “The return of the caliphate”, Osama Saeed argues that the restoration of the caliphate to unite the Muslim world is a desirable goal. In support of his argument, he cites the success of the European Union and the United States in forging political and economic unions.
He conveniently forgets that both his examples are secular entities, whereas the caliph derived his authority from his designation as God’s vice-regent on earth. He also glosses over the inconvenient history of the caliphate which saw much intrigue and bloodshed. Indeed, after the sack of Baghdad by Halaku in 1258, the reigning caliph Khalifa Mustasim was killed, and his surviving Abbasid relatives sought refuge in Cairo. His uncle was appointed caliph in the Mamluk capital.
Subsequently, for the next 250 years or so, the caliph was a virtual prisoner in Cairo until the Ottomans anointed themselves the spiritual and temporal leaders of the Muslim world, and moved the caliphate to Istanbul. This institution was finally abolished in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the secular leader of the newly established Turkish republic, much to the consternation of Muslims around the world. Now, many Muslims think the answer to their current woes is the revival of the caliphate.
Leading this school of thought is Osama bin Laden and his bloodthirsty cohorts. But none of these extremists seem to have considered the practical difficulties in transforming their dream into reality. For starters, who would decide on a suitable candidate? Given the deep schisms that divide the Muslim world today, I cannot see how a consensus can be developed.
Another thing Osama Saeed overlooks in his article is the vast differences between different countries and peoples who are Muslims. What does an Indonesian have in common with a Turk, apart from faith? The truth is that religion is only one aspect of an individual’s identity. Other equally important factors include language, ethnicity, socio-economic status, education, and a whole slew of layers that compose identity. To assume that just because somebody is born a Muslim, he will automatically obey a distant figure who calls himself the caliph is to ignore just how tenuous the authority of most of the past caliphs actually was.
What are the other goals of Al Qaeda and similar groups? Apart from wishing to restore the caliphate, they also want to reverse the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain, as well as overthrow the rule of non-Muslims from countries where the faithful once held sway. These include India, Bosnia and Chechnya. And of course, Jews must be thrown out of Israel. They also want to see the removal of all kings, generals and sundry rulers currently running Muslim countries. It goes without saying that all other Muslim sects with the exception of a Salafi interpretation of the faith have to be destroyed.
In the long term, the whole world must be converted to Islam, and Sharia must be the law governing everybody. Understandably, the rest of the world is not very enthusiastic about these plans. Fortunately, we live in a very diverse world, and we are all enriched as a result. The thought of a homogeneous world in which there is imposed uniformity of thought is a repulsive one, no matter which ideology motivates it.
Since 9/11, there have been sane voices asking for a dialogue with these extremists. But the problem is that with such ludicrous demands — and this is just a small sampling — how is negotiation possible? Indeed, by their willingness to commit suicide for their extreme causes, they ensure that no reasonable person can sit down with them for a rational discussion. In their worldview, anybody disagreeing with them deserves to die. This is hardly the basis for civilized debate and discourse.
People who subscribe to such views are clearly living in the past. And, this past is distorted and viewed through the prism of selective vision. This brings us to a major problem with these extremists: they are literalists who, apart from a rote learning of religious texts, have read no history, economics or philosophy. They have no understanding of culture and civilization, and are ill-equipped to deal with contemporary issues. Seeing things in black and white, they cannot discern the many shades of grey that are the dominant hues of the world.
Given these extreme and extremely irrational views, how can we reconcile this jihadi culture with the rest of the world? The short answer is that we can’t. Many moderates say that if issues like Palestine and Kashmir are resolved, Islamic extremism will die down. The problem with this position is that the demands of Al Qaeda and its ilk go far beyond these two issues.
In Britain today, there are Muslim groups who demand the rule of the Sharia there. Do they seriously think this will happen? But while most people dismiss this as crazy talk, they do not see how they can take these extremists seriously. During George Galloway’s election campaign in the Brick Lane constituency earlier this year, his speech was disrupted by a group of Muslim extremists who loudly insisted that elections were unIslamic, and that anybody voting would go to hell.
The truth is that Islamic extremism is on a collision course with the rest of the world. George Bush’s ‘war on terror’ has no foreseeable end. As long as misguided young men are willing to die for the restoration of the caliphate and all it implies, innocent people will die and the backlash will continue painting all Muslims with the brush of extremism. And as long as cynical religious leaders continue brainwashing young zealots, they will go on blowing themselves up, taking many innocent people with them.
In the West, there is a widespread misperception that somehow moderate Muslims can influence these extremists into giving up terror as a weapon. Nothing can be further from the truth. Reasonable people, whether Muslim or not, have no credibility with groups like Al Qaeda. In the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his band of terrorists, we are irrelevant to their purpose. Either we are with them, or we are against them. There is no middle ground. But until a middle ground is found, the killing will continue.