Ghosts of the caliphate
by Jean-Pierre Filiu
Fantasies of reviving the caliphate reveal a deep crisis of legitimacy within Sunni Islam
In October 2006, al Qaeda proclaimed the first online caliphate in Islam's 14 century-old history.
Bin Laden's deputies in Iraq tried hard to make it look legitimate, with jihadi leaders and tribal sheikhs pledging allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, appointed "commander of the believers." Their oath was about "ending the oppression to which the Sunnis are being subjected by malicious Shiites and the occupying Crusaders" and was open to all the Iraqi insurgent groups. Most of them refused to join in and continue to resent al Qaeda's imported agenda and terror. But Bin Laden and Zawahiri were making the connection between Baghdad falling to the Mongolians in 1258 and today’s American occupation of Iraq, with the Shiites always betraying Islam to its "infidel" foes.
Al Qaeda is, however, rather a newcomer in the modern caliphate game. It was back in 1953 that a Palestinian cleric, Taqiuddin Nabhani, disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood appeasement policy, founded his own Liberation party, known in Arabic as Hizb ut-Tahrir. The "tahriris," as these militants came to be called, had only one goal—the re-establishment of the caliphate. They were ruthlessly crushed by the various Arab regimes, while they had to face the shared hostility of nationalist parties and Islamist groups. This consistent repression reduced Hizb ut-Tahrir to little more than a sect in the middle east, and it took two generations for it to resurface at the periphery of Islam. This happened first in post-Soviet central Asia, where it became a convenient scapegoat for the Uzbekistan political police, while competing fiercely with Tajikistan's mainstream Islamist groups. Then it occurred in western Europe, with its most powerful openly operated branch in Britain, where it has been an organising force behind many radical demonstrations and has been accused of being a "conveyor belt" to terrorism despite being officially opposed to terror. Finally, it surfaced in Indonesia, where it could rally 100,000 people in a Jakarta stadium last August in support of the caliphate.
Heavily influenced by decades of underground culture, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a secretive organisation, and the estimate of 100,000 members in 40 countries is probably overblown. But it does represent the most coherent alternative to Islamist movements that have accepted the post-colonial state boundaries as their national framework of action. In its hands, the caliphate has become a weapon against national Islam or Islamic nationalism. The growing popularity of the "tahriris" in the West Bank stems from militant frustration with Hamas and Fatah alike. The "Hizb" shares al Qaeda's contempt for democracy as a despicable "corruption" and both organisations long to wipe Israel off the map. But Bin Laden's followers consider the tahriris soft-bellies, alienated from real jihad. And al Qaeda sees the caliphate as a strategic long-term goal, while Nabhani has described any day without a caliph as a sinful one for every Muslim.
The revival of the "back to the caliphate" motto also reveals a deeper crisis of legitimacy within Sunni Islam. When Atatürk abolished the caliphate in 1924, two years after toppling the Ottoman sultanate, he deprived the Sunni world of an undisputed guiding voice. Sharif Hussein of Mecca immediately tried to fill this void, but he was smashed by the rising power of Wahhabi Islam. Saudi Arabia was built on the ruins of this aborted caliphate, although its monarchs do not now claim a nobler title than "custodian of the holy places." Nowadays, to be called "commander of the believers" one has to be the king of Morocco, or Mullah Omar of Afghanistan, who assumed the title when, in Kandahar in 1996, he took up a cloak said to have belonged to the Prophet himself as a founding gesture for the Taliban emirate. The only Muslim leader who plays publicly with the notion of caliphate is Colonel Gaddafi, who recently saw in it the solution for trans-Saharan integration. The concept of caliph is rather flexible: its Arabic etymology just means "successor" and its institution was a pragmatic response by the nascent Muslim community to the trauma of Muhammad's sudden death.
When it comes to politics, there was never a golden age of Islam. Out of the four so-called "well-inspired" caliphs who followed the Prophet, three were murdered and, during their time, the bloody struggle for leadership ignited a civil war whose echoes are still felt today in the streets of Baghdad and Beirut. The road back to the caliphate is a dead end but, as often with global war and global jihad, the layers of propaganda surrounding it lend an appearance of substance to an illusion. Let us hope not too many people will fall under the spell of this ghost.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (middle east chair). His last book was “Les Frontières du Jihad” (The Boundaries of Jihad), Fayard, 2006
Issue 140 , November 2007
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