Along the Tracks

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The relevance of the caliphate to terror ideology

PBS ran several specials reflecting on 9/11 during Sunday’s fourth anniversary of the attacks, one of which looked more specifically at the development of radical Islamist movements in the 20th century. It was a valuable documentary, and inspired a little research.

Among Osama bin Laden’s stated goals is the “reestablishment of the caliphate,” yet the historical background of the statement is rarely given.

The “caliphs” were the leaders of the Muslim world, starting with the successor of the Prophet Mohammed. They were part pope, part president. They claimed authority over all Muslims, although few caliphs after the first couple centuries of Islam actual held that much power.

The caliph was often the most powerful political and military, as well as religious leader. For nearly all of Islam’s history, politics and religion were one and the same. As the Islamic empire grew, regional powers within the larger Islamic world fought with each other, dynasties passed from family to family, and the caliphate became more a symbol of authority claimed by the strong than an example of piety. Yet that original, basic role remained, at least in theory, and Muslims looked to the caliph for guidance when their religious beliefs were tested.

In 1924, that all changed. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish revolutionary who was determined to modernize his country after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, declared the end of the caliphate, then held by the former Ottoman leader. Since that time, fundamentalist Muslim groups have arisen seeking to reverse the reforms of Ataturk. Although even these groups disagree on what is crucial to restore “true Islam,” most believe reestablishment of the caliphate is a required step. This was a central tenet of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization which worked, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently, to make Islam a basis for government. The Muslim Brotherhood also was a teaching and training organization for leaders of future terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, through its No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri. The demand for a reestablished caliphate takes several forms, but for bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and leaders of other al Qaeda affiliated groups, the caliph would lead a single “Islamic nation.” This caliph would also direct jihad against the infidels, conquering places where Muslims live under non-Muslim governments to establish Islamic law: sharia.

Thus, whether New York, Washington and London or Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the attacks are seen by al Qaeda and its supporters as part of the same war. It doesn’t matter whether the U.S. and its allies pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter if Israel is abandoned. Even if bin Laden was acclaimed caliph and granted authority in one pan-Islamic nation stretching from the shores of West Africa to Indonesia and Malaysia – the attacks would continue. Until all Muslims are under the direct authority of the caliphate (whether they wish to be or not), bin Laden and those of like mind believe it is their duty to continue the jihad against the West.

My point here: Just like Nazism, just like Communism, world domination is radical Islamism’s ultimate goal. A lack of historical perspective allows us to occasionally fool ourselves into thinking militant Islamism is a problem focused “over there” in the Middle East, only lashing out at the West when provoked. In fact, the death of the West is its goal; what they wish to see “over there” is exactly what they hope to impose over here.

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