Earlier this year at The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama took heat from critics for refusing to link acts of terror with Islam. He should be lauded for not bending to political pressure. But there still remains a long way to go in terms of how we talk about the nexus of geopolitics and Islam. This is perhaps most lucidly demonstrated by the way the word “caliphate” has been thrown around without paying much attention to what it means, to whom, and why.
Policymakers use the term with an air of condescension and incredulity — “They want a caliphate!” — a tone generally reserved for the guy who proposes ditching wi-fi and going back to the good old days of dial-up. Liberal ideas of “universal” progress find it difficult to explain the presence of something so out of place in the modern world. It’s 2015, not 1915, the narrative goes. How has this become an issue?
Fear of a Black Flag
Exasperation isn’t the only feeling conjured up by the word — an all-too-palpable sense of fear also predominates. In 2005, the New York Times ran an article about the term, nearly a full decade before ISIS dominated headlines. In it, senior Bush administration officials, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, in the midst of leading America to war in Iraq under false pretenses, (ab)use the word to build their case in the same way a child might try and scare his parents by throwing on a white sheet with cutout eyeholes. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, quoted in the article, notes that the word has an “almost instinctive fearful impact” among Western audiences. Even back then, the word was code-speak, stirring up images of rabid Muslim hoards overrunning the countryside, curved scimitars in tow. Bush himself described it in 2006 as, “a totalitarian Islamic empire, encompassing all former and Muslim lands.”
Why does this word have such power? The answer is complicated, and a good part of it has to do with the West getting used to its new place in a non-polar world, one in which there is a felt loss of control over geopolitical interests. Spooky maps of a reconfigured Muslim world falling under the black flag of the caliphate and Arabic letters activate a real sense of insecurity by showing glimpses of a future whereoutsiders will have little say.
To demonize the word “caliphate” is to run the risk of causing cognitive dissonance in the minds of everyday folks who are doing their best to be both good citizens and observant Muslims.
But how and why do Muslim extremists use the word? There are many reasons. Firstly, they use it precisely because they’re PR savvy, and revel in the fact that the word invariably elicits fear and overreactions from policymakers and the media. Secondly, “caliphate” channels Utopian hopes for a reclaimed, dignified, and unapologetic future, a sentiment shared by many everyday Muslims. Such an attitude comes out of a frustration with the sorry state of the Muslim world, a civilization which, for most of its illustrious history, was sitting pretty on top of the global pecking order, yet today has little to boast about on the world stage. Feeling themselves beholden to Western power, millions of Muslims worldwide look with fondness upon this history, and see what Mir Tamim Ansary has termed a “destiny disrupted”.
Lust for Days Gone By
Yet, there is a further dimension to such nostalgia which sustains the appeal of “caliphate” amongst practicing Muslims, namely the very real and undeniable influence of Islamic theology that sees the Prophetic community of Muhammad as the pinnacle of moral and spiritual perfection, the foremost members of which went on to head the Rightly Guided Caliphates (for Sunnis), or as Imams (this term is primarily used by Shias for the reigning head of the Prophetic bloodline, but has also been used interchangeably with “caliph” in Sunni literature). Such a weltanschaunng finds its foil in global liberalism, which, in taking “progress” as dogma, views the future as pregnant with infinite possibility on a technological and material level, and believes that such progress renders us more morally advanced than those who came before. The vast majority of Muslims have had very little issue taking on modern technology (indeed, a large part of ISIS’s success story has to do with the fluidity with which it has been able to use social media for recruiting purposes), but no Muslim has ever suggested that by virtue of being more erudite, wealthy, or technologically-advanced than the Prophetic community that one could ever surpass the moral and spiritual sophistication of the Prophet (who was illiterate himself) and his loyal disciples. To claim otherwise would be to take one outside of the fold of Islam, regardless of sect.
In short, Muslims have and always will look to Prophetic history for spiritual inspiration, and righteous leadership (whether caliphs, imams, or otherwise) features prominently in that history. To demonize the word “caliphate”, then, is to run the risk of causing severe cognitive dissonance in the minds of everyday folks who are doing their best to be both good citizens and observant Muslims. “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 in a 2006 interview. Sinclair is a University of Southern Denmark researcher who co-wrote a book on Hizb al-Tahrir, a huge pan-Islamic organization that has been advocating for a global caliphate since 1953. “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.”
For their part, Muslims must continue to stand up to those extremists within their communities who dare to liken ISIS’s fanatical caliphate with those in their beloved history. Muslim scholars, preachers must also do the hard work within their own tradition of articulating to their congregations a way of understanding their religious history in its full context, while also being acutely aware of their own present-day context. Muslims must be able to differentiate between a nuanced and valid historic parallel from an ignorant and impassioned one, and if they can’t, they need to be connected to those who can. The end result should be an optimistic and empowered route towards a dignified revival that doesn’t compromise the legacy of the sacred past. A confident and secure belief in God cannot be conditioned on political ascendancy. Even when on the receiving end of hate crimes, drones, barrel bombs, sectarian violence, brutal dictatorships, and fanaticism, they must rely upon this God, and enthusiastically take the means He provides to better their condition. Until then, those desiring to take up the mantle of the “caliphate” will not be able to offer anything politically viable, just despair and continued cannibalization.
There needs to be a de-escalation of the polarized discourse around this word, a doing away of the reductionism which sees it as either a fantasy restored or barbarism legitimized and unleashed. How Islam and geopolitics are talked about could be tempered somewhat if the term didn’t set off so many alarm bells for both Muslims and non-Muslims. The idea of what a caliphate might mean in the age of the nation-state, widespread democratic participation, and modern human rights discourse is actually a fascinating question, and one that ought to be analyzed seriously. But with the way things are now, such a conversation is doomed from the start.
[Photo: Flickr CC: Tribes of the World]