The Caliphate Myth

By Tom Porteous

02/14/06 "
Tom Paine" -- -- Tom Porteous is a freelance writer and analyst who was formerly with the BBC and British Foreign Office. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for many years, and travels frequently to Iran.

At a time of growing political tension between the Muslim world and the West, a new bad idea is creeping into the discourse of European and North American political leaders and is being used to justify an intensification of Western political and military intervention in the Muslim world.

Donald Rumsfeld wheeled this bad idea out at a conference on global security in Munich last week. George Bush alluded to it in his 2006 State of the Union address in January. Tony Blair and his Home Office minister, Charles Clarke, have both spoken of it in the past six months. Dick Cheney has bandied it about for even longer. The rhetoric of the new German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggests she too has signed up.

The new bad idea is this: the “free West,” having defeated German Nazism and Soviet Communism, now faces a new strategic challenge from the ambition of Muslim radicals to re-establish an Islamic caliphate and impose Islamic law on half the world.

As the U.S. Defense Secretary put it at last week’s Munich conference, Islamic radicals “seek to take over governments from North Africa to Southeast Asia and to re-establish a caliphate they hope, one day, will include every continent. They have designed and distributed a map where national borders are erased and replaced by a global extremist Islamic empire."

Ouch! A map without borders! Is this the new WMD?

It is true that many Islamist groups, including terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, say they would like to see the reunification of the Muslim world under one political leadership. They also frame this in terms of the re-establishment of the political institution which unified the Muslim world in the first few centuries of Islam: the caliphate.

But does this make it sensible, wise or proportionate for the leaders of the most formidable military alliance in the history of the world to base their strategic posture for the early 21st century on the invocation of an Al Qaeda or Iranian run, “terrorist caliphate” stretching half way around the globe?

No, it does not. And here’s why.

First, the evidence that Al Qaeda or any similar organization is in a position to re-create and control a caliphate is entirely non-existent. The only country where Al Qaeda was able to gain any kind of territorial foothold was in parts of Afghanistan. Even there, they were dependent on the goodwill of local leaders, the Taliban, who had only come to power after Afghanistan had been reduced to ground zero by the combined policies of the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War and subsequent international neglect.

In Iraq, where the U.S. military invasion and occupation has created another opportunity for Al Qaeda, Bush’s claim that Al Qaeda would take over the country in the event of a U.S. military withdrawal is nonsense. Al Qaeda has the same chance of imposing its political authority in Iraq as the U.S. does: nil.

As for Iran, in the 25 years since the Islamic revolution, Tehran has been unable to export its Shi’ite version of Islamist rule to any other Muslim state, in part because most other Muslim states are dominated by Sunnis. In fact, revolutionary Iran long ago gave up efforts to export its ideology to the wider Muslim world and has concentrated instead on cultivating its influence among Shi’ite sectarian groups in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.

The second reason why raising the specter of a resurgent caliphate is foolish is that it plays into the hands of groups like Al Qaeda who claim the “war on terror” is an assault on Islam itself. Where, one wonders, have all those millions of dollars put aside by Washington and London for public diplomacy in the Muslim world gone? It surely would not have cost much to find out that, so far from being seen as a totalitarian tyranny, the early Muslim caliphate is highly venerated by most Muslims as a golden age of Islam. Comparing it to the Third Reich is therefore not a good way of winning friends and influencing people in the Muslim world.

The third problem with the caliphate idea is that it has led Western politicians to prepare for and fight the wrong kind of conflict. Al Qaeda is a non-state terrorist organization that presents a complex of threats to western interests, some quite serious but none existential. Its main resource lies not in controlling territory or armies but in its symbolic and ideological influence among young and alienated Muslims. This influence is directly proportionate to the degree to which such Muslims sense they and their religion are oppressed and attacked by the West.

The main policies of the U.S. and its allies since 9/11 have been to fight Al Qaeda as though it was a conventional territorial enemy. This has involved massive projection of military force throughout the Muslim world—from "North Africa to Southeast Asia,” to borrow Rumsfeld’s words—including two outright military invasions and occupations, a continuing buildup of Israeli military power, and now the threat of military strikes against Iran. But because the enemy is not a conventional one, these interventions have quickly degenerated into crude counterinsurgency operations involving the use of torture, prolonged detention without trials and the killing of tens of thousands of civilians.

The chronic insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq and the occupied territories, the successes of Islamist political parties in elections in several Muslim countries and, to some extent, the furor over the Danish cartoons, all demonstrate how counterproductive and ill-judged these policies are. Among other impacts in the Muslim world, they are boosting the influence of Al Qaeda and other forms of Islamist radicalism, fostering anti-Western sentiment, undermining secular reformist trends and destabilizing states.

If Western leaders’ apparent obsession with the notion that the West faces a real threat from an emergent extremist caliphate is so foolish, why do they use it?

Three answers come to mind. First, whether they really believe in the threat or not, it is a convenient cover for their signal and deepening failure in the “war on terror.” By raising the menacing specter of another evil empire, Western leaders seem to be saying to their publics that the failures in Iraq , Afghanistan and elsewhere have nothing to do with their own shortcomings, lack of imagination or ideological blindness, but with the very terribleness of the threat we are facing.

Second, the notion that the West faces the extraordinary threat of an evil caliphate provides an excuse for avoiding the very real and difficult problems that the West does need to face in relation to the Muslim world, problems which the West is so far either unwilling or unable to address seriously. These include the need to engage with political Islam and undercut the appeal of extremists, to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, to help stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and to prevent other states going the same way.

Third, in the febrile post-9/11 political atmosphere of the West, the exaggeration of the threat from Islam has in different ways (immigration, terrorism, values) come to be exploited by political entrepreneurs as a crucial means of winning political power, extending state control over scared citizens, and justifying the massive projection of military power abroad. So the notion of a threatening Islamic caliphate may be not such a bad idea after all.

It’s just not true.


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