The Caliphate Myth
By Tom Porteous
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
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
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.
© 2006 TomPaine.com
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