The Muslim world is suffering at the hands of a failing political architecture that continues to hold back the region. Few now doubt this, but while for the west talk of change has centred on promoting a model rooted in liberalism, political movements indigenous to the region increasingly assert a political model rooted in Islam – the Caliphate. Akmal Asghar introduces a discussion on the Caliphate and concepts that form a distinct political system.
“What we are fighting against is the prospect of a new evil empire”. Joseph Lieberman’s words hark back to Ronald Reagan’s epic depiction of the Soviets, but the Senator’s warning was of an emerging threat – an ’empire’ he describes as: “a radical Islamic Caliphate which would suppress the freedom of its people and threaten the security of every other nation’s citizens”.1 The Caliphate is increasingly included in the lexicon of debating the future of the Islamic World. Its advocates take centre stage in Central Asia and increasingly assert themselves throughout the Muslim world, as Senator Lieberman warned in Iraq. Their activities may yet yield results: the CIA’s National Intelligence Committee, for example, forecast that a Caliphate may be with us by the year 2020. Such a prospect requires serious and objective discussion rather than the dire and ill-informed judgements of some who dismiss its form of politics and condemn it outright as a new global enemy.
It would be unfair to present Senator Lieberman’s protest as the benchmark for how the west regards the Caliphate. Few know what it is or regard it viable enough to consider seriously. For some it represents the resurrection of an Ottoman government; the last to lay claim to being a Caliphate and a state whose decay earned it the unenviable label: ‘the Sick Man of Europe’. Therefore, the Caliphate lies beyond the consideration of most in the west; a political system belonging to a bygone age whose fate was sealed by the birth of Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish Republic. It is not unusual – in fact quite common amongst some western schools of Middle-East commentary – to hear calls for its resurrection in the Muslim world interpreted as an attempt to relive a romantic imagination of some former glory, which is neither a serious nor workable political system in a world of space travel and virtual communication.
A discussion on the Caliphate must lie, however, in a broader context: there is a need for alternatives to the failing political leaderships in the Muslim world. Autocratic, authoritarian regimes litter the Muslim world and represent the single biggest obstacle to progress. Consent is notoriously absent from the processes that legitimated presidents, kings and premiers. Staged elections have never changed this fact, conducted as they are in a climate of fear and intimidation preventing public expression of any organised opposition. Ruling elites owe their status to acts of foreign installation and often represent striking departures from the demographics of the lands they govern. If it is an evil empire that we must fear, then surely this is it: entrenched primitive and thoroughly repressive political structures aggregated to represent one of the most poorly governed regions in the world. The UN’s 2004 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) makes similar observations. It refers to the failing political architecture in the Arab world, the crisis in governance, authoritarian and totalitarian government, the lack of transparency and accountability, repression, corruption, and a broad crisis of legitimacy that faces Arab governments. It concludes that in the three years of an annual AHDR, little has changed. But repressive governments have long characterised the region and significantly pre-date the report’s findings.
It is in mapping a way out of this malaise that alternatives need consideration. For the authors of the AHDR, the template for change is the western model: democracy, liberty, and the institutions and assumptions that underpin the western liberal political philosophy are its benchmarks for reforming Arab governments. The report boldly equates the crisis in the Middle East to a democracy deficit and commentators widely acknowledge that the report has moved to suggest the ‘universal’ desirability of democracy, most resolutely in its 2004 report. Rumblings from Washington over the report’s publication – because of its recommendation of indigenous, home-grown democracy over promotion by foreign donors, a subtle snipe at the US invasion of Iraq – may have threatened US funding for the UN’s Human Development Programme, but that should not delude one into thinking it recommended something other than democracy; the argument raged over how not what. And in the now tiresome routine of Islamicising foreign notions to give them legitimacy amongst Muslim populations, the report provides a cultural context to its recommendations by drawing on notable names from Islamic history to argue that key aspects of the west’s liberal political philosophy have an Islamic precedent. Such claims to universality are open to a number of significant criticisms – some of which have been presented in previous editions of New Civilisation. But the wider debate demonstrates that while there is growing appreciation of the plight of Muslims living under repressive regimes, a change in the political landscape of the Muslim is talked of occurring in one of two ways: the emergence of a Caliphate following the success of indigenous political movements, considered an unwelcome prospect by many western governments, or some form of liberal democracy, possibly with a cultural adjustment.
The current consideration of the Caliphate as an alternative political model to western liberalism, however, suffers in too many ways, and is compounded by errors in western discourse on Islam in general and Islamic political thinking in particular. ‘Orientalist’ writers who draw on sociologist Max Weber’s reading of Islam, for example, regard it as a pre-modern political system that collapsed because of the challenges of modernity. Such essayists consider it a closed system, total in nature; unable to address Europe’s innovations in industry and political thought, and that it is the principle impediment to progress unless Islam is able to reform; a primitive political system whose literature on government is concerned only with the piety of ruler and subject.2 Apart from their particular critique of Islam, these – among many other – western writings are premised on the belief that the liberal political model is built on a series of values deemed universal, and currently provides the most economically efficient and ethically desirable form of governance.3 This assumption, however, creates the problematic framework in which the Caliphate is studied because the approach typically follows the route of comparison, one that takes as its norm the western state and its form of politics, and measures against provisions in the liberal political model.
Where such comparisons fall short is the failure to acknowledge that the Islamic political system has its own independent configuration and a distinct constellation of political principles and ideas. While overlooking this distinct and different configuration of politics, comparisons that impose one system as the norm act only to highlight differences between the two systems without, importantly, questioning the original configurations of both. In this case, it merely highlights the lack of liberal ideas in Islamic politics – which says no more than that they are different – but does not question whether liberalism should be taken as the norm; the approach is relative and offers no universal merit to the discourse. Measuring through a filtered prism obscures an objective picture of the Islamic political system and misconstrues a thoroughly distinct assemblage of political ideas. The Islamic political system must be understood according to its original texts and meanings, not in relation to the western state.4
Leaving aside ruling elites, who seek only to entrench their positions, the oft discussed lack of appetite for democracy in the Muslim world is no surprise. Increasing demands amongst Muslims populations for the rule of law, transparent, accountable and representative government, and an independent and efficient judiciary do not de facto translate into a call for democracy. These provisions are not the monopoly of liberal political philosophy; the Islamic political system addresses each of these but through a model that understands society, the individual, the goal of government and the role of the state differently. The Islamic political system – rather than inherently deficient – is characterised by its own relationship between ruler and subject, authority and sovereignty, law, property and power.