Islamic Civilisation — 22 February 2006

As the attacks that rocked London’s transport system unfolded before the world last July, the attention immediately turned to the British government’s response.The world speculated as to where the blame would be directed, which new targets would be unveiled as part of the war to rid the world of terror. In response to the attacks on 9/11, the US invaded two countries, overthrew their regimes and has since moved to pressure Iran and Syria. After the Madrid bombings, a huge swing in Spanish public opinion dramatically changed the fortunes of the leftist political opposition who came to power on the pledge that it would pull-out all Spanish troops from Iraq. What would follow 7/7 and how would it affect the logic that had thus far formed the backbone of the War on Terror?

At the heart of the British Prime Minister’s response was a new thrust that put the spotlight on ‘ideology’: the ideas and goals that drove the ‘terrorists’. Tony Blair declared this was “a battle not just about the terrorist methods but their views. Not just their barbaric acts, but their barbaric ideas. Not only what they do but what they think”. He shifted the focus away from the terrorist methods that had dominated the War on Terror to bring into focus the political ideas and goals of those who had perpetrated the attacks. But this was with a view to discredit these goals as a natural extension of terror itself as he referred to their “inherent” violence. In Blair’s drive, the means employed by al-Qai’da bombing western interests, infrastructure and indeed capitals – were intimately woven into a set of political goals that demanded a Middle East free from western influence, the formation of a Shariah-based political system – the Caliphate – and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. He described these political goals part of an ‘evil ideology’ as he forged the argument they were as dangerous as, indeed inseparable from, the violent means of terrorism.

This took a political vision that centred on the formation of a new Caliphate and scarred it with the horrors of terrorism. The construct sought to construe the Caliphate as some violent throwback that would usher in a new dark age, characterised by sectarian conflict, persecuted minorities and fear because these had become the hallmarks of the terrorists’ campaign to create it. Blair’s thrust welded terrorism onto the goal for a Shariah-based political system, a construct that the US administration was equally eager to brandish: President Bush also referred to confronting a “violent political vision” which represented “the establishment by terrorism, subversion and insurgency of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom”.The Caliphate was cast as an al-Qaida preserve giving its mere mention an “almost instinctive fearful impact” in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. But rubbishing a political vision for the Muslim world that challenges their own by using the language of terrorism fundamentally misconstrues Islamic politics and acts to malign anyone associated with it.The strategy appears largely in vain however – an independent Shariah-based system now features in the vision of most of the largest and best supported organisations in the Muslim world that are neither violent nor part of al-Qaida.

We must decouple means from goals. The phenomena of organisations using violence of the al-Qaida kind, which legitimise attacks on western soil, are relatively recent and brought to the fore by 9/11. It is significantly pre-dated by the political vision of an independent Muslim world under a Caliphate, non-violent calls for which have been heard ever since the day it was formally abolished at the beginning of the twentieth century. Talk of the Caliphate is therefore not new; indeed, it has continued to feature across the spectrum of political debate in the Muslim world even after its demise. To appreciate ongoing calls for its restoration, it is important understand the Muslim world’s reaction to its loss and the path of subsequent political debate.

The fall of the Caliphate in 1924 was an event of monumental significance for Muslims as it represented the end of a 1350 year-old institution that had existed since the time of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Its loss had a “deep effect on the way in which politically conscious Arabs thought of themselves” [1] such that in the immediate aftermath, individuals and movements from all quarters of the Islamic political spectrum emerged, advocating the restoration of some form of Shariahbased political system. Demands were not restricted to Turkey though it was the last home of the Caliphate and was then subject to harsh, anti-religious Kemalist policies. In Egypt, even prominent reformists led calls for its immediate re-establishment, Rashid Rida for example saying in his magazine ‘al-Manar’ “All Muslims will remain in a state of sin until they select another caliph and pledge allegiance to him”, and by 1928 a populist Islamic movement had emerged which held Islamic government as a central goal. “When asked what is it that you call, reply that it is Islam, the message of Muhammad, the religion that contains within it a government” were the words of Hassan al-Banna founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. In its dying days, attempts to salvage it where directed from as far away as India by such likes as the Khilafat Movement [2] , a movement which left a significant and lasting impact on Muslim political thought throughout the subcontinent, forming the ideological underpinnings of later demands for a separate Muslim homeland – Pakistan. Even those who had conspired to destroy it, such as Hussein of Mecca who fought the Ottomans with British support, tried to assume its title knowing the regard it held in the Muslim world; other political leaders also tried to take advantage. King Fouad I of Egypt for example “set his sights on the lofty religious position that had been vacated in Istanbul after Turkey abolished the Caliphate in 1924” according to Egypt’s al-Ahram newspaper in 1925.This is not to mention conferences held in Cairo in 1926 and throughout India during the early 1920s that addressed various questions of support for the Caliphate. The words of Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Minister at the time, appear to have best caught the Caliphate’s significance when he announced to the House of Commons “We must put an end to anything which brings about any Islamic unity between the sons of the Muslims. As we have already succeeded in finishing off the Caliphate, so we must ensure that there will never arise again unity for the Muslims, whether it be intellectual or cultural unity”

Since the furore that followed the demise of the Caliphate, the question of Islam in politics and Shariah-based government has arguably confronted every Islamic movement in the Muslim world, regardless of how they resolved to answer that question. Undoubtedly, some argued there must be no such thing; the reformer Ali Abdul Razaq for example challenged the likes of Rida by demanding a separation of religion from state, saying of the Caliphate “In reality, the religion of Islam is innocent of the Caliphate which Muslims have come to know”. Clearly, a branch of the post-Caliphate debate did not reference Islam, driven by other ideological drifts. But after failed experiments with nationalism -Arab or otherwise Communism, Socialism during the 50s and 60s, secularism and bitter experiences with regimes that forcibly kept religion out of sight not just out of government, organisations seeking to introduce Shariah and Islam into the political system are now arguably the biggest force in the Muslim world. Any opening in the authoritarian architecture of the Muslim world is likely to yield Islamic government. F. Gregory Gause III, associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont and director of its Middle East studies program, points to the increasing paradox of democratising the Middle East for US policymakers in October’s Foreign Affairs, “based on public opinion surveys and recent elections in the Arab world, the advent of democracy there seems likely to produce new Islamist governments that would be much less willing to cooperate with the United States than are the current authoritarian rulers”

For numerous organisations now, the goal of reviving Shariah in ruling matters feature at the root of their political activity. The means they employ differ, as does their vision of the Caliphate’s exact workings. Some, like those affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, PAS in Malaysia and others, opt for a gradual reform of the political system using existent mechanisms; others through encouraging individual reform whilst some opt to operate outside of existing political structures like the transnational organisation Hizb ut Tahrir. Crucially many such organisations are non-violent and do not endorse attacks from 9/11 to 7/7 let alone believe violence to be the methodology for change. Islamic organisations seeking to establish a Shariah-based government are clearly not limited to the few who have chosen violence, or to the individuals who have bought carnage to western capitals.The suggestion that the Caliphate is an inherently violent system because it is exclusive to – and draws its reality exclusively from – the violence of such people is therefore false. The formulae needs to be deconstructed and an assessment of the Caliphate made independently of such misleading associations.

Let us pose a broader question to highlight the point in a different way: is it sound to discredit a set of political goals because of the means employed by some to achieve them? If the logic held true, some of the most celebrated historical events in the West should be recast as triumphs for political violence. The founding pillars of the “enlightenment” should be held responsible for motivating violent upheaval on the continent of Europe and North America and thus should remain under the shadow of – and scarred by – the means of terror. More acutely, if Blair’s careful stitch-work between means and goals is credible we must go further to render ideas of the enlightenment inherently violent, for they represented the ideals of the violent and bloody struggles that were the French and American revolutions. Thomas Paine, the esteemed thinker at the heart of America’s struggle for independence, articulated the case for an American revolution in his highly influential pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ when he wrote “We view our enemies in the characters of Highwaymen and Housebreakers, and having no defence for ourselves in the civil law; are obliged to punish them by the military one, and apply the sword, in the very case, where you have before now, applied the halter”. Thomas Jefferson too acknowledged that violence would feature in the path to America’s independence, his words suggesting that although ‘unfortunate’ the focus should be on the bigger picture:”It is unfortunate that the efforts of mankind to recover the freedom of which they have been so long deprived, will be accompanied with violence, with errors, and even with crimes. But while we weep over the means, we must pray for the end.”

Equally, national liberation struggles that used violence should render the goal of independence from foreign control violent and immoral, a far cry however from the glowing endorsements they selectively received from Western powers. On the Afghan effort to force out the Soviets, former US President Ronald Reagan commented “Self-determination, the right to freely choose one’s own destiny, has been the central point of the Afghan struggle… We are proud to have supported their brave struggle to regain their freedom, and our support for this noble cause will continue as long as it is needed”. The African National Congress’ struggle against apartheid represented a noble cause but as Nelson Mandela admitted in 1963 that “without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle” although he “planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation”. None of this rendered the fight against racism in South Africa wrong, Mandela now a respected figure in international politics indeed in global peace movements, re-branded a freedom fighter no less.

The use of violence to achieve a political end is even a point of debate in western circles. Opinions range from those who believe it is never justified to those who believe that some situations necessitate it. Gary Younge, a columnist in the British newspaper the Guardian, wrote regarding the recent rioting in Parisian suburbs that “in certain conditions rioting is not just justified but may also be necessary, and effective” because “when all non-violent, democratic means of achieving a just end are unavailable, redundant or exhausted, rioting is justifiable”. Thomas Paine’s view that “having no defence for ourselves in the civil law; are obliged to punish them by the military one” also moves to justify the use of violence when no alternative is available. For the Oxford academic Timothy Garton-Ash: “We may want to uphold the universal principle ‘no violence’, but we all know that these are, in political fact and in moral content, very different things, and some violent political actions are – shall we say – less unjustified than others”. Other variations debate whether the maxim ‘the end justifies the means’ can pragmatically justify the use of political violence to overcome an obstacle that obstructs critical human progress, as Jefferson’s earlier remarks on the American revolution may lead one to conclude.

The purpose here is not to justify by stealth the use of violence as a tool for political change. It is to demonstrate that the Caliphate as a stable, independent, accountable and representative state can not be rubbished by associating it with the acts of violence perpetrated by some who claim to want something that goes by the same name; that means and goals represent distinct realities and must be decoupled. The Caliphate has a long track record of ruling quite disparate communities, ethnicities, regions and religions with success, bringing stability to previously war-ravaged territories, engaging populations and earning strong loyalties from the communities and religions it governed. Equating the Caliphate to the violence of the likes of al-Qaida is false; we must dispense of the term – and the reality of – terror from a description of the Caliphate.

Contrary to the prophecies of doom Washington and London are so eager to forward, the Caliphate will be a stabilising force for the Muslim world.It will certainly threaten foreign interests in the lands it governs if those interests resemble current behaviour towards the Muslim world – few doubt that. That may partly explain why the west is so eager to malign it. But asserting independence does not render a state unstable. Indeed, part of the Caliphate’s appeal for Muslims is that it will stand-up to foreign aggression and wrestle back what they believe is rightfully theirs. The Caliphate will bring stability to the Muslim world in numerous ways.

Firstly, the Caliphate is an accountable political system whose head is legitimated only through popular consent [3]. It will therefore be unlike the regimes that currently litter the Muslim world, which are both unrepresentative and unaccountable, and inherently fragile and unstable as a result. With no means of recourse within these regimes and no channels to express dissent or criticism, peoples’ concerns have become threatening political undercurrents, even threats of rebellion and overthrow, a reality exasperated by the widespread use of brutality by security services to deal with opposition.The Caliphate, in striking contrast, engages voices of dissent through the political system by providing extensive channels for accounting all parts of the states’ apparatus as well as a consultative assembly made-up of elected representatives with significant powers.

Secondly, the Caliphate system is consistent with – not alien to – the values of the people in the Muslim world. This provides it deep roots and a better chance at working in partnership with its populations because it engages them on a common point of reference and for common goals. But it also means the Caliphate acts as a guarantor for values considered most at threat since its demise by Muslim peoples. The secular, autocratic even atheistic regimes that emerged in the Caliphate’s wake significantly curtailed Islamic practice and engineered new readings of Islamic values and history.They often imposed views that broke with orthodoxy to demand loyalty to divisive and failed ideologies from Arabism to Communism, or combinations of both.The import of foreign value systems too is often associated with the threat of eroding deeply Islamic values; values deemed ‘western’, for example, are tarnished by perceptions of western moral and sexual decadence. A political system that credibly protects Islamic values is key to securing public confidence and partnership.

Thirdly, the loss of the Caliphate brought with it an unprecedented loss of authority and leadership on Islamic issues. The resulting vacuum allowed individuals to become global figureheads for merely speaking the rhetoric of anti-colonialism and standing-up to perceived aggressors, such as the likes of bin Laden. Conferences like those held in the Jordanian capital Amman last July which denounced the takfiri thought espoused by the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi carry little weight or credibility, organised under the auspices of a Jordanian monarchy created on the ashes of the Caliphate and which to this day celebrates the Arab revolt considered by most a treacherous collusion with British colonisers. The same is true for declarations made by the OIC whose conferences are characterised by useless gestures and by hospitality that isolates them from the suffering of their own people, a perception not changed simply by holding the December conference in the holy city of Mecca. This crisis in leadership after the Caliphate dangerously allowed its functions to be dismembered and claimed by virtually anyone who was willing to take them on, from tax collection, to defending Muslim territory (and deciding when and how) to defining the relationship between Islam and other peoples. The Caliphate was the only institution able to provide credible leadership on Islamic issues and which can hold a credible Islamic debate that denounces weak or erroneous understandings that threaten both western and Muslim populations.

Efforts to malign the Caliphate must be challenged with an understanding of exactly what it would represent. Equating it with, and
making it inseparable from, the violence that has struck western capitals is a false association that lacks historical, political and intellectual credibility particularly in the Muslim world.The goal of replacing unrepresentative unaccountable rulers with a political system that is neither and which draws on strong ideological commonalities with its people can only be a stabilising force for the region.The Caliphate represents an alternative political vision for the Muslim world and a political system that draws on a strong historical record.

Remarks from senior US and British officials demonstrate the Caliphate is now finding its way into the language of the war on terror. American officials have recently introduced it as a pretext for continuing US involvement in Iraq. For Eric Edelman, US under secretary of defence for policy “Iraq’s future will either embolden terrorists and expand their reach and ability to re-establish a Caliphate, or it will deal them a crippling blow. For us, failure in Iraq is just not an option”. In addition to Tony Blair’s post 7/7 remarks, the British Home secretary, Charles Clarke, said in a speech to the US think tank the Heritage Foundation “there can be no negotiation about the recreation of the Caliphate; there can be no negotiation about the imposition of Shariah law”. Lord Curzon’s warnings that “we must put an end to anything which brings about any Islamic unity between the sons of the Muslims” where appended by his remarks about the end of the Caliphate: “The situation now is that Turkey is dead and will never rise again, because we have destroyed its moral strength, the Caliphate and Islam”. The fact that less than eight decades after the British government announced its death, demands for a Caliphate re-appear clearly challenge Lord Curzon’s forecasts as does it bring to the fore his warnings.The Caliphate may soon become the defining debate of our age; the emerging prospect of its arrival must be met with a willingness to understand a system that would undoubtedly usher in a new era for the Muslim world.


  1. Hourani, A (2002). A History of the Arab Peoples. Faber & Faber Ltd, London. pp 316
  2. Caliphate is the anglicised version of the word ‘Khilafah’ and ‘Khilafat’
  3. This was discussed at length in the fourth edition article ‘New Caliphate New Era

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