On the 95th anniversary of the abolishment of the Ottoman caliphate, Hasnet Lais asks whether the international community would accept the formation of a Caliphate which has the popular support of the masses.
The violence which followed the declaration of an Islamic State in 2014 has blighted our perceptions of a Caliphate as a macabre project, bent on brutalising its opponents and unleashing terror. For many, it confirmed suspicions that any outsized role played by Islam in public affairs will lead to the suppression of freedoms, sectarian violence, and a litany of human rights abuses.
But what if we witnessed the establishment of an Islamic State which was genuinely representative of those under its rule and one that could guarantee the rights of non-Muslims? Would the international rules based order permit the emergence of a caliphate backed by legitimate mandate?
Before answering these questions, we must dispel a popular misconception. Contrary to some unorthodox arguments, the desire to establish and live under a caliphate is not a romanticised fantasy kindled by reactionaries. Rather, there is consensus among the 1,300 years of classical Islamic scholarship that appointing a Caliph is an obligation, no different to the rituals of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage.
This topic is often the elephant in the room due to fears that expressing support for the very notion of a Caliphate would render someone an apologist for terror in this Islamophobic climate. However, rarely would you find a scholar, student of traditional Islamic studies or observant Muslim rejecting this normative position.
While appeals to religion as an organising principle for state policy is unthinkable in liberal societies, we must come to terms with the fact that Islam, as Shadi Hamid notes, is exceptional in that it has proved resistant in the face of western secularisation. The same cannot be said of Christianity which succumbed to the reformation. Therefore, vocal demands for a caliphate is a natural outgrowth of this resilience, as from its inception, Islam was a creed from which emanated a system of jurisprudence pertaining to governance, economics and international relations.
The Caliphate: A normative Islamic concept
History bears witness to the successful application of Islamic law for a millennia, spawning an illustrious civilisation. From the Ummayads and Abbasids to the Ottomans, Islamic culture fused with local traditions to produce distinctive forms of statecraft, science and art, to the extent that some historians argue that the European Renaissance derived inspiration from the intellectual contributions of Muslim polymaths who thrived under successive caliphates.
The suggestion that any implementation of Sharia law in public affairs will sound the death knell for minorities belies the Prophetic model, which enshrines the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. One example would be the ‘Mithaq al-Medina’, a constitution drafted by Prophet Muhammad after being invited by the feuding clans of Medina to become their leader to help overcome inter-tribal rivalries.
The Medinan charter carried the force of law and was drafted with the intention of effecting peaceful relations in a heterogeneous social composition, comprising of Jews, Christians and Muslims. This formed a precedent for later Caliphates which for generations incorporated a mosaic of cultures and successfully integrated minorities in a single confederation with common rights and responsibilities.
An imperial world order of nation states
As much as the west claims to value self-determination and diversity, why is there no objective assessment of a Caliphate’s unifying potential in light of these historical realities? And why do western policymakers insist on no negotiation with the very ideal of a caliphate?
When advancing its imperial agenda across the Muslim world and enticed by the discovery of energy reserves across the Persian Gulf, Britain played an instrumental role in the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, inciting Arabs to overthrow the decaying vestiges of the Ottoman Caliphate.
Lord Kitchener and Britain’s High Commissioner in Egypt formalised plans to champion an Arabian Kingdom under British auspices by fomenting bloody uprisings to ultimately shift the nucleus of Islamic power from the Ottomans to the Arabs, eventually culminating in the abolishment of the Islamic State on 3rd March 1924.
Today, the turmoil engulfing the Middle East is very much the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement which sought to convert Arab territories into British protectorates with false promises of sovereignty, drawing a line in the sand which stretched from the Mediterranean Coast to the Persian Frontier. As the McMahon-Hussein correspondence revealed, European manoeuvres to create this post-war division and carve up the Middle East into jealous principalities along ethnic and sectarian lines-as declared by Lawrence of Arabia-could only be achieved if the desire to restore a transnational Caliphate was uprooted from the hearts and minds of Muslims and the custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites was entrusted to an impostor vassal-Saudi Arabia.
This alien imposition was the brainchild of the imperial ruling class and the Arab elite, designed to rupture any torrent of pan-Islamic solidarity in the Muslim world and served as a façade behind which Britain could obtain exclusive control of the Middle East by championing a nominal Arab independence.
In recent decades, the aggressive posture of the international community vis-à-vis anything remotely resembling an Islamic State bears the hallmarks of this colonial past.
When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution during the Algerian parliamentary election of 1991, the US endorsed the military’s suspension of the electoral process due to a deep seated fear among policymakers that such a change would stymie the pursuit of pax-Americana across North Africa. Of course, the US would bear no blame for the civil war which ensued in the aftermath, since it achieved its main objective of stunting the aspirations of Islamic movements which espoused an anti-imperialist agenda.
This wasn’t the only squandered opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to democratisation in the Muslim world. More recently, the Arab Spring exposed the paradox of democracy when the West supported a bloody coup to oust Egypt’s first democratically elected President from office, testament to its broader fear of political Islam gaining any traction in the Muslim world, despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood did not shed a single drop of blood to achieve its political objectives.
These examples demonstrate that the west will not even allow emancipatory movements embedded in the social fabric of their respective nations to gain power, as it could potentially upend the status quo in the Arab world, where its economic and geopolitical interests are rooted. Therefore, if we witnessed the peaceful transition of a Gulf monarchy or Muslim majority nation into a Caliphate, it will never receive the recognition of the international community unless it accepts the status of a vassal state under western patronage.
By now, it should have dawned on Muslims that any grassroots movement striving to establish a Caliphate will inevitably incur the wrath of western imperialists and be immediately blacklisted under the pretext of creating a rogue state which poses an existential threat to the world order.