Rebranding the caliphate - a never-ending dystopian myth
"If not now, when? If not you, who?"
With the image of pious Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reciting the Quran in Hagia Sophia, and his head Mufti holding the sword of conquest, it is no wonder that slogan appeared on social media.
The dream of an Islamic caliphate is not new. Ever since the birth of the mother group of political Islam, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Quran and the sword have been used as logos symbolising the dream of retrieving the caliphate. Watching the sword and the Quran live on TV from Hagia Sophia has rekindled the yearning for the caliphate within the Islamist social sphere, and portrayed it as a potential reality, not just a distant nostalgia.
But what kind of caliphate do the Islamists want?
Rather than providing a clear, detailed portfolio of their aspired project, most Islamists tend to indulge in selling their desired outcomes of Islamic rule, and reject the qualities of other modes of governance. In particular, all Islamists assert their rejection of what they see as “Un-Islamic aspects” of Western modernity and Western “imperialism”. Moreover, they also reject the already crushed Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate, as they see it as a cynical exploitation of the concept they cherish.
Turkish writer Yusuf Kaplan wrote in the staunchly pro-Erdoğan newspaper Yeni Şafak: “A caliphate is a multilateral, multi-layered, multifunctional institution that not only has a political dimension but also an administrative, economic, cultural and intellectual one. From time to time, it takes on religious dimensions as well.”
Kaplan added a caveat to his utopian fancy; he asserted that a caliphate has to be independent of the control of imperialist powers and “their puppets and satellites”. This is a cynical way to evade revealing the detail of his proposed project that fits with Erdoğan's opposition to declaring a caliphate, at least for now.
Kaplan is not alone. Most Islamist visionaries and thinkers have avoided delving into the thorny details of their caliphate project, and how their proposed “multilateral, multi-layered, multifunctional institution” will govern the Muslim world and provide its subjects with a fair and just Islamic doctrine. Will that happen via an absolute caliph? A constitutional caliphate? A symbolic caliph?
The idea of a modern caliphate is not new. Nostalgic Muslim thinkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries contemplated the concept of a caliphate ruled by a “fair, firm, pious Muslim tyrant,” who could implement an administrative, political, and social system that unites all Islamic countries. The idea of a fair tyrant was popular among some, for example through writings by Abdul Rahman Al-Kawakibi in his book "Natures of Despotism", Jamal El-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abdu, and others.
They interpret the idea of tyranny as “firmness, strength, and justice” and claim it differs from the Western concept of tyranny, which means “exclusivity by rule”. And how firmness does not mean injustice and abuse. Later, those ideas inspired Arab nationalists like Nasser and Saddam Hussein, and we all know their disastrous outcomes. The idea that an Islamist caliph will and can perform better than those Arab nationalists is mere dystopia, as Islamists fail to set a clear mechanism that will prevent their caliphs from slipping into the path of injustice after they come to power.
In fact, if the history of Muslim caliphs is our guide, we can say with certainty how the Umayyad, Abbasid, or Ottoman Empire did not witness a single case in which the Muslim peoples were able to prevent unjust rule. On the contrary, everyone who revolted against the unjust ruler was branded a traitor and an apostate. This is the same method President Erdoğan is now following with his political opponents, from Kurds to secular people.
The application of justice is also a major dilemma in the concept of the caliphate. The Islamists reduced the concept of justice in the application of Sharia rulings, but they ignored how Muslim societies were from the beginning, from the Umayyad era until the end of the Ottoman caliphate - class societies par excellence. In the history of the Muslim caliphs we have not heard about a blacksmith who came to power or a carpenter who managed the affairs of his city.
The problem of young Islamists is how they dream of societies in which they are the leaders, the rich and mighty people. But they do not consider what their situation would be if they became slaves or servants in the palaces of their dreamed caliphs.
To evade the thorny pitfalls of an absolute caliphate, many modern Islamists advocate a “constitutional caliphate” citing the early tenure of Sultan Abdülhamid II when he established a general assembly. But they forget how Abdülhamid disrupted the constitution and returned the country to absolute authoritarian rule later, and they decline to explain what would prevent any future successor from doing the same. How can Erdoğan's fans expect fairness and justice from their beloved leader, who cites Hitler’s rule as an example of effective government?
Facing such a tricky question, the Erdoğanists have a ready-made answer: “Turkey is a democratic country.” This is a fallacious response that overlooks Erdoğan's authoritarianism; it also ignores how the current Turkish system is built on secular rather than religious foundations, and if the ruling Justice and Development Party loses the upcoming elections, the next president will not adopt the caliphate doctrine.
In truth, the idea of electing a caliph itself is a comical idea, because it takes away the doctrine of the caliphate from the basis of its establishment and turns it into a system that is not very different from any secular system.
This is precisely why most of Erdoğan's Turkish fans advocate a softer version of the caliphate, in which they see Turkey as a soft power, and other Muslim societies revolving in its orbit, connecting via strong cultural, economic, and political bonds.
Most of the advocates of Turkey’s soft power, however, vehemently reject Arab nationalism, but they have no problem with Turkish nationalism. They only pay lip service to equality of races within the Turkish sphere, but subtly consider the Turkish race as superior to others. Such superiority has triggered several revolts among Arabs and other citizens of the medieval Ottoman Caliphate against their past caliphs.
The concept of a Muslim Caliphate provides a valuable sense of historical continuity for those who believe Islam is a faith as well as a political system.
Nevertheless, the branding of the caliphate is a project that will always be doomed to failure. For over a century Islamists have failed to formulate a clear framework and practical mechanisms to implement their dream into a workable reality that could avoid its past pitfalls.
It is easy to hold a sword from a bygone era, and blame Western imperialism; however, it is difficult to have the intellectual honesty to admit the many fallacies behind what this sword represents and what it can, or cannot, achieve.
This article was republished with permission from the author.