In July 2005, I wrote an article titled "What Do the Terrorists Want? [A Caliphate]," pointing out how discussion of the goal of our Islamist enemy is almost non-existent. Today, Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times points out in "21st-Century Warnings of a Threat Rooted in the 7th" that the Bush administration has come around to my way of thinking – namely that the Islamist goal is a caliphate (a single, global state, ruled by the Shari'a)..
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said it in a speech last Monday in Washington and again on Thursday on PBS. Eric S. Edelman, the under secretary of defense for policy, said it the week before in a round table at the Council on Foreign Relations. Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, said it in October in speeches in New York and Los Angeles. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American commander in the Middle East, said it in September in hearings on Capitol Hill.
Vice President Dick Cheney was one of the first members of the Bush administration to say it, at a campaign stop in Lake Elmo, Minn., in September 2004. ... As Mr. Cheney put it in Lake Elmo, referring to Osama bin Laden and his followers: "They talk about wanting to re-establish what you could refer to as the seventh-century caliphate" to be "governed by Sharia law, the most rigid interpretation of the Koran."
Or as Mr. Rumsfeld put it on Monday: "Iraq would serve as the base of a new Islamic caliphate to extend throughout the Middle East, and which would threaten legitimate governments in Europe, Africa and Asia."
General Abizaid was dire, too. "They will try to re-establish a caliphate throughout the entire Muslim world," he told the House Armed Services Committee in September, adding that the caliphate's goals would include the destruction of Israel. "Just as we had the opportunity to learn what the Nazis were going to do, from Hitler's world in 'Mein Kampf,'" General Abizaid said, "we need to learn what these people intend to do from their own words."
Of course, Bumiller goes on to quote such heavyweight analysts as Kenneth M. Pollack, John L. Esposito, and Shibley Telhami to explain why these top administration figures are wrong to refer to the caliphate. But, as I showed in my article, talking about the caliphate only reflects what the terrorists themselves are saying. (And here's an update: on about September 23, Al-Qaeda started a radio station called Sawt al-Khalifa, or "Voice of the Caliphate.") The Bush administration, in other words, is doing precisely the right thing in raising the specter of the caliphate. (December 12, 2005)
Dec. 17, 2005 update: Another heavyweight, this time investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss, tells us what he thinks of the aspiration to a caliphate:
Dreyfuss described as "idiotic" the notion that Islamist forces wished to establish a Caliphate from North Africa to Southeast Asia. This was utter nonsense, he said. What was happening was that those in the administration who made such declarations based them on what they read on Al Qaeda and other jihadi websites. He reminded his audience of the 1974 Patty Hearst case – the American newspaper heiress who joined a terrorist outfit – where the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army planned to overthrow the US government. Such threats, he added, were in the nature of fantasies and should be treated as such.
Comment: I believe in treating the enemy's goals with deadly seriousness, and not dismissing them as "fantasies." As Theodore Dalrymple explains, "impossible goals have had at least as great an effect on human existence as more limited and possible ones."
Jan. 4, 2006 update: Yet another deep thinker doth protest. James Reston Jr., with the coarseness that so often characterizes the Bush administration's critics, used his commentary on (taxpayer subsidized) National Public Radio to attack the "denseness" of American politicians' frequent misuse of the word caliphate. Reston assured his listeners that the prospect of a caliphate stretching across the Muslim world "is nonsense." (On which, see my response at the Dec. 17, 2005 update.)
He also ascribed "scary images of bloodthirsty Oriental despots in black turbans and silk caftans" to the word caliphate. Pointing to the fact that the historic caliphates represented "the height of Arab and Islamic achievement," he concluded that American officials using this term is "yet another slur on Arab history."
Comments: (1) The administration, in fact, is merely repeating a term that Islamists make common reference to; I quoted a number of instances of this in my initial article on this topic. (2) Reston is the one who raised "scary images" – no one in government did so. (3) One wonders what Reston wants Washington to do – avoid any term, no matter how often used by the enemy, if Reston supposes it conjures negative images in Americans' minds? (4) It's this kind of objection that makes one despair of the left ever understanding that the country is at war, for sensitivity is its watchword and highest priority, with security and victory relegated to low priority.
Jan. 14, 2006 update: The Washington Post's Karl Vick has an interesting piece today on the popularity of the caliphate, which he finds is "esteemed by many ordinary Muslims." He cites various pieces of evidence.
Al Qaeda thrived in Afghanistan when the Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar, was called "Commander of the Faithful," a caliphic title. In his book published online shortly after Sept. 11, bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, declared that terror attacks would "be nothing more than disturbing acts, regardless of their magnitude" unless they led to a caliphate in the "heart of the Islamic world."
The American-led invasion of Iraq provided an opportunity to do just that, Zawahiri apparently wrote last year to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who heads the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq. In the version of the letter posted on a U.S. government Web site, Zawahiri said only the presence of foreign occupiers had stirred "the Muslim masses" to action. He advised Zarqawi to use Iraq's Sunni areas as the base for "an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate."
Vicks then focuses on Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization founded in 1953 with what he calls "a bookish set of beliefs describing its utopian vision for a future caliphate," which will be revived "after national governments are subverted by Hizb ut-Tahrir members working in their highest levels." Vicks notes that Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been charged with planning to carry out coups d'état in Jordan and Egypt. The group also has a following in the West. If membership is up—and an imam in Copenhagen, Fatih Alev, and others say they keep seeing new faces—Hizb ut-Tahrir organizers say it is because more Muslims see events unfolding as the groups predicted.
"Bush is saying they would establish a caliphate from Spain to Indonesia," said Abdullatif, the group's spokesman in Copenhagen. "The establishment of the caliphate will come by those who work hard." ... As the Hizb ut-Tahrir meeting in Copenhagen broke for evening prayers, Muziz Abdullah, an affable native of Lebanon, surveyed a hall still with standing-room only. "Ten years ago, when I started, it was totally unrealistic to think there could be a caliphate," he said. "But now, people believe it could happen in a few years."
In Turkey, where the last gasp of the caliphate was extinguished in 1924, interest in the institution endures. Vicks mentions a Turkish plot in 1998 to fly a hijacked plane into the Atatürk mausoleum in Ankara: "the ill-prepared Turkish plotters told investigators they aimed to do was strike a dramatic blow toward reviving Islam's caliphate." But the caliphate's appeal goes far beyond such extremists. Vicks states that his interviews indicate that "the caliph is cherished both as memory and ideal."
"Why do you keep invading Muslim countries?" asked Kerem Acar, a tailor in central Istanbul. "I won't live to see it, and my children won't, but one day maybe my children's children will see someone declare himself the caliph, like the pope, and have an impact." ... "I wish there was a caliphate again, because if there was a caliphate all the Muslims would unite," said Ertuğul Orel, in a sweater and tie at the sidewalk cafe he owns outside Istanbul's vast Hagia Sophia, an iconic building to both Christians and Muslims. "There would be one voice. But I know neither the American nor the Europeans will ever allow it." From the next chair, gift shop owner Atacan Cinar added, "Before the end of the Ottoman Empire, there was no problem in the Islamic countries." ...
"The concept of the caliphate is very much alive in the collective memory of society," said Ali Bulaç, a columnist and author of several books on Islam and Turkey. "There is absolutely nothing to keep Muslim society together at the moment." Fatih Alev, imam of a moderate mosque in Copenhagen, said Hizb ut-Tahrir was "very unwise" to say that no other Muslim groups were working toward a caliphate. "As of now, the caliphate is totally irrelevant. As of tomorrow, it could be relevant. I would not exclude it."
Feb. 4, 2006 update: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in a speech today pointed to the global nature of the caliphate, saying that Islamists "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." Note the part about "every continent."
Feb. 28, 2006 update: John D. Negroponte testified today that the U.S. government knows "a great deal about al Qa'ida's vision. [Ayman al-]Zawahiri, al Qa'ida's number two, is candid in his July 2005 letter to [Abu Mus'ab al-]Zarqawi. He portrays the jihad in Iraq as a stepping-stone in the march toward a global caliphate, with the focus on Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Israel."
Mar. 6, 2006 update: The Jan. 14, 2006 update above mentions Hizb ut-Tahrir members charged with planning to carry out coups d'état in Jordan and Egypt; today's Daily Star tells about Hizb ut-Tahrir activities in Lebanon.
Posters with big, bright-red lettering calling for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Lebanon can now be seen around many streets in Sidon, pasted up by members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a party banned by Lebanese authorities. On Saturday, citizens in Sidon were surprised to see the posters - especially in areas such as Riad al-Solh street, Sit Nafisa street and Mufti Mohammed Salim Jalaleddine street. The posters call for "reviving an Islamic Caliphate state after the enemies in the malicious and colonial West underestimated our spiritual force. We will only come out strong with an Islamic state." The posters further called for all Muslims to "be loyal to God and His prophets," adding that "loyalty to the Western countries, their rulers or agents is a treason to God and His prophets." ...
Hizb ut-Tahrir's media spokesperson Ayman Kadri said: "The posters were stuck on the walls on the occasion of March 3, 1924, to commemorate the fall of the Islamic Caliphate [and decline of the Ottoman Empire]." He added that "the posters are to remind people of this date and to highlight the importance of reuniting the Islamic nation in one country."
Mar. 22, 2006 update: Asma Afsaruddin, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, makes the case for reviving the caliphate today in "Of Caliphs and the Caliphate: Setting the Record Straight."
Interviewer: "Is the goal to re-establish the Caliphate - the Islamic rule that was established by the Prophet?"
Krekar: "Yes. Our Caliph is dead and we are orphans. Therefore we are fighting, like the Jews fought under David Ben-Gurion, for our own state, a state ruled by a true Islamic ruler."
Interviewer: "What borders should the Caliphate have?"
Krekar: "It doesn't matter. Things are born, and then they grow bigger. The essential thing is Islamic rule. That was why the West destroyed the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan. They feared the Islamic state."
Interviewer: "Who should rule the new Caliphate?"
Krekar: "It doesn't have to be a cleric. A good human being is enough."
Interviewer: "Is bin Laden such a person?"
Krekar: "Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri are among several good people. Weren't Jewish leaders also terrorists before they had their own state?"
May 10, 2006 update: James Brandon provides a fine overview in the Christian Science Monitor today of Hizb ut-Tahrir's drive to re-establish the caliphate. Some excerpts:
Hizb ut-Tahrir says that Muslims should abolish national boundaries within the Islamic world and return to a single Islamic state, known as "the Caliphate," that would stretch from Indonesia to Morocco and contain more than 1.5 billion people. It's a simple and seductive idea that analysts believe may someday allow the group to rival existing Islamic movements, topple the rulers of Middle Eastern nations, and undermine those seeking to reconcile democracy and Islam and build bridges between East and West.
"A few years ago people laughed at them," says Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the leading expert on Hizb ut-Tahrir. "But now that [Osama] bin Laden, [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi, and other Islamic groups are saying they want to recreate the Caliphate, people are taking them seriously."
Even more moderate Muslim groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt pay lip-service to the ideal of reestablishing the Caliphate, leaving less ideological space for Muslims who want to move toward Western models of democracy. "The Caliphate is a rallying point between the radicals and the more moderate Islamists," says Stephen Ulph, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. "The idea of a government based on the Caliphate has a historical pedigree and Islamic legitimacy that Western systems of government by their very nature do not have."
But unlike Al Qaeda, Hizb ut-Tahrir believes it can recreate the Caliphate peacefully. Its activists aim to persuade Muslim political and military leaders that reestablishing the Caliphate is their Islamic duty. Once these leaders invite Hizb ut-Tahrir to take power - effectively staging a military coup - the party would then repeat the process in other countries before linking them up to form a revived Caliphate. ...
Hizb ut-Tahrir promises that a revived Caliphate will end corruption and bring prosperity - though the group doesn't say how. It will let Muslims challenge, and ultimately conquer, the West, its followers say. "The Muslim world has resources like oil but it lacks the leadership that will rule us by Islamic law and make this jihad that the whole world is afraid of," says [Abdullah] Shakr, a Jordanian member of the group, who says the success of the Caliphate will also encourage more converts to Islam - eventually making the whole world Islamic. ...
"Islam obliges Muslims to possess power so that they can intimidate - I would not say terrorize - the enemies of Islam," says Abu Mohammed, a Hizb ut-Tahrir activist. "In the beginning, the Caliphate would strengthen itself internally and it wouldn't initiate jihad."
"But after that we would carry Islam as an intellectual call to all the world," says Abu Mohammed, a pseudonym. "And we will make people bordering the Caliphate believe in Islam. Or if they refuse then we'll ask them to be ruled by Islam." And after that? Abu Mohammed pauses and fiddles with his Pepsi before replying. "And if after all discussions and negotiations they still refuse, then the last resort will be a jihad to spread the spirit of Islam and the rule of Islam," he says, smiling. "This is done in the interests of all people to get them out of darkness and into light."