Restoration of Caliphate, Attacked by Bush, Resonates With Mainstream Muslims
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 14, 2006; Page A01
ISTANBUL — The plan was to fly a hijacked plane into a national landmark on live television. The year was 1998, the country was Turkey, and the rented plane ended up grounded by weather. Court records show the Islamic extremist who planned to commandeer the cockpit did not actually know how to fly.
But if the audacious scheme prefigured Sept. 11, 2001, it also highlighted a cause that, seven years later, President Bush has used to define the war against terrorism. What the ill-prepared Turkish plotters told investigators they aimed to do was strike a dramatic blow toward reviving Islam’s caliphate, the institution that had nominally governed the world’s Muslims for nearly all of the almost 1,400 years since the death of the prophet Muhammad.
The goal of reuniting Muslims under a single flag stands at the heart of the radical Islamic ideology Bush has warned of repeatedly in recent major speeches on terrorism. In language evoking the Cold War, Bush has cast the conflict in Iraq as the pivotal battleground in a larger contest between advocates of freedom and those who seek to establish “a totalitarian Islamic empire reaching from Spain to Indonesia.”
The enthusiasm of the extremists for that vision is not disputed. However unlikely its realization, the ambition may help explain terrorist acts that often appear beyond understanding. When Osama bin Laden called the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon “a very small thing compared to this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years,” the reference was to the aftermath of World War I, when the last caliphate was suspended as European powers divided up the Middle East. Al Qaeda named its Internet newscast, which debuted in September, “The Voice of the Caliphate.”
Yet the caliphate is also esteemed by many ordinary Muslims. For most, its revival is not an urgent concern. Public opinion polls show immediate issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and discrimination rank as more pressing. But Muslims regard themselves as members of the umma , or community of believers, that forms the heart of Islam. And as earthly head of that community, the caliph is cherished both as memory and ideal, interviews indicate.
That reservoir of respect represents a risk for the Bush administration as it addresses an issue closely watched by a global Islamic population estimated at 1.2 billion. Already, many surveys show that since the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Muslims almost universally have seen the war against terrorism as a war on Islam.
“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.”
The issue comes into sharp relief in Turkey, which is often held up as a democratic model for other Muslim nations but where empathy with fellow believers runs deep — as Karen Hughes, a presidential adviser and undersecretary of state, was reminded in September when angry complaints about civilian casualties in Iraq dominated a public appearance in Ankara, the capital.
Here, the last caliph, an urbane scholar, Abdulmecid Efendi, was unseated in March 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the charismatic military officer who conceived modern Turkey as an exemplar of the system that places sovereignty in the nation-state rather than faith. Importing from France the notion that religion had no place in public life, Ataturk decreed that Islamic religious law was second to “the rule of law” by the state.
Ataturk’s mausoleum, on a hilltop where Turkish officials had gathered to honor his memory, was ground zero for the 1998 plot. Its ringleader, Metin Kaplan, was imprisoned in Turkey after being extradited from Germany, where he was known as the “Caliph of Cologne.” Many Turks found the grandiloquent title less than amusing, said Husnu Tuna, his attorney.
“People called me when I took this case and asked, ‘Why are you defending a person who lowers the value of an Islamic concept?’ ” Tuna said. “I heard that both from individuals and from officials, including police and security.”
Caliph, from the Arabic word khalifa , means successor to the prophet Muhammad. Competition for the title caused the schism between Shiite and Sunni lines of the faith, and the Shiites soon stopped selecting caliphs. But in the dominant Sunni tradition, the office embodied the ultimate religious and political authority, enabling Ottoman sultans to hold together an empire across three continents for more than 500 years. Ataturk appealed to Muslim solidarity in the battle to drive European powers off the Anatolian peninsula after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
But while Turks won self-rule, most of the former caliphate was divided among European colonial powers. One Arab scholar called it “the division of Muslim lands into measly pieces which call themselves nations.”
This is what inspired the group most directly focused on the push for a new caliphate, Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation. The group, which claims to be active in 40 countries, began in 1953 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. But while the Brotherhood, which also favors a caliphate, embraced realpolitik, growing into a potent opposition force in Syria and Egypt, Hizb ut-Tahrir charted a more subversive path.
Of Coups and the Caliphate
“For a long time nobody heard of HT. They were underground,” said Kian Schmucker, a Copenhagen city council candidate passing out leaflets outside a rare public meeting of Hizb ut-Tahrir. On a cloudy Sunday in November, about 800 young Danes, mostly the children of Muslim immigrants, were crowding into a civic sports hall. The first presentation: graphic images of dead Iraqi children.
“No one can doubt that the declared war on terrorism is a war on Islam,” Fadi Abdullatif, a local Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman, declared from the podium as the videotape ended. “This Islamic state is the only protection, the only shield for the Muslims.”
The chorus of ” Allahu akbar! ” — God is great — was led by ardent young Europeans, a handful of converts in an attentive audience segregated by gender: fashionably dressed young men on the right, women in head scarves on the left.
For four hours they heard Hizb ut-Tahrir’s disciplined, intensely argued belief that the Muslim world lost its moorings when it imported not only scientific advances from the West, but also systems such as nationalism and democracy that emerged at the same time. In a series of 22 volumes on sale beside the podium, and in weekly discussions, the group sketches an alternative governing system it believes lies embedded in the Koran and the teachings of the prophet.
The system includes a caliphate, revived after national governments are subverted by Hizb ut-Tahrir members working in their highest levels, according to the plan. Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been charged with planning such coups in Jordan and Egypt. Zeyno Baran, an analyst at the Washington-based Nixon Center who has written extensively on the group, said it could “usefully be thought of as a conveyor belt for terrorists.”
The group has a rigid, cellular, secretive structure and a bookish set of beliefs describing its utopian vision for a future caliphate. Hizb ut-Tahrir insists it has renounced violence, a policy that differentiates it from groups such as Kaplan’s motley band or the Chechen guerrillas who carried out the deadly 2004 siege at a primary school in Beslan, in southern Russia — and who would seat a caliph in the northern Caucasus, according to Chechen guerrilla groups’ Web sites.
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.”
The letter, which Bush has paraphrased at length, also calls for attacking Israel “because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.”
“This is something that is characteristic of our time, to reestablish an ideological empire,” said Serif Mardin, a leading Turkish scholar on political Islam. “A sweet caliph of ancient times is overwhelmed by this modern military idea. I mean, the caliph is supposed to be a nice guy.
“These are the terrible simplifiers of Islam,” Mardin added, “and I’m not sure this simplification of Islam really ‘takes’ on all social levels.”
A Single Voice
The notion of caliphate as coalescing institution endures even here in secular Turkey.
“I wish there was a caliphate again, because if there was a caliphate all the Muslims would unite,” said Ertugul 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.”
Ataturk’s vision of national identity overtaking religion appears to have been only partially realized. Schoolchildren are assembled each morning to chant slogans concluding, “My existence should be a gift to the Turkish existence. How happy is a man who says ‘I am a Turk.’ ” But the first words whispered in the ears of newborns are prayers. When the Pew Global Attitudes Survey asked Turks last spring which they considered themselves “first,” 43 percent said Muslim while 29 percent answered Turk.
“The concept of the caliphate is very much alive in the collective memory of society,” said Ali Bulac, 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.”
Some experts warn that such a reservoir of feeling illustrates the risk of framing the Iraq war as a contest of ideologies.
“I think the smart thing to do if you’re the president of the United States is to sort of de-Islamicize the problem,” said Kirstine Sinclair, a University of Southern Denmark researcher who co-wrote a book on Hizb ut-Tahrir. “Talk about security risks instead. When you talk about expanding the war on terror to talk about states with an Islamist agenda or even the caliphate, you stir up emotions and you’re actually creating the clash of civilizations.”
Numerous polls show the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have sharpened solidarity among Muslims and antipathy toward Americans. “To tell you the truth, I don’t see even see them as humans anymore. America is a pig,” said Orel, who is in his eighties. The trend appears greatest among the very people whom the radicals aim to mobilize.
When young Muslims raised largely without religious instruction in European cities begin asking questions, radical groups stand ready with answers. Hizb ut-Tahrir, which promotes conspiracy theories and a potent anti-Semitism, is toward the moderate end of a spectrum of groups promoting unnuanced interpretations of Islam calling for confrontation.
“An ideology must perpetuate itself,” said Ahmet Arslankaya, an Hizb ut-Tahrir member in Turkey, where the organization faces harassment by security services. “Our final strategic aim will be to expand the Islamic thought to the world and carry the Islamic banner to the White House, of course.”
If membership is up — and 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.” He said Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Iraq were working to coax a united front with insurgent groups.
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.”