I came across NPR's Morning Edition (Wednesday, January 4, 2006) in which historian James Reston, Jr., castigates the Bush Administration for their misuse of the word caliphate. The Bush administration is trying to demonize Muslims by making it sound that we wish to dominate the world (that old lie, normally propagated by Christians fearful of Islam). There's a similar article in the Toronto Star, published in mid-December, that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al are trying to create the idea that a caliphate (if such an institution could be restarted) would become a political threat to the West in general and the United States in particular. (One suspects that Reston had already read Siddiqui's article as there are similar words and phrases used in both; e.g., "claptrap.") What follows is my own transcript of Reston's speech, along with my links to various subjects. More of my comments will follow the transcript.
Announcer: A number of U.S. politicians and generals have quoted a letter reportedly written by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's main operative in Iraq. The letter says that one of Al-Qaeda's main goals after US troops leave Iraq is the establishment of a caliphate in the Middle East. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others have invoked the word caliphate as a warning to the West about terrorist designs. As part of our ongoing series of commentaries on the war in Iraq, historian James Reston, Jr., takes exception.
Reston: Perhaps the only good thing that came out of the events of 9/11 was the higher consciousness that the American people developed about the history of the Arab world and the religion of Islam, but our leaders still have a way to go. The most recent example of denseness comes from Secretary Rumsfeld's frequent misuse of the word caliphate. It is the latest dirty word in the Iraq debate. The Secretary is putting this word out as a warning, saying that Americans must be aware of a terrorist scheme to establish a totalitarian caliphate, stretching all the way from Indonesia, across the Middle East, to Spain. This is nonsense. To be sure, the concept sounds menancing, as it evokes scary images of blood-thirsty Oriental despots in black turbans and silk kaftans. To the Islamic world, however, this will be seen as yet another slur upon Arab history. The caliphates of Medina, Baghdad, Cairo, Istanbul, and Granada, Spain, represent the height of Arab and Islamic achievement. The first four caliphs, as the leaders of the caliphate were called, were the successors of Muhammad. As political leaders they had the support of the vast majority of their subjects. But their religious role, as the defender of the faith, was of equal and supreme importance. It should not be forgotten that the defense of the faith is at the heart of the resistance to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. To slur the word caliphate is to insult the chief function of the caliph, to defend the lands of Islam against foreign invaders. As we try strenuously to deny that the United States is involved in a clash of civilizations with the Arab world, it is not helpful to insult the glories of Arab history and link them to terrorist pipe dreams of worldwide Islamic domination. It is a palpable absurdity to imagine the killers of Al-Qaeda ruling a true caliphate from Indonesia to Spain. To say so only dignifies and gives weight to terrorist claptrap and makes it harder for the leaders of mainstream Islam to take control of popular sentiment in the Middle East. Like invoking "crusade" or claiming a direct line to a Christian God as justification for the invasion, or engaging in medieval torture or desecrating the holy book of Islam, slurring the caliphates of Arab history is a gift to the terrorists.
Announcer: Commentator James Reston, Jr., is author of Dogs of God: Columbus, The Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors.
Personally, I'm not necessarily interested in restoring the Caliphate as it existed in the past (and certainly not as it existed in the last days of the Ottoman Empire). What I would like to see, as a surrogate Caliphate, would be an organization along the lines of both the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (with the new organization being more of the former than the latter). While I think that an Islamic international agency that works to improve the lives of Muslims worldwide is a worthy and admirable goal, I don't expect, unfortunately, such an organization to appear in my lifetime.
Update: Juan Cole has had a recent post on this topic ("Bush and the Caliphate"), which was in response to Karl Vick's article in the Washington Post, "Reunified Islam: Unlikely but Not Entirely Radical." The WaPo article is decent and worth a read. I would like to reiterate that, while I believe the idea of a revived Caliphate is nice but not a high priority, I do strongly believe that the ummah needs to unite together under some form of leadership for us to be able to resolve our problems. However, as I mentioned earlier, I'd rather see an EU type of organization formed as a substitute Caliphate rather than trying to revive the original model, which has been long dead.