Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Caliphates - 1. The Chaos Agenda

We're beginning to hear a lot about the Worldwide Caliphate, universal governance under Islamic Sharia law.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been beating that drum for nearly a century, and with unrest in Egypt and elsewhere, many are wondering and speculating on the organization's role in the upheaval there and its future in the region.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad
speaking to the UN General Assembly
The Ayatollah Khomeini and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad both rose to power in Iran with an eye on hastening the return of the Twelfth Imam so he could preside over the Worldwide Caliphate, as they believe has been prophesied. Ahmedinejad pursues his notions through the advocacy and financing of regional chaos. The belief is that chaos is necessary so the Twelfth Imam can come to reestablish order and justice. When Ahmedinejad asks God - as he did in front of the UN General Assembly - for the hastening of the return of the Twelfth Imam, he brings to mind the Iranian Hojjatieh Society that sees that hastening as best stimulated by the creation of chaos on Earth. For them, wishing for the hastening of the Imam's return includes lending a hand in fulfilling the prophesy.

Most of us aren't threatened by the prophesies of another's faith, but when they inspire actions, even if they're futile or imprudent actions, we take note. When the actions encourage violence and a disruption of social order, we go further to the point of defending our own interests and beliefs. When we see an opportunity to encourage the democratic aspirations of the masses, we do so because, from our perspective, nothing but good can come of it.

But it would be a mistake to evaluate events in the Middle East within the framework of our own experiences, values, and politics. While Westerners see democracy as a precursor of liberty, others see it as a way to impose tyranny under the illusion of the consent of the governed.

There are many ways to spoil a democracy while still claiming to maintain one. When the rule of the people is tainted by the claiming of political power by those who play on the fears and prejudices of the general public through passionate rhetoric and hot-button themes, you end up with mob rule, often referred to these days as "mobocracy." Mob rule is political chaos that ultimately tends to yearn for order. Put another way, the mob - whether it intends to or not - is a part of the chaos that summons the restoration of order and justice.

The question is who will restore the order, by what means, and to what end?

Not all organizations and leaders are as radical as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad are, but there are dozens of organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir and preachers like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, with whom Egyptians in Tahrir Square are becoming familiar, who are just as enthusiastic campaigners for the Worldwide Caliphate as any are. They've blended well into the scenery and the spectacle of the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, but make no mistake: they're there nonetheless.

So, is the Worldwide Caliphate simply a point of faith and a bit of expectant preaching for Muslims anticipating the Day of Judgment, or is it a serious vision of geopolitical and religious conquest? Is the Muslim yearning for the Mahdi ("the Twelfth Imam" to Shiites) any different than Christians praying for the return of Jesus on the Day of Judgment? Christians are often surprised to learn that, according to Muslim teaching, the Mahdi will be accompanied by Jesus to preside over the eradication of tyranny and injustice. One key difference between the Koran and the Bible when it comes to the return of Jesus, however, is the world political and religious climate preceding and precipitating His return. The contrast is relevant and worth examining.

The Twelfth Imam
At a practical level, there is an awful lot of land for extremists to conquer and governments for them to turn before such a Worldwide - or even regional - Caliphate could occur, but then again, is it too far fetched to expect those who are dedicated to the idea would give it a serious try anyway? Is it too hard to believe that while the West doesn't believe radical Muslims could establish the Worldwide Caliphate, that they might still create a lot of havoc and threaten American interests and safety in the attempt? To what extent are radicals like Ahmadinejad willing to manufacture scenarios that make their prophesies of chaos and tyranny preceding the coming of the Mahdi self-fulfilling?

If one were to set the table for establishing a Worldwide Caliphate, would one begin in San Francisco, or in Cairo, Damascus, or Medina where caliphates have been established in the past? In the West, we look at the long-held and deep-seated divisions between Sunnis and Shiites and wonder if that disharmony isn't too powerful and serious to prevent cooperation in establishing the Worldwide Caliphate. 

The fact is that the establishment of the Worldwide Caliphate is one piece of common ground that exists between the two sects. The difference as it relates to government under one Muslim ruler is in how it is to come about - violently or through assimilation, with elected leadership or by birthright - and under what precepts it is to be governed.

It's possible that a caliphate could be joined by both Shiites and Sunnis, as they've done in the past, but they could also be torn asunder by the very fundamental differences between them too. Either way, it would help for those of us in the West to know some of the history of caliphates. Such a study of caliphates might not be a perfect roadmap for the future, but it is a valuable context at a minimum.

While some of the caliphates were quite successful in their own time and in their own way, the fact is that none have endured. Whether through civil war or in the face of a tide of secularism, they have all collapsed. However, it would be a mistake to think simply because Shiites and Sunnis have never gotten along well, because caliphates have never endured in the past, and because democracy seems to be on the rise in the Middle East that elements active in the region have not been schooled on what they perceive to have been the lessons of the past.

Whether past caliphates provide the vision for future caliphates or are a mixed bag of "how-to's" and "how-not-to's," they're instructive to us nonetheless. In the coming days, I'll post a thumbnail sketch of past caliphates. Tomorrow, I'll begin with the Islamic patriarchs under whose rule Islam was defined, and the period during which Shiites and Sunnis first emerged in conflict with each other.