Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Caliphates - 9. From the Ashes of Corruption

Muhammad Leads Early Muslim Warriors in Battle
Beginning with the war and turmoil that surrounded the Prophet Muhammad's rise to the leadership of the Muslim faith, Islam has proven itself anything but benign, anything but placid for a significant part of its history.  The final dozen years of the Prophet's life were spent at war, and the caliphates that followed stayed true to that example.

With the ascendency of the First Rightly Guided Caliph Abu Bakr, Islam won over conversions by force throughout Arabia. The Second Rightly Guided Caliph Umar, however, took Islamic expansionism to a new level as he spread the young Islamic caliphate to include Jerusalem, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, and Persia. The caliphate retracted somewhat under the Third Rightly Guided Caliph Uthman ibn Affan as he tried to harness the multitude of cultures that fell within the Islamic caliphate. The Fourth Rightly Guided Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib had struggled with the fact he believed he should have been caliph all along; then, when he finally assumed the mantle, his brief reign was plagued by civil war against the eventual leader of the Umayyad Caliphate, Mu'awiyah.

The fact that Ali wasn't named the first caliph after Muhammad's death, in spite of being a blood relative and son-in-law of the Prophet, stung him and his followers and formed the basis of the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that has persisted ever since. That rift has characterized every significant interaction between Muslims in the 1,500 years since Muhammad's death.

Ali and his clan have reclaimed some of that lost prestige, however, by the fact that Shiites revere him today as the First Imam and they also regard eleven of his descendants as exalted Imams as well. His two sons were the Second and Third Imams, but they were also the second and third Imams to be assassinated. It turns out the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Imams were also assassinated while the Twelfth Imam is believed to be hiding either in caves or in a well awaiting the chaos that will usher his return to preside over the Worldwide Caliphate with Jesus at his side. Ali's sons, Hasan and Husayn, are the two Imams to whom modern-day "Sayyids" - like Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Khomeini - trace their ancestry.

The Umayyad Caliphate
The Umayyad Caliphate made Caliph Umar's territorial expansion look miniscule by comparison as it spread from the near side of China in the east and as far west as modern-day Spain and Portugal. The rise of the rival Abbasid Caliphate forced the Umayyads westward until they finally melted into the scenery. Finally, the Ottomans arose in Turkey and reclaimed much of the former glory of preceding caliphates and added a new dimension, sea power. It was the presence and power of the Ottomans that motivated the King of Spain to send Christopher Columbus into the Atlantic to find an alternate route to Asia. The Ottomans collapsed in the early 1900s under the weight of atrophy, stagnation, and strife from within the Muslim ranks.

The radical Wahabbists arose in Arabia and expanded northward as the Ottomans declined into "corruption." The Muslim Brotherhood emerged in the 1920s out of aggravation over the - well - corruption of Islam under the Ottomans and others who sought to reform Islam in Egypt. Muslim leaders in the Middle East sided with the Germans in World Wars I and II and it cost them. Their ill-chosen sympathies re-labeled the map of the Middle East and set back the efforts of the more fundamental Muslim elements to establish a foothold. It also led to the establishment of the State of Israel and the repatriation of Jews to the region in 1948. Islamic states have been in a state of war with Israel in some degree or another ever since.

In spite of their claim to the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad, the Shiites have struggled to convert the majority Sunnis or to assert themselves as the leaders of the Ummah in a significant way. They have been outspoken and assertive, they have fought their enemies to the death - often the enemy's and their own - and they have endured in spite of never having really run the show in any of the caliphates for any significant amount of time, compared to the Sunnis. They have always been there though, never rising to significant regional power, but never really letting anyone else have all of it either. The Sunnis, on the other hand, have often risen to great power but have always seemed to lose it through some level of complacency - military, political, and religious. They have shown the world vivid examples of meteoric expansion and of unfathomable free fall.

The Uprising in Egypt
But there is a relatively new movement, now forty years old, underway today led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as it attempts to unify the Islamic faith by insisting the age-old differences between Sunnis and Shiites are "merely differences of opinion and interpretation and not essential differences of faith." Clearly, Muslims have felt otherwise for a long time. Differences in the Hadiths the two groups have written and used to interpret the Koran give divergent views of Islam that tend to indicate the divisions aren't so superficial. How monumental is the task to have the two groups set aside the points of faith and politics that have kept them at each other's throats for centuries? If that effort is successful, how consequential will it be?

In Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt
While those in the West have looked at the rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa and chalked them up to economic strife and overbearing governments, examples involving the more moderate governments in Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates give us a reason to look twice. The one thing the governments of Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia all have in common is they have not exactly been the darlings of the Islamic movement because they've tended more toward secular government than the Islamic ideal would have it. Some of these governments are no-kidding corrupt, but if corruption and tyranny were all spontaneous triggers, we'd see more radical Islamic governments fall with them. Ironically - but perhaps understandably - protests against the most tyrannical of the Islamic governments are getting very little press.

Just Doin' Some Editing
Meanwhile, the media celebrates the rebellions in Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere as purely democratic movements. The lead on TIME's special "The Middle East in Revolt" proudly proclaimed, "After decades of living under oppressive dictatorships, the people of the Arab world are rising up to stake their claim to democracy." Popular voices in America suggest we should hope the people of nations like Egypt have the opportunity to live in democracies, and live in them whatever their imperfections. No less than the personage of Muqtada al-Sadr prefers a democratic Iraq, in a manner of speaking. But he is a dedicated advocate of Islamic democracy. Again, democracy whatever its imperfections, even if it's an Islamic democracy...

Of course, the good people in America and elsewhere might not be so eager to embrace these movements if they realized that an Islamic democracy is another term for Islamic theocracy where Islam is the state religion with Islam in varying degrees as the only basis for the law. Many waiting in the wings to take over in these troubled nations favor strict Islamic law - Sharia law - an Islamic democracy in the extreme. It would replace the oppression of the dictatorships TIME refers to with the oppression of a democracy of a kind the West is not very familiar with.

The OIC Flag with the Words
"Allahu Akbar" written in Arabic Script
The OIC, with its call for Islamic unity appears to be leading the way among the new Islamic thinkers; it's apparent it enjoys a growing influence in the Muslim world. In spite of its moderate-sounding goals and apparently innocuous principles, it also advocates an Islamic democracy and Sharia law. It seems to have mastered the art of equivocation when it comes to speaking of democracy, human rights, and corruption as well.

We remember from the history of the Umayyad and Ottoman Caliphates that the chief criticism of them from dissident Muslims was that they were "corrupt." The critics considered them corrupt because they believed they weren't pure and true to the faith. The Mubarak government in Egypt was corrupt in the same way. It was corrupt in the Western sense of the word too, but the corruption that gave fundamentalist Muslims the most concern was the corruption of the faith in the Mubarak government, the same corruption shared by all of the Egyptian kings and presidents since the fall of the Ottomans. But the Ottomans before them had become "corrupt" as well.

The fact is any Islam-centered government that does not institute Sharia or make Islamic law a significant part of governance is corrupt as is any democratic government that is not an Islamic democracy. Christianity and Judaism are corruptions of God's law and are corrupt Abrahamic religions in their eyes. It must amuse them when Westerners say things like "Muslim extremists have tried to corrupt a peaceful religion" because we clearly don't understand "corruption" as they do.

Secretary-General of the OIC
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu
The OIC's equivocation extends to its position on human rights as well. While it establishes one of its principles in its charter, "to adhere to [its] commitment to the principles of the United Nations Charter," it has also adopted in its Cairo Declaration on Human Rights a purely Islamic perspective on human rights as being guided solely by Islamic Sharia law. So, when it speaks of human rights, it does so within the context of Sharia law. Many in the West see relatively little emphasis on comprehensive human rights in Sharia Law.

But the OIC presses on without blinking an eye as it uses its seat in the UN delegation to advance its agenda. While the eyebrows of some are raised in curiosity and skepticism, others seem painfully indifferent. Muslim leaders waiting to carry the torch are paying attention though. Muqtada al-Sadr is paying attention and clerics who've recently made a home in Cairo's Tahrir Square like Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi are paying attention, and the Muslim Brotherhood is paying attention as well.

We hear a lot about the Worldwide Caliphate these days, but you know, a worldwide caliphate is a tall order unless a regional caliphate is already in place in the Middle East from which to establish a base. So, if one was interested in heeding the lessons of the past caliphates, how one would go about establishing a regional caliphate today? Surely, any successful strategy would have to include Muslim unity to preclude the persistent undermining of the caliphate. One might also remember the difficulty of assimilating diverse populations under nuanced rules of society and government by maybe allowing for self-government but under common plan or a charter. In planning a strategy for a broader caliphate that all Muslims envision, shouldn't one begin with existing Muslim majorities that are ripe for political reform and "democratization?"

If one were to construct a regional caliphate, one might proceed as I've described here while winning a free pass from the West through an incremental strategy designed to weaken Western resolve and light the fires of appeasement. Keying on the notoriously short and self-indulgent attention span of Westerners and their recent affection for multiculturalism, perhaps a regular drumbeat of calls for tolerance of Muslims in the West, punctuated by persistent and violent attacks designed to soften the resolve of the people would be effective. Is it possible to wage a campaign to have a culture essentially assimilate into its immigrant population rather than the other way around? It depends on the culture's ability and willingness to make key distinctions and understand the basis for its own exceptionalism.

But the OIC is counting on the world not to make those distinctions as it unhesitatingly brings its campaign to combat "Islamophobia" to the United Nations floor. The OIC doesn't address the catalog of actions and events in recent history that have precipitated negative feelings toward Islam; instead, it approaches the negative sentiments toward Islam as though they are unilaterally in need of reorientation and re-education. It's as if the perceptions are what need correction. That's easy to understand, however, when one remembers they also frame definitions of human rights in the context of Sharia law. When opposition to the OIC and organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, and concern over the democratization - Islamic democratization - of the Middle East become tantamount to Islamophobia, we'll know the campaign is doing well. When that happens, opposition to the idea of an Islamic theocracy in the place of a democracy or a representative republic will probably amount to nothing less than hate speech.

Organization of the Islamic Conference Member States
It might well be that a regional caliphate is already under construction. A map of the OIC's member states would make for a pretty good caliphate, particularly if the less desirable leaders of some member nations were replaced by new "democratic-minded" leaders. Following a model that considers the errors of the past, it wouldn't take much imagination to see a caliphate in the form of an Islamic confederation suddenly emerge one day. It happens that the OIC map includes every nation formerly included in previous caliphates except three - Israel, Spain, and Portugal - and adds a dozen more.

While it is in America's interest for Americans to study the past and pay attention to current and future events, that hasn't quite proven to be our strong suit. Even if we won't do that though, let's not ignore the observations of those from the past who knew Islamic radicalism isn't a passing anomaly of an otherwise benign religion. While certainly not all of its adherents are radicals and fundamentalists, it is the radicals and fundamentalists who are and have been defining the faith and developing its global strategy. The fact is moderate Muslims have more friends among the people on the streets of America than they have in the fiery centers of the Middle East. Again, though, the moderates aren't charting the course and they're not changing it either.

While many try to explain that dichotomy by claiming the radicals are a recent aberration and that the history of the Islamic movement has been truer to the moderate form, we should look back to the observations Winston Churchill made during a military campaign in the Sudan. He recorded them in his book, "The River War": "Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science - the science against which it had vainly struggled - the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome."

He wrote those words in 1899, long before 9/11.