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Caliphate: The great bait?

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted November 9, 2009

Few people are ignorant of the terrorist-allied Islamists' goal: a new Caliphate that would stretch over all nations presently Muslim, and perhaps beyond. Most everyone takes it seriously; I don't know of anyone who has publicly scoffed at it.

However, the resurrection of the Caliphate would be much harder than it looks. For balance-of-power reasons, it's all-but impossible. The restoration of the Caliphate is a lot like the old European dream of restoring the Roman Empire and uniting Europe.

It's Not The Same

After Mohammed and his followers conquered Mecca, Islam spread like wildfire through the Middle East and northern Africa. A devout Muslim would undoubtedly see this spread as proof of Islam's greatness, but there were secular factors that made for a power vacuum that Islam filled. Before Mohammed's life, one of the two Middle East empires was already losing its grip. The most popular form of Christianity there as of the early seventh century was Monophysitism, which was deemed a heresy by the Byzantine Orthodox Church. Roman Arabia was already a hotbed of revolt, and was easy for the Zoroastrian Sassanid Empire to conquer.

Whether the subjects of the Persian-based Sassanid Empire welcomed in the Muslim invaders, or whether Khalid ibn Walid was a great general and tactician, the new religion had a real advantage over the Sassanid forces. General ibn Walid's invasion began in 636; eight years later, Persia fell. As mentioned above, the Byzantine Empire was fading in the region. Egypt, Northern Africa and even Spain were relatively easy pickings because the Roman Empire had already fallen. It cannot be disputed that early Islam released a lot of talent, including military genius, but it was helped by power vacuums and patience regarding conversions. By the time the Caliphate was set up, the majority of its subjects in many conquered lands were not Muslim. The new Muslim rulers, the Caliph's viceroys, didn't waste resources, men and materiel by insisting on mass conversions. It's not too hard to see why Monophysite and Nestorian Christians wouldn't mind living under Muslim overlords, because those overlords extended tolerance to those faiths and did not insist that they were heresies. Zoroastrain Persians found that they could convert and bring their traditions with them, and also found that there were no sanctions on them not converting except for the unbeliever tax and a few legal disabilities. The same status was granted to Christians and Jews. (A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani has more details on how early Islam spread.)

The crucial difference between the days when Islam was new and nowadays is that the Caliphate was the only game in town back then. It was the only Muslim state at the time. The others were Zoroastrian, Christian or pagan. Part of the reason it spread so quickly was that it faced no internal competition.

Too Many Contenders

How different then from now! Instead of only one Muslim state, there are now many. Each ruler has some grounds to claim that he should be the new Caliph. Moreover, the number of descendants from Mohammed's tribe is certain to be much larger now than in the seventh and eighth centuries. When Islam was new and spreading, it was accepted that the rulers had to come from Mohammed's tribe. The areas where Islam spread were largely tribal, and that basis made sense back then because Mohammed was the Prophet. In the age of nation-states, though, it doesn't unless today's rulers are let in as they are. They would have to be, as treating a Muslim ruler of a Muslim state as if he and his subjects were infidels would not go over all that well. Any would-be caliph would find that out quickly.

Realistically, the only contenders for the Caliphcy would be already-existent heads of Muslim states. Anointing one would make the others wonder why they haven't been chosen. The multiplicity of contenders all-but assures that any would-be Caliph would be blocked by an ad-hoc coalition of several other heads of Muslim states. Aside from reasons of sovereignty, the implicit slur against the other rulers as being less than authentically Muslim would make them fast allies against any "usurper."

As far as Islamist terrorist groups are concerned, they're not even in the running. Mohammed did not leave Mecca for the badlands; he left for Medina, another city. One of the victory prizes for early Islam was the founding of the city of Baghdad. Islam is fairly urban-oriented, and has been since its early days. In the days of the Caliphate, the backwoods were hardly governed at all; efforts were concentrated on viceregal city administrations of national scope. Until independent dynasites rose up, the countryside didn't count.

"And The Next Contestant Is…"

Should the idea of a new Caliphate grip the Muslim imagination, the West would be in a lot better position than some may realize. There are too many contenders for the super-throne, and they'll wind up checkmating each other. Moreover, they'll devote a lot of their efforts to fighting each other over it. Given the current geopolitics of Islam, a new Caliphate looks a lot like a sucker's bet for any would-be Caliph.

In fact, the situation would be ripe for the balance-of-power politics that British governments have been using for centuries. If the leader of (say) Iran threatens Israel, that leader can be called a would-be Caliph. The other heads of State would react accordingly. If done skillfully, all the Islamic rulers will eventually get the idea that it's far less hassle to concentrate on domestic matters. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan dances with the Grim Reaper.


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