The Organization of the Islamic Conference is the closest thing in the modern world to a caliphate. It is composed of 57 members (56 sovereign states and the Palestinian Authority), joining voices and political heft to pursue the unitary interests of the ummah, the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims. Not surprisingly, the OIC works cooperatively with the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s most extensive and important Islamist organization, and one that sees itself as the vanguard of a vast, grass-roots movement — what the Brotherhood itself calls a “civilizational” movement.
Muslims are taught to think of themselves as a community, a single Muslim Nation. “I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini famously said of his own country in 1980, even as he consolidated his power there, even as he made Iran the point of his revolutionary spear. “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah.” Muslims were not interested in maintaining the Westphalian system of nation states. According to Khomeini, who was then regarded by East and West as Islam’s most consequential voice, any country, including his own, could be sacrificed in service of the doctrinal imperative that “Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”
Because of that doctrinal imperative, the caliphate retains its powerful allure for believers. Nevertheless, though Islamists are on the march, it has somehow become fashionable to denigrate the notion that the global Islamic caliphate endures as a mainstream Islamic goal.
It was only a week ago that close to 2 million Muslims jammed Tahrir Square to celebrate the triumphant return to Egypt of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, a Khomeini-esque firebrand who pulls no punches about Islam’s goal to “conquer America” and “conquer Europe.” Yet, to take these threats seriously is now to be dismissed as a fringe lunatic, a Luddite too benighted to grasp that American principles reflect universally held truths — truths to which the ummah, deep down, is (so we are told) every bit as committed as we are.
The caliphate is an institution of imperial Islamic rule under sharia, Muslim law. Not content with empire, Islam anticipates global hegemony. Indeed, mainstream Islamic ideology declares that such hegemony is inevitable, holding to that belief every bit as sincerely as the End of History crowd holds to its conviction that its values are everyone’s values (and the Muslims are only slightly less willing to brook dissent). For Muslims, the failure of Allah’s creation to submit to the system He has prescribed is a blasphemy that cannot stand.
The caliphate is an ideal now, much like the competing ideal of a freedom said to be the yearning of every human heart. Unlike the latter ideal, the caliphate had, for centuries, a concrete existence. It was formally dissolved in 1924, a signal step in Kemal Atatürk’s purge of Islam from public life in Turkey. Atatürk, too, thought he had an early line on the End of History. One wonders what he’d make of Erdogan’s rising Islamist Turkey.
What really dissolved the Ottoman caliphate was not anything so contemporary as a “freedom agenda,” or a “battle for hearts and minds.” It was one of those quaint military wars, waged under the evidently outdated notion that Islamic enemies were not friends waiting to happen — that they had to be defeated, since they were not apt to be persuaded.