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.
It was, I suppose, our misfortune in earlier times not to have had the keen minds up to the task of vanquishing “violent extremism” by winning a “war of ideas.” We had to make do with dullards like Winston Churchill, who actually thought — get this — that there was a difference worth observing between Islamic believers and Islamic doctrine.
“Individual Muslims,” Churchill wrote at the turn of the century, demonstrated many “splendid qualities.” That, however, did not mean Islam was splendid or that its principles were consonant with Western principles. To the contrary, Churchill opined, “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.” Boxed in by rigid sharia, Islam could only “paralyse the social development of those who follow it.” Reason had evolved the West, but Islam had revoked reason’s license in the tenth century, closing its “gates of ijtihad” — its short-lived tradition of introspection. Yet, sharia’s rigidity did not render Islam “moribund.” Churchill recognized the power of the caliphate, of the hegemonic vision. “Mohammedanism,” he concluded, remained “a militant and proselytising faith.”
As I recounted in The Grand Jihad, Churchill’s views were not eccentric. A modern scholar of Islam, Andrew Bostom, recalls the insights of C. Snouck Hurgronje, among the world’s leading scholars of Islam during World War I. In 1916, even in the dark hours of Ottoman defeat, he marveled at the grip the concept of Islamic hegemony continued to hold on the Muslim masses:
It would be a gross mistake to imagine that the idea of universal conquest may be considered as obliterated. . . . The canonists and the vulgar still live in the illusion of the days of Islam’s greatness. The legists continue to ground their appreciation of every actual political condition on the law of the holy war, which war ought never be allowed to cease entirely until all mankind is reduced to the authority of Islam — the heathen by conversion, the adherents of acknowledged Scripture [i.e., Jews and Christians] by submission.
Muslims, of course, understood the implausibility of achieving such dominance in the near term. Still, Hurgronje elaborated, the faithful were “comforted and encouraged by the recollection of the lengthy period of humiliation that the Prophet himself had to suffer before Allah bestowed victory upon his arms.” So even as the caliphate lay in ruins, the conviction that it would rise again remained a “fascinating influence” and “a central point of union against the unfaithful.”
Today, the OIC is Islam’s central point of union against the unfaithful. Those who insist that the 1,400-year-old dividing line between Muslims and non-Muslims is ephemeral, that all we need is a little more understanding of how alike we all really are, would do well to consider the OIC’s Cairo Declaration of 1990. It is the ummah’s “Declaration of Human Rights in Islam,” proclaimed precisely because Islamic states reject the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the United Nations under the guidance of progressives in the United States and the West. That is, the leaders of the Muslim world are adamant that Western principles are not universal.
They are quite right about that. The Cairo Declaration boasts that Allah has made the Islamic ummah “the best community . . . which gave humanity a universal and well-balanced civilization.” It is the “historical role” of the ummah to “civilize” the rest of the world — not the other way around.
The Declaration makes abundantly clear that this civilization is to be attained by adherence to sharia. “All rights and freedoms” recognized by Islam “are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah,” which “is the only source of reference for [their] explanation or clarification.” Though men and women are said by the Declaration to be equal in “human dignity,” sharia elucidates their very different rights and obligations — their basic inequality. Sharia expressly controls freedom of movement and claims of asylum. The Declaration further states that “there shall be no crime or punishment except as provided for in Shari’ah” — a blatant reaffirmation of penalties deemed cruel and unusual in the West. And the right to free expression is permitted only insofar as it “would not be contrary to the principles of Shari’ah” — meaning that Islam may not be critically examined, nor will the ummah abide any dissemination of “information” that would “violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical Values, or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society, or weaken its faith.”
Americans were once proud to declare that their unalienable rights came from their Creator, the God of Judeo-Christian scripture. Today we sometimes seem embarrassed by this fundamental conceit of our founding. We prefer to trace our conceptions of liberty, equality, free will, freedom of conscience, due process, privacy, and proportional punishment to a humanist tradition, haughty enough to believe we can transcend the transcendent and arrive at a common humanity. But regardless of which source the West claims, the ummah rejects it and claims its own very different principles — including, to this day, the principle that it is the destiny of Islam not to coexist but to dominate.
We won’t have an effective strategy for dealing with the ummah, and for securing ourselves from its excesses, until we commit to understanding what it is rather than imagining what it could be.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.