A Caliphate: the power of ideas

by George Hatjoullis

My regular readers may have noticed a certain diversity in the topics I have covered. This is primarily an economics and finance blog yet I have gone off at a tangent to discuss many apparently unconnected ideas. All ideas are connected. My discussion of democracy and theocracy has been a preparation for what seems to be happening now in the middle-east and Africa. It was inevitable. The implicit theme was that the big conflict of today is between the ideas of democracy and theocracy. The former draws authority from the people and the latter from a deity. In the latter authority is exogenous and in the former it is endogenous to humanity. These are fundamentally different ideas.

Theocracy is not new and theocratic states exist. However, that is precisely the point; they are nation states. A Caliphate introduces a whole new dimension to theocracy. It does not recognise national boundaries. It is a universal idea. A Caliphate unifies all Sunni muslims. The word itself originates in the succession to the prophet. The Caliph, however selected, rules all Sunni muslims under sharia. The existence of nation states is a ‘western’ concept. The origin of Islam is in one Caliphate encompassing all muslims under sharia. The Caliph is very much the protector of the faith.

Islam, like all religions, comes in many shapes and sizes. The extreme form of Islam being promoted in the Islāmic State seems to be a variant of Wahhabism, a puritanical and rather intolerant version of Islam. This extremism has been the focus of the response of the west and of ‘moderate’ muslims alike. It would be dangerous to just focus on this aspect. The power of the idea of a Caliphate may have wider appeal and overwhelm the puritanical nature of the present force promoting the Caliphate. This Islāmic State has already broken down the border between Iraq and Syria and will envelope Lebanon if it can. The idea of a Caliphate transcends any national boundaries. It has the capacity to unite extremists groups in North Africa and Central Africa under the same banner. More serious, it has the capacity to suck in ‘moderate’ muslims.

The question has to be asked; why have Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE etc remained silent and inert whilst this Islāmic State has enveloped Iraq and Syria with brutal disregard for any people that did not or could not instantly adopt their creed? Why is it left to the “West’ to deal with this Caliphate? Turkey has a large standing army, equipped by the West, and is a member of NATO. The Turks often flaunt their military might, especially when the ‘enemy’ is a defenceless Island like The Republic of Cyprus. Surely, a concerted effort by the much acclaimed Turkish army could sweep the IS militants out of Iraq and Syria like flies. Yet Turkey stands by whilst all this goes on and allows militants to access Syria and Iraq from its borders. Not what one expects from a NATO ally. Saudi Arabia and the medieval princedoms it supports have a very well equipped army and airforce. So far they done nothing more than advise the west that it is a target and have arrested 88 of the usual suspects. Not what one expects from allies. All the more disconcerting since it is widely held ( I have no evidence) that the original funding and training of the IS militants can be sourced to the gulf states.

No doubt it is very complicated and these states have very good reason for their inertia and deafening silence. Of course, the cynical (not me of course) might suspect that these states, whilst nervous of the developments, sense that their populations approve of this new Caliphate. The people may not like the extreme form of the present incarnation but the idea of a transnational Caliphate may appeal to all Sunni muslims. These states are overwhelmingly Sunni muslim. If the Islāmic State takes root it could sweep away more borders and engulf the region and beyond. At the moment it seems a force that can be contained and that the majority of ‘moderate’ muslims do not approve of its extremism. However, the silence and inertia of important Sunni states and the somewhat limp condemnation from so called ‘moderate’ Sunni muslims, speaks volumes. There is something in this Islāmic State of which they may quietly approve. They doth not protest enough methinks. My suspicion is that it is the idea of the Caliphate. This is a very powerful idea, even more than the idea of Israel, and has wider appeal than I think is being acknowledged. It is in this idea that the risk to the west lies and not simply in the extremism of its present incarnation.

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