Tuesday November 1, 2005
It came as news to many Muslims, and probably non-Muslims too, that one of the things "fundamental to our civilisation" is opposition to any recreation of the Islamic caliphate. That is according to the home secretary, Charles Clarke, speaking last month as an honoured guest of the neocon Heritage Foundation in the US.
It follows hard on the heels of similar comments made by both Tony Blair and George Bush. With such luminaries pushing the policy, there must be significance to the words. The caliphate was wiped from the map, the message seems to be, and they want to keep it wiped.
The institution they attack is the idea of a united political leadership of the Muslim world, which was destroyed in 1924 after about 1,350 years. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, caliphs were appointed to the leadership of the Muslims. In the ensuing centuries, the centre and nature of this power moved around, resting in Istanbul at the time of its destruction.
In its dynamic period, the Islamic caliphate was at the heart of a great civilisation, leading the world in science, philosophy, law, maths and astronomy.
More recently, the Muslim world has had artificial lines drawn all over it, most notably by Mr Sykes and Mr Picot during the first world war. The borders were defined for the colonial masters to extract what they needed and keep the natives divided. Western leaders are still determined today to defend these borders.
However, if Bush and Blair are serious about reform in Muslim countries, it must include not just democratic reform, but also economic development. As the people of the US and the EU know, creating economic blocks to allow this to happen is an imperative. No one argues that each federal state would be better off on its own not being part of the US. The EU managed to bring together a war-ravaged continent, on the basis of economic cooperation, which has led to further union. India and China are emerging economically because of their size, an advantage the Islamic world would also enjoy if united.
There can be no doubt that there will eventually be a similar model for Muslim countries. Both the US and EU are structurally unique, and so will be any Islamic model. Instead of a president or a commission, there might be what is called a caliph. It's not the names but what the institutions do - and how they are accountable - that matters.
There is no point in comparing the political form a caliphate might take to those in centuries past. Institutions such as the British monarchy or the papacy have existed for centuries, but bear little resemblance today to what's gone before. A restored caliphate is entirely compatible with democratically accountable institutions.
But what about the issue of sharia? Opposing it is apparently also one of the western world's raisons d'etre, according to Clarke. Terms such as "sharia" and "caliphate" have important meanings to Muslims quite different from the distorted connotations they often carry in the west. The aim of Islamic law, contrary to popular belief, is not punishment by death or amputation of body parts. It is to create a peaceful and just society, with Islamic scholars over centuries citing its core aims: the freedom to practise religion; protection of life; safeguarding intellect; maintaining lineage and individual rights. This could be the basis for an Islamic bill of rights.
These principles don't seem dramatic and far-flung, or even dissimilar to those in the west, so Bush, Blair and Clarke should explain why they oppose them so vehemently. Their stance belies their claim that they differentiate between al-Qaida and Islam as a religion, giving added credence to those who believe they are conducting a war against Islam itself, not just terror. In their meddling in other people's affairs they have forgotten it is for people themselves to decide how they are governed.
The irony of Clarke's Washington speech was that it was supposed to be about creating global security. The lack of legitimate leadership, coupled with a sense of humiliation, has led to widespread political instability in the Muslim world with its consequences for the wider world. The naked self-interest of divide and rule has backfired.
The vision of any kind of new caliphate, shared by Muslims worldwide, is a distant one. Right now, even talk of bringing down trade barriers and free flow of people across Muslim states seems radical. But it is a vision that is needed, and one that should actually be supported by the US and Britain if they are sincere about the development of the Muslim world. The revival of a strong Muslim civilisation would be for the betterment of the whole world.
· Osama Saeed is a spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain