Thursday, April 19, 2012

Who Gets to be the Caliph?

By Barry Rubin

Who gets to be the caliph? After all, if you want to have a caliphate , as revolutionary Islamists do with much popular support among Muslims, somebody has to get the job and he has to have his capital somewhere. And that’s why the caliphate issue, beyond the most abstract demagoguery, is a potential suicide machine.

Once the issue is raised the battle begins. The caliph would have to be Sunni and thus the Shia would not accept any Sunni caliph. Indeed, while the caliph may be a positive symbol for Sunni Islamists, such a caliphate would be a symbol of oppression for the Shias, that is the majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, as well as a leading factor in Lebanon and elsewhere . This situation would set off Sunni-Shia wars. 

As for the Sunnis, who among them might be a legitimate candidate? Ironically, the two who have the best credentials are anti-Islamist monarchs: the kings of Morocco and of Jordan who both claim—a claim that is generally recognized—descent from Muhammad, Islam’s founder.

Ever since the Turkish Republic abolished the caliphate, Islamists have sought to restore it. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the 1920s for that very purpose.  One should note, by the way, that the Istanbul-based caliphate had long been meaningless. When the caliph declared a jihad against Britain and France during World War One, a move promoted by Germany, he was almost totally ignored. In fact, Arab nationalists revolted against his rule and that event is the historical basis for most of the Arabic-speaking states that exist today.

Just two days after the Turks deposed the old one, Sharif of Mecca Husain Bin Ali, ruler of the Hijaz in western Arabia, declared himself caliph. But nothing came of it since he had so many enemies. In 1925 his own kingdom was conquered and annexed by Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, who went on to create Saudi Arabia. Jordan's king is one of his descendants.

Yet the Arabs—notably the Muslim Brotherhood--and Indian Muslims who demanded a renewed caliphate had to be cautious since designating anyone as caliph would set off personal and national rivalries that would dissolve the movement in civil war.
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The man in the best position to claim that post—Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Palestine—could not openly put forward his candidacy, though he hinted at it. Still, if his Nazi allies had won World War Two, al-Husseini might well have declared himself, and been widely accepted, as caliph. Since the 1920s, though, only marginal madmen have declared themselves to be caliph.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

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