Fantasies of reviving the caliphate reveal a deep crisis of legitimacy within Sunni Islamby Jean-Pierre Filiu / November 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
In October 2006, al Qaeda proclaimed the first online caliphate in Islam’s 14 century-old history. Bin Laden’s deputies in Iraq tried hard to make it look legitimate, with jihadi leaders and tribal sheikhs pledging allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, appointed “commander of the believers.” Their oath was about “ending the oppression to which the Sunnis are being subjected by malicious Shiites and the occupying Crusaders” and was open to all the Iraqi insurgent groups. Most of them refused to join in and continue to resent al Qaeda’s imported agenda and terror. But Bin Laden and Zawahiri were making the connection between Baghdad falling to the Mongolians in 1258 and today’s American occupation of Iraq, with the Shiites always betraying Islam to its “infidel” foes.
Al Qaeda is, however, rather a newcomer in the modern caliphate game. It was back in 1953 that a Palestinian cleric, Taqiuddin Nabhani, disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood appeasement policy, founded his own Liberation party, known in Arabic as Hizb ut-Tahrir. The “tahriris,” as these militants came to be called, had only one goal—the re-establishment of the caliphate. They were ruthlessly crushed by the various Arab regimes, while they had to face the shared hostility of nationalist parties and Islamist groups. This consistent repression reduced Hizb ut-Tahrir to little more than a sect in the middle east, and it took two generations for it to resurface at the periphery of Islam. This happened first in post-Soviet central Asia, where it became a convenient scapegoat for the Uzbekistan political police, while competing fiercely with Tajikistan’s mainstream Islamist groups. Then it occurred in western Europe, with its most powerful openly operated branch in Britain, where it has been an organising force behind many radical demonstrations and has been accused of being a “conveyor belt” to terrorism despite being officially opposed to terror. Finally, it surfaced in Indonesia, where it could rally 100,000 people in a Jakarta stadium last August in support of the caliphate.
Heavily influenced by decades of underground culture, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a secretive organisation, and the estimate of 100,000 members in 40 countries is probably overblown. But it does represent the most coherent alternative to Islamist movements that have accepted the post-colonial state boundaries as their national framework of action. In its hands, the caliphate has become a weapon against national Islam or Islamic nationalism. The growing popularity of the “tahriris” in the West Bank…