Osama's One Size Fits All Islamism

Story Stream
recent articles

Nine years after al-Qa'ida attacked the US, Osama bin Laden's dream of establishing an international Islamic super-state is as remote and elusive as ever.

For the militants who continue to wage jihad, restoring the caliphate -- the Islamic empire founded by the prophet Mohammed in the 7th century and ultimately dismantled after World War I -- remains an article of faith.

So, what would the much vaunted caliphate look like? To Western critics it resembles a brutal totalitarian state, while many Muslims envisage the perfect system of rule, governed by the divine laws of God rather than the arbitrary fiat of humans.

When bin Laden attacked America on this day nine years ago -- September 11, 2001 -- the grievances he cited as justification included "80 years of humiliation and disgrace" suffered by the Islamic world. He was harking back to the events of March 3, 1924, four years after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, when the new Turkish republic formally abolished what remained of the khilafah (the Arabic word for caliphate) that had existed since the time of the prophet.

In the annals of Islam, it was an infamous day. "It will prove a disaster to Islam and to civilisation," wrote Muslim statesman Ameer Ali in a letter to the British newspaper The Times.

"The situation now is that Turkey is dead and will never rise again, because we destroyed its moral strength: the khilafah and Islam," pronounced the British foreign secretary, Lord Curzon.

For many Muslims, reinventing the caliphate remains a cherished ideal. Some believe it will soon become a reality.

"Support for the caliphate is growing, it's very strong," claims Uthman Badar, Australian spokesman for the Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Party of Liberation). He cites a recent survey by the University of Maryland which recorded 74 per cent of respondents in Egypt and 79 per cent in Pakistan expressing support for a state based strictly on sharia law.

While in the West talk of a caliphate conjures images of the Taliban's Afghanistan, for many Muslims it signifies a return to the glory days of Islamic civilisation, when the empire founded by Mohammed extended for more than 7000km, from India to western Europe.

The caliphate -- whose name comes from the Arabic word for caliph, meaning deputy, the title given to the prophet's successors -- was at the forefront of medicine, science and the arts.

The histories include this description from Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power:

"In the Islamic lands not only Muslims but also Christians and Jews enjoyed the good life.

"They dressed in fine clothing, had fine houses in splendid cities serviced by paved streets, running water and sewers, and dined on spiced delicacies served on Chinese porcelains.

"Seated on luxurious carpets, these sophisticated city dwellers debated such subjects as the nature of God, the intricacies of Greek philosophy or the latest Indian mathematics.

"Muslims considered this golden age God's reward to mankind for spreading his faith and his speech over the world."

The Egyptian philosopher and ideologue Sayyid Qutb, a pioneer of the Islamic revival movement, wrote: "In this great Islamic society, Arabs, Persians, Syrians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Turks, Chinese, Indians, Romans, Greeks, Indonesians, Africans were gathered together; in short, people of all nations and races . . . This marvellous civilisation was not an Arabic civilisation even for a single day; it was purely an Islamic civilisation. It was never a nationality but always a community of belief."

Recreating the caliphate is a practical goal for the adherents of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who attended workshops in Sydney in July to study how to make it a reality. Their model is set out in a 187-article draft constitution published by the party's founders in the 1950s.

Like many Islamist parties and organisations, HT sees Western secular democracy as corrupt, decadent, inequitable and unjust.

"The true way forward for humanity is Islam and the caliphate, whose sublime values are not subject to change in accordance with changing political circumstances. They are not flimsy, based on human whim; but firm, based on divine wisdom," says a media release issue by HT Australia.

The draft constitution comprises a detailed prescription for how the caliphate would work, covering everything from education, economic and foreign policy, to the role of women and "marital affairs".

The main feature is that it would be ruled purely according to sharia, which literally means the Islamic way. Article one of the constitution states: "The Islamic creed constitutes the foundation of the state. Nothing is permitted to exist . . . that does not take the creed as its source."

Thus all rules and regulations would be based on the Islamic holy book, the Koran, and the body of knowledge known as the Sunnah, which is based on the sayings and deeds of the prophet.

The role of implementing God's law would fall to the caliph, elected by the people and assisted by a ruling shura (council) and a judiciary with the job of interpreting and enforcing Koranic law. There would also be a "court of unjust acts" to investigate impropriety by members of the executive.

The Islamic state would provide free health care, education (separate for males and females) and guaranteed employment, and would be obliged to provide for every citizen's basic needs and the living expenses of the poor. "Capitalist companies" and hoarding of wealth would be forbidden.

"All citizens shall be treated equally regardless of religion, race, colour or any other matter. The state is forbidden to discriminate among its citizens," Article 7 of the constitution states. Jews and Christians would be allowed to follow their own beliefs, but would not be able to vote or serve in any ruling office, and would be compelled to pay a poll tax. All subjects, including non-Muslims, would "have the right to make known their complaints about the ruler's injustice and misapplication of the Islamic rules".

Alcohol would be forbidden. Apostasy, the crime of abandoning Islam, would be punished by execution, while the penalties for adultery and premarital sex would be stoning and lashing respectively. According to an HT document, The Institutions of State in the Khilafah: "Whoever killed and took property, he is killed and crucified; and whoever killed and did not take property, he is killed but not crucified; and whoever took property without killing, his hand and leg will be amputated from opposite sides without killing."

Article 13 of the constitution adds: "Every individual is innocent until proven guilty. No person shall be punished without a court sentence. Torturing is absolutely forbidden."

The first principle of the social system is that "the primary role of a woman is that of a mother and wife. She is an honour that must be protected." Women would be able to work, vote, serve in the military and on advisory councils, but prohibited from holding positions such as caliph or chief justice. They are "forbidden to display their charms", which is taken to mean they should keep everything but their hands and face covered in public.

The bottom line for a husband and wife is: "She is to obey and he is to provide."

Despite decades of campaigning, the quest for an Islamic state has been largely thwarted. The most famous exception was the Taliban's emirate in Afghanistan, best known in the West for the images of public executions staged in the manner of sports events in the Kabul soccer ground, and women who failed to adhere to the dress code being beaten in public by enforcers from the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

However, many Muslim countries have successfully implemented a less drastic form of sharia law. An Islamic state has been place in Kelantan, northern Malaysia, for 20 years under a government led by the Islamic party, PAS, and sharia courts now operate in some Western countries, including Britain.

But Muslim scholars in the West give little credence to the caliphate idyll.

"The caliphate idea has some emotional attraction for most Muslims," says Shahram Akbarzadeh, senior lecturer in politics at Monash University. "But, at the same time, most Muslims are realistic and pragmatic.

"They realise that a transnational entity has no chance of replacing nation-states."

He says the appeal of a caliphate is enhanced by the hostility many Muslims feel toward their governments. "As a result, out of desperation, the caliphate may seem like an attractive alternative. But this would be a very small minority view."

Britain's Quilliam Foundation, which was set up by reformed ex-HT members to promote a more liberal form of Islam, says the caliphate imagined by many Muslims is "unspecified and idealised" and there is "no evidence at all" of wide support for HT's prescriptive model.

"HT [hopes] to capitalise on confusion about what people actually mean by caliphate to argue that more people than [is actually the case] support their goal of creating a pan-global Islamic state with a unified political leadership," says George Readings, research fellow at Quilliam.

HT opposes the use of violence in its campaign for an Islamic state but says the caliphate, once established, would be a military power. Its strategy is to first establish an Islamic state in a country such as Egypt, Syria or Pakistan, which would then "carry Islam to the world through invitation and jihad", in the words of another HT document.

The London-based Centre for Social Cohesion, a conservative think tank, says the caliphate envisioned by HT would be an "expansionist super-state" characterised by an "inherently violent" and totalitarian ideology.

In a report based on analysis of dozens of HT documents and statements dating from the party's formation in the 1950s to the present day, the centre says such a caliphate would be bent on world domination.

It cites an HT book published in 1989 that says: "Allah has ordered the Muslims to carry the da'wah (proselytisation) to all mankind and to bring them into the khilafah state. He has legislated jihad as a method. So the state must rise to declare jihad against the kuffar (non-believers) without any lenience or hesitation."

The report says HT's denunciation of apostasy, the crime of renouncing of Islam, is tantamount to endorsing genocide because its literature advocates "killing every apostate even if they numbered millions".

Aside from the debate over its desirability, there remains the question of whether a caliphate is politically attainable. The reality of diversity and disunity in the Muslim world is that it is an "unachievable goal", according to Quilliam's Readings.

"The idea of uniting countries and cultures and religious traditions such as those of Saudi Arabia and Iran within the state is completely unrealistic [because] they are fiercely opposed, a reality which Hizb ut-Tahrir ignores."

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles