2. Radical Revisionism, Militant Challenges and Utopian Projects




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Even through the 19th century Muslims were keen to invest concern with the presence of a Caliph on the world stage, perhaps in part due to the increasing of colonialism. Thus once the Moguls fell, Indian Muslims were politically supportive of the Ottoman Caliphate (the pro-Ottoman Khilafat movement), and one British Viceroy suggested that if Britain allowed Istanbul fell to Russian control this would cause violence in India (Mansel1997, p306, p384). For a relatively short period in the late 19th and early 20th century the Ottomans gained some international prestige as the last independent Muslim power and defender of Islam. (Mansel 1997, pp320-322) Thus, even some modernising Sultans would provide a short-term focus for the Islamic world: -


The greatest tribute to Sultan Abdul Hamid is that even today many Muslims around the world invoke his name with nostalgia for a bygone era when a venerated caliph provided a semblance of political focus for the global Islamic community and gave it a sense of universal brotherhood. Muslims as far away as India and Nigeria looked to him for guidance in maters small and large. His office radiated religious, political, cultural and social influence across the Islamic world. The Ottoman fez became not only a hat for the Turks but for Indian Muslims, Egyptians, Moroccans and Malaysians. His failure was that he pursued his modernization program through a highly centralized, personal style, which opened him to charges of despotism. (Ahmed 2000, II, p279)


This tilt towards Islam did provide some groundswell support for the Ottomans, but in the late 19th century it also undermined their claims towards building a multi-religious, cosmopolitan state (Ahmed 2000, II, p275). Even as late as 1914 the Ottomans may have hoped to strike at the British through an eastward campaign to link up with Muslim populations in north-east India, a move that was pre-empted by Russian pressure on north-eastern Turkey and northern Persian (Ahmed 2000, II, p94). In turn, some Indian soldiers were reluctant to fight fellow Muslim Turkish soldiers in Iraq (Ahmed 2000, II, p312), but overall British control remained intact. Indeed, both the British and French were keen to see the collapse of Caliphate as one of the few symbols around which resistance to their geo-political and colonial projects might be focused (Ahmed 2000, II, pp316-317). British willingness to weaken the Ottoman's at various stages helped mobilise opposition in South Asia: -


In 1919-24 India was swept by the Khilafat movement, an explosion of hostility to Britain and the loyalty to the Ottoman Caliphate which had resurfaced in 1877-8 and 1912-1913. Indian Muslims' concern for the future of Constantinople was shared by Gandhi and some Hindus. The All-India Khilafat Conference organized mass meetings in Delhi, Bombay and Karachi and sent a delegation to Constantinople. There was a pro-Khilafat rising in the Muslim province of Kerala. (Mansel 1997, p391)


Thus the future of the Caliphate as either a religious or temporal institution was of major issue of the modernising Turkish Grand National Assembly. Ataturk's modernising policies saw Islam as an obstruction to modernisation and national-building, thus forcing the National Assembly to abandon the institution as a burden that could not be sustained (Ahmed 2000, II, p320). The Caliphate was abolished through early 1924 (Ihsanoglu 2001, p131; Mansel 1997, p413).


It is not surprising that powerful monarchs such as the Ottoman Sultan saw the Caliphate as a mean of reinforcing their (waning) power and authority, with 19th century scholars in such as Abu'l-Huda and Jamal al-din al-Afghani supporting the idea of absolute obedience to the Caliph (Mansel 1997, pp322-323). Thus, for a short time, there was a linkage between pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic ideals, but this could be sustained in the face of nationalist and modernising trends in Turkey and the Arabic world (Mansel 1997, pp357-358). This eclipse of the Ottoman Caliphate remains significant, and is explicitly cited as a turning point in the weakening of the Islamic world in an al-Qaeda training manual: -


After the fall of our orthodox caliphates on March 3, 1924 and after expelling the colonialists, our Islamic nation was afflicted with apostate rulers who took over in the Moslem nation. These rulers turned out to be more infidel and criminal than the colonialists themselves. Moslems have endured all kinds of harm, oppression, and torture.8


It is in this context that the effort of various Islamic reformists and modernists became extremely urgent from the late 19th century onwards. One of the most controversial of these was Seyyed Jamaluddin Afghani, who sought to unite the Islamic world under one caliph in Istanbul, which would require a reconciliation between Persia and the Ottoman Empire (Ahmed 2000, II, p286). He also sought to modernise Islam, and his followers influenced reform movements in Egypt, India, and Indonesia, but his efforts to create a wider Renaissance in Islamic thought were not initially successful (Ahmed 2000, II, pp286-287). This call for revival and reform, in different forms, has become more urgent in the late 20th and 21st centuries (see further below). In general, the sense of crisis due to the collapse of the caliphate and the growing power of the West and nationalism has been threefold: -


In general, I would suggest there were three kinds of responses. First, confronting the European through jihad, which eventually failed. Second, accommodating and adopting European ideas, concepts and practices. This second type of response was the most common one that resulted in the adoption of European ideas, concepts and institutions such as "nationalism", "nation-state", "modernism", "secularism", and the like. The third response was proposing alternative concepts and institutions by returning to the romanticized and ideal Islamic concepts. With respect to this, some Muslim scholars and activists such as al-Afghani and 'Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, for instance, appealed for the re-invigoration of the caliphate (al-khilafah) as the single, universal Islamic political entity, which, it was believed, would unify the fragmented ummah. Other Muslim theologians, who found that it was very difficult to establish such a caliphate, proposed another alternative concept, namely the dawlah Islamiyyah (Islamic state), which would be founded in a certain Muslim country. (Azra 2005, pp7-8)


2c. Resurrecting the Caliphate for the 21st Century?


In spite of Western efforts to de-legitimize Osama bin Laden as a psychologically warped extremist, in fact he not only been able to maintain a following but has also been granted some credibility within wider Islamic sensibilities (Kinyon 2004, p1). This is not based on being a learned or holy man, but rather his role as a warrior who claims to be acting in defence of both the holy places of Islam and in defence of the wider Islamic community which he sees as being under attack both from US (and its allied) military power and from insidious Western values. In this context his apparent popularity in parts of the Islamic world rests on a sense of generalised dissatisfaction with the global system, and specific sense of political dislocation. He has also tried to mobilise historical and traditional elements of Islamic thought. The warrior tradition was a noted part of the early expansion and defence of Islam, as well as re-iterated in the defence and expansion of the borders of the Islamic world as the Ottomans expanded their own frontier. Today: -


Bin Laden's support rests on his claim that he is a self-declared amir (commander), who is willing to do what no other Arab leaders are doing. In the absence of true leadership, he is a de facto military commander, the only one willing to stand up against the western infidels and occupiers. In Islam, there is no obligation for the military leader to be a religious man as well, and bin Laden makes no claim on being one. (Kinyon 2004, p1)


Although Bin Laden might claim a role as an Emir or General (Gunaratna 2002), he is not able to assume other titles such as Caliph, since he is not the leader of or supported by a powerful Muslim state. He does not meet all the criteria for the Mahdi, whose apocalyptic proclamation in any case would probably not sit well with the revolutionary agenda of al-Qaeda and related groups, contra the confused comparative efforts made by some Western writers (see McDonald 2002; Nasr 203, pp73-74). Nor does Osama bin Laden have the kind of religious training that would entitle him to issue a fatwa, which in any case are usually only viewed as valid if they have been debated by religious scholars and a wide consensus reached (Marlin 2004, p18; Gunaratna 2002). In June 2007, in response to the knighthood awarded writer Salman Rushdie, conservative Pakistani clerics gave Bin Ladin the title of '"Saifullah", or sword of Allah' (Apunyi 2007), but this seems a largely reactive measure.


It is possible, however, that both al-Qaeda and JI seek to establish a strong Islamic state within initial borders, before a wider range of regional operations that might reshape international politics. On this basis, a letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, a key al-Qeada leader, to Iraqi insurgents suggests that the collapse of the US presence was crucial as a prelude to establishing an Islamic state in Iraq that would then take the conflict to key 'secular' neighbours including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and only then confronting Israel (JUS 2006). There are some scattered political claims that suggest a more pragmatic approach towards sustaining a project future caliphate. One of these is not just the protection of holy sites and Muslims, but also an effort to protect the physical resources of the Middle East, as noted in one of the early Al Qaeda communiques: -


I would like here to alert my brothers, the Mujahideen, the sons of the nation, to protect this (oil) wealth and not to include it in the battle, as it is a great Islamic wealth and a large economic power essential for the soon-to-be established Islamic state, by Allah's permission and grace. We also warn the aggressors, the U.S.A., against burning this Islamic wealth (a crime which they may commit in order to prevent the oil, at the end of the war, from falling into the hands of its legitimate owners, and to cause economic damage to the competitors of the U.S.A. in Europe or the Far East, particularly Japan, which is the major consumer of oil of the region).9


The situation in Southeast Asia is equally problematic for groups seeking to sustain radical political projects. In general terms, Islam in Indonesia has been strongly influenced by pre-Islamic syncretic systems (leading to 'Kejawen' forms of Islam), a strong mystical inclination, and the importance of Sufism (Aveling 1979; McAmis 2002, p45). In part, this divergence has been accommodated by the concept of adat or local customary law, which has in most areas has run alongside the core religious tenants of Islam, creating a wider social space for divergence (McAmis 2002, p63). Other patterns that may have been influenced by the Hindu past include a special reverence for the teacher (guru), though this has in part converged on the idea of the special blessings that Muslim teachers and holy persons can impart on their students (McAmis 2002, p69).


However, it is also true that small but influential numbers of Arabs, Persians, South Asians, those who returned from the struggle in Afghanistan, and those returning from the Hajj have also added new layers of Islamic belief since the 17th century. We should note that large numbers of Southeast Asian Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca each year, and in the past the Indonesian government gave some financial support for up to 10,000 people making the trip (McAmis 2002, p69). Arabic has also remained the primary language of advanced Islamic instruction, though in many cases used ritually rather than fully understood linguistically, and Malay became a secondary vehicle for commentary and dialogue on Islam at least as early as the late 17th century when an interpretation of the Qur'an was provided in Malay by Shaykh Abdul Rauf al Sinkili (Ahmed 2000, I, p396; see further Mansurnoor 1990). During these centuries Malay was not only one of the key lingua franca for regional trade, but was also one of the vehicles for religious transmission as well (Ahmed 2000 I, p398). This transnational linkage provides a direct sense of community with the wider Islamic global society, as well as being a focus for renewed missionary and 'call' activities, da'wa, including the call religious renewal (McAmis 2002, p80). People who have been through this experience not only have increased prestige within their local communities, but are unlikely to impressed by Western visions of global affairs as presented in modern media outlets and foreign policy agenda.


It is in this context that we can see the enormous prestige and influence of Muslim religious leaders both via village institutions and through teaching institutions such as the pesantren, madrasah (theological schools, whose role became formalised in the Islamic world from the 11th century onwards), sekolah Islam (Kennedy 2004, p260; McAmis 2002, p65). Though local custom have been strongly influenced by local belief systems at the level of the 'abangan', sometimes viewed as nominal Muslims, it now seems that the santri as devout Muslims seem to have gained some greater influence at the grass roots level in recent years (McAmis 2002, p49). It is such a context that figures such as Abu Bakar Bashir, via the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI), can gain a certain degree of influence among a strong religious minority within Indonesia. In is important not to exaggerate the conservative or negative teaching of some pesantren in Indonesia. In fact the pesantren are a key element in the national educational program and since 1994 of these have been modernised through the adoptions of the curricula developed by the Ministry of National Education and the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Azra 2005, pp13-14). Likewise, Indonesia remains a multi-religious society, with most Muslims in the country supporting a pluralist democracy and not favouring a move towards an Islamic state, nor supporting wholesale extension of strict shariah codes of law (see Hosen 2005).


It can be seen, then, that the political project of the Caliphate as put forward by al-Qaeda, JI and related groups is at best fragmentary, often mixed with revolutionary elements of 20th century European political practice (Nasr 2003, pp181-184), and at worst a utopian reworking of a call to the past that does not coincide with the current challenges facing Islamic communities, in spite of some superficial similarities. Thus: -


The modernism and so-called fundamentalism that are evident in certain sectors of Islamic society and in certain lands have caused traditional Islamic life to wither, but have been unable to create any significant theological world view that could challenge the traditional one (Nasr 2003, p174).


This project might seem unlikely in the face of the U.S.'s dominant strategic power, continued Russian and Chinese tensions with Islam, continued international interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia, and the apparent robustness of governments in Southeast Asia, though Thailand and Philippines have come under increasing pressure from 2006 (see Strategic Comments 2006a; Yong 2006). However, militant Islamists have viewed themselves as the victor in the war against the Soviet Union (in Afghanistan from 1979), as slowly winning the war of hearts and minds in the Islamic world, and Al Qaeda has spoken of its victory against the U.S. in Beirut, Aden, and Mogadishu (in Marlin 204, p13, p73). From the point of Osama bin Laden, these different conflicts are part of a longer chain of an integrated war between Crusaders and Muslims (in Marlin 2004, p39), thereby engaging a long-term viewpoint and a global strategy of conflict. From this point of view, conditions in Pakistan, Palestine, and Iran are far from positive, while ongoing repression in the Central Asia also provides a possible focus for conflict. Problematic and slow stabilisation efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that there is a need for sustained multilateral international support for these new governments if they are to become genuinely accepted as local and legitimate sources of governance. At present, groups such as JI and Al-Qaeda seem able to disturb the current international order but destroy it. Nor do their statements suggest an adequate vision of alternative governance. In the contemporary setting, this leave open the issue of how Islamic society should sustain itself in the modern period of Western global dominance.

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