To Ensure That The ISIS/DASH Caliphate Is Not Repeated, Know and Respect People's Cultures

The idea of a Caliphate is central for many Muslims, and until this issue is addressed within the faith there will be future attempts to co-opt its religious concept as a justification for violent conflict and oppression. But the world can help to lessen the attraction of this concept.

In June 2014 the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (“ISIS”) was declared by the leader of a group of Sunni fundamentalists, who appear to have had their own brand of Islam, perhaps derived from Salafist teachings, but a bit more extreme in their implementation. They followed in the footsteps of that great US ally the Taliban (when they were fighting the Russians, at least). The core teachings of which really are not much different from those professed in Saudi Arabia, Brunei, and Aceh in Indonesia. What differentiated them was the level of brutality exhibited and their willingness to take their religious teaching seriously. 

But they did something very different than any other conservative religious Muslim State, they declared themselves to be the new universal Caliphate. It had a resonance among Muslims worldwide1, and the DASH leadership were savvy enough to understand that, and to use this emotional response to their advantage. The idea of a renewed Caliphate resonates within even moderate Muslims who cherish the concept of the Islamic Ummah, and long for a renewal of the semi-mythical glory days of a powerful Islamic State.

Men and women came from countries across the world, seeing themselves as “Muslim” before any other tribal or ethnic identity. Admittedly, this was a miniscule percentage of all Muslims, but it was significant in the impact it had on global perceptions of Islam, and also on how Muslims saw themselves. At the time, it reminded me of the Greek war of independence from the Ottomans, back in 1821-32², when some of Europe’s idealistic elements3 joined in the fight to free the “cradle of Western Civilization” from the despotic Ottomans. When the rebels were on the verge of being crushed, France, the UK and Russia sent warships into the conflict and destroyed the Ottoman relieving fleet4 and French troops invaded Greece. The West longed for the Golden Age of Greek science, philosophy, and art, forgetting the intolerance that led to the death of Socrates, the useless and destructive Peloponnesian Wars, and the intolerance and autocracy of virtually every Greek city state.

Many of my Muslim friends, while eschewing the violence and intolerance of DASH, had at the same time a nostalgic longing for the days of a unified Muslim world, under a Caliph5. Non-Muslims often misunderstand the importance of this communal aspect of Islam, and the feelings that it generates within even moderate Muslim communities. It’s similar to the perspective Jews have towards the Western Wall, of Shinto practitioners to the Ise Shrine, or of Roman Catholics to the Pope – or how the West viewed Greece during its war for independence. While there is nothing wrong, per se, with this idea of a universal Muslim unity, the peril of this desire to be used for militarist or oppressive ends has been aptly demonstrated. Using the allure of a Golden Age to compel people to act in ways they would otherwise eschew has happened before, and it will happen again. 

What is the Caliphate?

Under Islam, the community of believers, the ummah (or the ummat al-Islamiyah to give it its full name), was specified in the Koran as not being ethnically based. This strongly distinguishes it from the form of tribalism found in the Jewish Torah and Midrash, and followed the open acceptance approach taken by most polytheistic religions of the day. This is somewhat surprising, as Islam followed many other aspects of Judaism. The Caliphate is a merger of political and religious authority in the figure of the Caliph. It’s a system where temporal and spiritual power is wielded by a single person, not dissimilar to the post-Republican Roman tradition of having the Emperor also acting as the head of the State religion and even being portrayed as a god.6

The community is of all believers, and that is the sole requirement for membership. Most contemporary polytheistic religions did not have a concept of exclusive communities, except perhaps for those who had participated in certain “mystery rites”7. A few religions, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and tribal religions were based on the superiority of certain ethnic groups over others. While you could conquer other countries, they would never easily become part of your religious community. Zoroastrianism, although originally an inclusive religion, as practiced by the Iranian diaspora in India (known as the “Parsi”) also came to be a self-contained religious community – which accounts for their declining numbers. 

Buddhism8, which has always been more of a philosophy melded with local animistic or established religious tendencies, doesn’t fit this mold, but it also lacks a concept of a united Buddhism community. There is no real place for collective action in Buddhist doctrine, nor a role for a philosopher king figure. Indeed, such a role would amount to an attachment to the world which would be in stark opposition to the main thesis of Buddhism9, which is focused on the release of attachments as a means of the individual pursuit of an advanced consciousness.

Christianity is a bit of an odd case. In its core Gospel teachings, there is really nothing directly about this. But this is not surprising as Jesus (if he existed) was a Jew, primarily preaching to his fellow Jews, and he didn’t seem to like Gentiles or even Samaritans (the Jews remaining from the Northern Kingdom, who didn’t really follow the Judahite Temple movement). His subsequent followers (notably, Paul10) debated the relationship of the new religion with that of the established Jewish sects. The new faith was highly fragmented from the outset, and only after a period of brutal repression were three major lines established; the Orthodox run from Constantinople, the Roman Catholic run from Rome, and the Coptic run from Alexandria11. Many offshoots fled to Central Asia to avoid persecution, such as the Manicheans. There were attempts from time to time by the Roman Catholic Church to consolidate both religious and temporal authority, and the divine right of kings was an attempt to extend the mantle of religious authority over the secular world. But it was imperfect at best, and was never unified and never resulted in a condition where Roman Catholic Nations were unified under one temporal ruler. It worked better with the Byzantine court, but that concept collapsed with military decline of the Eastern Roman Empire (known today as Byzantium) and the fall of Constantinople (first to Crusaders from the West in 1204 AD and then to the Ottomans in 1453 AD) and thereafter Orthodox Christianity became badly fragmented.

Only perhaps in Shinto do we see a mix of temporal and divine authority vested in one figure, that of the Emperor, who was regarded as the Tenno (天皇) or heavenly sovereign (a title probably derived from Chinese form). However, there is little support for the Emperor historically having an active role in ongoing religious affairs. It seems that he was always more of a figurehead, like the latter Emperors of China, being the person to ceremonially officiate, but not the one to determine religious doctrine. Shinto is somewhat unique among major religions in that it is now and often historically was generally regarded as something of an orthopraxy12. That is, where the ritual conduct is of more importance than the underlying belief. 

But the Myth was Never Real  

So, Islam is unique (other than perhaps Sikhism13) among major universal religions in holding out the ideal that all believers should be united under a single political regime as well, with a sole person vested with authority over both the mundane and divine. In the early days of the Islamic conquests and the first Caliphate, both Sunni and Shia were part of the same ummah and were under the same Caliphate.

But after the Umayyad Caliphate, ending in 750 CE, there were two rival Caliphates, the Abbasid which ruled in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, and the Baghdad Caliphate, which was destroyed by the Mongols in 1258 CE. The Abbasids, under Mamluk control in Cairo, took over the role of the Baghdad Caliphate, following its destruction, and this was maintained until 1517 CE. Then the Ottomans conquered Egypt, and Islam was once more united in the Sunni West, covering North Africa (Iberia had been lost in 1492 to the Christian Reconquista), the Saudi Peninsula, the three Holy Cities of Jerusalem, Medina and Mecca, the Levant and Mesopotamia, and Southeastern Europe up to the gates of Vienna. The Shia portion of the Muslim world in what is now largely Iran and Iraq was under the rule of the Ottomans' frequent opponent, the Safavid dynasty, which only emerged as an independent nation in 1501. The last Caliphate was the Ottoman, which ended voluntarily in 1924, when Turkey because a secular State under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Since then, there has been no viable claimant to the title of Caliph or Sultan of the Ummah.

But wait, other than that brief period from Islam’s establishment in 618 CE or thereabouts, until 750 CE, there never was a real Caliphate, in the sense of all Muslims being under one ruler with both secular and religious authority. There were many Muslim communities in Africa, the converted Mongols which became the Moguls, and the Golden Horde, as well as the brief empire of Tamerlane in Central Asia. Not to mention what is now the largest Islamic community in the world, in Indonesia.

Indeed, if you look at the top ten largest Muslim populations (by country) in the world today, only 4-514 were ever part of a political Ummah. Nearly 50% of all Muslims today are in the top five countries (Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria) which never had an experience with a universal Caliphate, only locally proclaimed ones. So, other than the fact that it’s presented as the ideal condition in the Quran15,  why this longing for a Golden Age that actually never has existed?       

What’s Wrong with a Caliphate?

The problem with longing for the return of a Golden Age, is that it invites radical exploitation of the dream. Often, you will hear that the closest example of DASH in recent years was the Mahdist War16 in Africa (1881- 98 CE), where a local inspirational leader, Muhammad Ahmad, proclaimed himself the Mahdi and went to war to throw off Ottoman rule and the harsh conditions imposed by the Egyptian Khedive administration (which was closely aligned with the British). But for me, this was clearly a struggle for local liberation, albeit using many of the same symbols and religious justifications as were used by DASH. Proclaiming oneself to be the Mahdi is an appeal to an apocalyptic motif, as the Mahdi is to come and rule before the world ends.

I sort of view the idea of a renewed Caliphate as being about as likely as that of Santa Claus giving me a Bible for Christmas – utterly impossible in this universe. While some people may think it a lovely idea for all Muslims to be under one rule, and to speak in the world with one voice, each community and country has its own elites to whom this concept would be anathema, unless of course they were the ones being elevated to the ultimate position as Caliph.

The problem is that it is an easy answer, and it is enmeshed within unrealistic religious belief and expectations. Following the fall of colonialism, most majority Muslim countries underwent a period of optimism about their economic and political future. As we’ve seen from the Arab Spring, the patience of many people for the promised results is fading. Modern appeals to nationalism are not as effective as those made to stronger and longer rooted religious convictions. Most modern Muslim States did not exist even 100 years ago, so nationalism has not fully taken hold of people’s loyalties. Most current boundaries were those used by the colonial powers for their own convenience or from military expediency. Few Muslim countries have a unified tribal/ethnic group, although some have a dominant one (Pashtuns in Pakistan, Bengalis in Bangladesh, Javanese in Indonesia, etc.).

So, what is the danger? An appeal to a Caliphate is like Donald Trump’s invocation to “Make America Great Again”. Its an allure to an undefined and yet idealized past, where any current crimes or deprivations are justified for the attainment of the ultimate “good.” Everyone “knows” that a Caliphate would solve the problems they are facing of corrupt Governments, venal sovereigns, lack of piety, and a perceived loss of Muslim prestige and power (although it’s been a long time since the Ottomans were a world power, yet the dream remains). No one demands to know what the Caliphate will look like, any more than a Trump supporter could tell you in what year America was “great” so that they would all know what we are going back to.

A Caliphate also has bigoted connotations. In a Caliphate run under Sharia law, non-believers are second class citizens. One big step up from slaves, they were still restricted from many items of ownership, jobs, rights and privileges. Yes, many did hold high office in the Ottoman Empire from time to time, but these were the exceptions and not the rule. Many authors have considered the Ottoman rule to be rather beneficent to non-Muslims, especially historians focused on the acceptance in Istanbul of the Jews expelled from Spain. But that is largely because the alternative Christian countries were so horrible. This was the period when the Spanish were torturing, killing or expelling non-Christians. The Europeans were engaged in wholesale slaughter amongst themselves over religion as Protestantism rose to prominence in some countries.

It was probably ok to be a second-class citizen in the 16th and 17th Century CE, when the alternative was to be dead, but in today’s world? Whenever you hear about the Caliphate, the first thing that should spring to mind is “established inferiors.” It would be tantamount to institutionalized bigotry on a religious and secular foundation. And for too many Muslims, that bigotry is what is yearned for. It's not the unified political umbrella – just ask yourself, what self-respecting Javanese, Indian, or Nigerian wants to be ruled by an Arab based in Algeria? No, people know that the political side is beyond reach, but the idea of moral ascendency remains paramount in people’s conceptualization of the Caliphate.

When times are hard, it’s somehow satisfying for many people to know that there is someone who has it even worse than you do. Muslims are the true believers, and as such they seek to see some evidence of Allah’s appreciation of this17. Yet outside of a few very oil-rich States, most majority Muslim countries are at the low end of the economic achievement scale. They lack power, influence, and toil for low living standards. Even Pakistan securing the “Muslim Bomb” has filed to enhance Pakistan’s international standing. Muslim countries are not unique, they seek respect and recognition, and when its not granted to them on an ethnic or cultural basis, then they look to the larger tribal community element, that of religion, for self-justification.

What is the solution?

The lure of the Caliphate can best be addressed by giving majority Muslim Nations a degree of respect and cultural acknowledgment that has heretofore been lacking in the Western mindset. When a Nation or tribal group sees itself as being respected and valued for its achievements and abilities independent of its religion, then the siren song of a Caliphate will be diminished.

Compare DASH with the experience in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, local Roman Catholics were historically repressed by the Anglican Irish community, which were backed by the British, which started invading Ireland around 1169 AD, and controlled all of Ireland from 1603 AD until 1922 AD when most of Ireland declared independence, and the UK was too exhausted from WWI to fight it out any longer. Northern Ireland, which was majority Anglican, stayed as a part of Great Britain. Some parts of the Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland began armed agitation for union with the State of Ireland, with the conflict reaching a high point from the late 1960s until a settlement was reached in 1998/918, a period sometimes known as “The Troubles.”

But during the Troubles, there was no ardent support coming in from Roman Catholic nations. The underlying cultural affiliations were paramount, despite the tribal distinctions being religious. Everyone knew and understood that this was the old elites against the now more numerous historically disenfranchised population. Religion had been the original cause or justification of the distinction between the two groups, together with the alliance with the English, but there was an understanding among Roman Catholic world-wise that this was not a war about religion. The same came be said of most conflicts in the Muslim world today, where religion serves as the flag under which a war for economic or political aims is being fought. But when people lack confidence or respect in their own political polities, then that flag can act as a magnet attracting the frustrated zealot. 

Non-Muslim States promote this vulnerability when they coddle corrupt tyrannies, often in the name of religious tolerance. Is it any wonder that the majority of the world’s functioning monarchies (that is, where monarchs have real political power) are Muslim? When reading “white papers” about Muslim States published by Western Governments, it’s almost like reading that different standards should be applied. As though Muslims prefer autocracy and dictatorships, and would be unable to cope otherwise. People in Muslim countries are not immune to this patronizing sentiment, as its even sometimes espoused in their home countries.

When people take pride in their local heritage, the emphasis on personal value being derived through religious affiliation is lessened. Radicalism is a response in virtually every culture to a perception of unrightable wrongs, to a feeling of injustice, and of social denigration. These problems do not exist because of Islam, and they are not wholly the creation of local societies (take Iran, as an example where the radicalization was largely due to Western interference19). When your own conditions are tolerable, then the siren call of a new Caliphate is easily dismissible as the idle fantasy of radicals. But when people find themselves without hope, and respect, and an improving future, then the shinning star of a religious/political solution to all problems becomes a powerful and potent opiate for the disenfranchised and disenchanted. The world can not afford to have that happen again.



  1. Although it's important to note that the Muslim support for this was miniscule. Maybe at best there were a few tens of thousands who joined or actively supported with large donations, but this is a minute fraction of the billion plus Muslims in the world today. What I am talking about here is the emotional “support”, a sort of “cheering for the home team” as it were. Many Muslims like the idea of all Muslims living under a single rule, and the end goal remains the conversion of all peoples.
  2.  For a thorough, albeit somewhat biased, view of the conflict, see: D. Brewer, “Greek War of Independence” (2001). The West always adopts the same view of the “East” going back to the Greeks’ wars with the Persians, that the Persians or Asians (Ottomans were Asiatic nomads) are despotic and inferior to the West. We still seem to be infected with that view today. No ethnicity has a monopoly on tyranny.
  3.  More people wrote about it, like Shelley and Byron, than fought in it, and many that did came away with a less than glamorous view of the modern Greeks. This, again, is similar to the experience of the ISIS idealists, who hope to see the grandeur of the past, only to smell the odor of ordinary human lust, greed, ignorance, brutality, and fear.
  4.  Battle of Navarino, 1827, after which the Ottoman and Western Powers entered into negotiations resulting in a settlement of the conflict and establishing Greece as a monarchy under Western Power protection. An ethnic German assumed the crown of the Greek state. Shows you how much respect the West had for modern Greeks, whatever illusions they of the former glory of the Hellenes.
  5. A great many Muslim rulers have styled themselves as Caliph, and given themselves powers over the religious as well as secular organs of Government within their control. But I am not talking about these sorts of demonstrably local or regional rulers. I am talking about the Ummah of all believers. Only the large empires got close to this, and it is those class of Governments that I will be discussing here. 
  6. There is a lot of material on this in the epic “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1788) by E. Gibbons, but a good analysis in more detail is to be found in S. Price “Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor” (1985), which while somewhat dry is very informative.
  7.  Of which one of the most famous was at Eleusis, in Greece. See Wright, “Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites” and Mylonas “Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries”.  A broader treatment of the subject can be found at Angus “The Mystery-religions.” Also of note was the cult of Mithra, which was flourishing around the same time Christianity was taking root, which also was not based on ethnicity.
  8. See
  9. .Although, in Buddhism, there are always exceptions.
  10.  Also known as Paul the Apostle, Saul of Tarsus, or Saint Paul. Letters, known as epistles, which were authored by him make up 14 “books” of the Christian New Testament. Much of what constitutes Christian doctrine actually comes from Paul, and not from the Gospels, which were the narrative stories of the ministry and life of Jesus. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on whether Paul was the actual author of a number of these epistles, however, and 7 are now thought to have been authored by others or are of questionable original source.
  11.  Which was captured from the Byzantines by the Muslim Rashidun Caliphate in 642 AD. A small community of Copts still remains today in Egypt, numbering about 7 million followers.
  12.  It's very similar to the case where you have supposedly atheist or agnostic form Jews who still refuse to eat port, ostensibly for “cultural” reasons. Following the practices, without belief, is still a form of religious practice.
  13.  OK, there is Sikhism, which like Zoroastrianism started off as an inclusive religion but has become somewhat inbred. Is it tribal? Not in form, but in substance. Does it merge secular and religious authority? Yes, to an extent. The Akal Takht (timeless throne) is the supreme decision-making authority, and its sometimes been a single charismatic person, or sometimes a body of elders. Laws or dictates are given to the Sikh community in the form of hymns. The community leader is the guru, who is a considered to be an “illumined soo--ul.” This is very similar to the role of reincarnated Lamas in Tibetan Buddhism.  
  14.  Iran was sort of in at times, but was usually out.
  15.  Some scholars argue that this is very strained interpretation of what is actually in the Quran, as the author(s) clearly had no idea about the breadth and diversity of their world when it was written. The text references which are taken to be justifications for a Ummah of believers, united as to both political and religious authority, are certainly not clear stipulations. See
  16.  See Holt, P.M.  “The Mahdist State in the Sudan 1881 - 1898: A Study of Its Origin, Development, and Overthrow” (1958) Oxford University Press.
  17.  Jews, for example, invariably bring up the statistic of the number of (claimed) Jews who have won the Nobel prize – as though this would somehow be of benefit to all Jewish people. But it’s the only indicia of YHWH’s favor that they can come up with, although Israel now is counted among the wealthy countries of the world. Still, there is nothing exceptional.
  18.  Settled under the “Good Friday Agreement” of 1998, with a unity Government introduced in 1999.
  19.   See “All the Shah’s Men” by Stephen Kinzer for a good analysis of the history and motivations behind this tragedy.

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