– The Myth of a “Global Caliphate”.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

A July 2012 study that examined the most frequently cited or quoted verses in the Qur’an from over 2,000 extremist texts from 1998 to 2011 in the Center for Strategic Communication’s database concluded that

“…verses extremists cite from the Qur’an do not suggest an aggressive offensive foe seeking domination and conquest of unbelievers, as is commonly assumed. Instead they deal with themes of victimization, dishonor, and retribution. This shows close integration with the rhetorical vision of Islamist extremists.”[[1]]

The study further says,

“Based on this analysis we recommend that the West abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination, focus on counteracting or addressing claims of victimage, emphasize alternative means of deliverance, and work to undermine the “champion” image sought by extremists”[[2]] (italics added by reviewer).

While a 2007 poll in four countries (Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia) showed majority support “to unify all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or caliphate,” this does not mean a Taliban-like state. The same poll showed that the majority favored “a democratic political system” to govern their country, as well as “freedom to practice any religion.”[[3]]

Another poll of Arab countries from 2004 to 2010 by Telhami, an Israeli-Arab scholar, concluded that only 7 percent of Arabs polled in both years “embraced Al Qaeda because of its aims to establish a Taliban-like Islamic state.”[[4]]

Another poll – the world’s biggest Gallup Poll of Muslims worldwide – concluded that Muslims

“wanting Sharia involved in politics does not translate into Muslims wanting theocracy. Majorities in many countries remarked that they do not want religious leaders to hold direct legislative or political power.”


“[M]any Muslims desire neither a democracy or theocracy, but instead a unique model incorporating both democratic and religious principles.”[[5]]

The type of “caliphate,” therefore, would be a moderate one that does not represent the kind of caliphate a minority of extremists would like, nor what classical Sunni Islam represents, but more similar to what the United States is like. Mohammed Habib, a former deputy general guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,

“underscores that the real goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to bring about either a structure that resembles that of the US government or one that is looser but nevertheless a confederation, with a constitution and a leader.”[[6]]

Islamophobes’ warnings of a threat of an extremist global caliphate that reigns supreme and subjugates non-Muslims are therefore more imaginary and doom-laden than realistic. Kamal El Helbawy, a former steering committee member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who left the Brotherhood in 2012,

“insists that it is wrong to say that the absolute goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to bring about any sort of caliphate.”[[7]]

Even if they did establish a caliphate, contrary to extremists, it would not be one that unites the Muslims, because the Muslim Brotherhood is not united at the regional or global levels, and most Muslims do not subscribe to the Salafi understanding of Islam. Juan Cole says,

“The Brotherhood is a decentralized organization even in Egypt. It is not organized internationally. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan…is essentially a different organization from its Egyptian counterpart. Hamas has its distant origins in Brotherhood proselytizing in the 1930s, but it takes no orders from Cairo. Other political groups with a Muslim Brotherhood genealogy include the Iraqi Islamic Party, which cooperated with George W. Bush’s invasion of and administration of Iraq.”[[8]]

Where is the “Totalitarian” Program? Matching Rhetoric with Action

In spite of their rhetoric, Islamists have generally been oblivious to how society ought to be governed according to Islamic Law. While a range of Islamists are now experimenting with governance after the Arab Spring, no planned program of governance has materialized that incorporates the full spectrum of Islamic Law, including its controversial aspects. Rather, Islamists are learning that Islamic Law can only expand within the confines of the current social-political milieu. Ideology in this sense, as scholar Olivier Roy describes, is

“more an emotional and vague narrative than a blueprint for ruling.”

To Roy, it is yet another reason why the continued “failure of political Islam” persists.

Likewise, Asef Bayat, author of Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, says,

“Al-Qa’eda intrinsically lacks any sort of social and political program and thus is unlikely to succeed in mobilizing a concerted national dissent against a concrete national state” (p.238).

The seriousness with which Islamists claim to want an “Islamic State” seems to be lacking, in spite their rhetoric, slogans, and symbols.

When author and scholar, Fawaz Gerges, asked Kamal al-Said Habib, a top former leader of the al-Jihad terrorist organization in Egypt, if al-Jihad was “truly prepared to establish a viable Islamic government,” Habib replied,

“Thank God, we did not win, because we would have constructed a state along the same authoritarian lines as the ones existing in the Muslim world. We had no vision or an intellectual framework of what a state is or how it functions and how it should be administered, except that it should express and approximate the Islamic ideal. While I cannot predict that our state would have been totalitarian, we had little awareness of the challenges that needed to be overcome.”

Indeed the Islamists’ rhetoric of creating an “Islamic state” has always been louder than action. They would need to adapt to the needs of society in a more sophisticated and informed manner for any possibility of surviving.

Harvard scholar, Noah Feldman, attributes the ignorance of a blueprint for society by Islamists partly because Islamists are usually not religious scholars:

“The Islamists would…like to acknowledge what they refer to as God’s ‘sovereignty.’ But without the scholars to fulfill the role of authorized interpreters of God’s law, the Islamists find themselves in difficulties when they try to explain how and why Islamic law should govern.”

Feldman continues,

“For most of the last century, Islamist literature has basically avoided dealing with the issue. It presents Islamic law as a promising source for social salvation, with no serious attempt made to explain, constitutionally or theologically, what would justify its adoption and implementation.”

Had setting up an Islamic State been so important to most Islamist groups, why did they not give religious scholars the highest priority to advise the government on how its set-up should be? Rather, the religious scholars have been marginalized by Islamist governments, which illustrates that Islamists are not concerned about creating an Islamic State, in spite of their rhetoric.

If Islamists in general are unsure, unclear, and seemingly unserious about establishing an Islamic State, much less a  global caliphate, their claims should be interpreted as mere saber-rattling rhetoric without genuine substance.  

[[1]] Jeffry R. Halverson et al., “How Extremists Quote the Quran.” Center for Strategic Communication, Arizona State University. http://csc.asu.edu/wp-content/uploads/pdf/csc1202-quran-verses.pdf

[[2]] Ibid.

[[3]] Steven Kull et al., “Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda.” International Policy Attitudes Program, University of Maryland. April 24, 2007. http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/apr07/START_Apr07_rpt.pdf

[[4]] S. Telhami, op. cit.,p.117.

[[5]] J. Esposito and D. Mogahed, op. cit., pg.5.

[[6]] C. Onal, op. cit.

[[7]] Cumali, Onal, “Goal of Muslim Brotherhood Not to Bring Back Caliphate,” Today’s Zaman, September 16, 2012, accessed May 25 2013,http://www.todayszaman.com/news-292466-goal-of-muslim-brotherhood-not-to-bring-back-caliphate.html

[[8]] Juan, Cole, May 15, 2013 (6:25 p.m.), “Fear Not the Muslim Brotherhood Boogeyman,” Juan Cole’s Columns –Truthdig, February 15, 2011, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/fear_not_the_muslim_brotherhood_boogeyman_20110215/

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