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The Caliphate Beyond ISIS: An Interview with Salman Sayyid (Part Two)

Contemporary discussions about the concept of the caliphate almost invariably turn to its application at the hands of the Islamic State. Challenging this trend in his recent book, Recalling the Caliphate, Salman Sayyid examines the historical conception of the caliphate and its meaning for Muslim polities. In this second part of the interview with Sayyid, he identifies the prevailing divisions across Islamic societies that have manifested in recent political contestations and offers a far more nuanced approach to the predominant secular/religious binary used to analyze these conflicts. Junaid Ahmad conducted the interview in Lahore, Pakistan. He was assisted by Sania Sufi and Osama Iqbal.

Junaid Ahmad (JA): Your reference to the caliphate, which appears in the title of your book, is generally provocative in these times of intense Islamophobia which prevents intelligent discussion about such concepts, but is even more so in the era of ISIS. Please elaborate on both what you understand the caliphate to mean in a more specific and narrow sense, as well as—and more importantly—what it has and continues to signify and symbolize in a broader sense for Muslims living in a world where they experience various cruelties and injustices. Also, could you offer your insights on the emergence of ISIS? What is its relationship to this broader discourse around the caliphate, if any? 

Salman Sayyid (SS): Let me start by saying something about the caliphate. As my work rejects literalism, my take on the caliphate cannot be reduced to ossified formulas of Orientalist or Muslim classical tradition. The book is not a history of the Rashidun, or Abbasids, Fatimids or Ottomans, or the rulers of Sokoto, let alone any contemporary ruler or warlord. Only a very perverse (or superficial) reading of Recalling the Caliphate would see in its pages an endorsement of any existing Muslim governmental structure (whether it be Iran or Turkey or the warlords of the Euphrates). The book belongs to the genre of political theory. My focus is on the meaning of the caliphate for Muslims, rather a study of a specific arrangement of institutions or a blueprint to be implemented in the not too distant future. I am interested in the caliphate as a political idea, and its limits and possibilities. 

My focus on the caliphate starts from the argument (which I made in my earlier book, A Fundamental Fear) about the emergence of Islamism. Islamism is not a permanent let alone continuous feature in Islamicate history. Rather it emerges out of a set of specific conditions symbolized by the de facto abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal. Recent scholarship has increasingly demonstrated that, contrary to Orientalist accounts, the loss of the caliphate in 1924 was experienced as a traumatic event, and for Muslims it was precisely a signifier of continuity, unity, and possible recovery. As long as the caliphate existed, Muslim political thinking was confined to arguments around questions about who could be the caliph, the qualities and qualifications of a person who wanted to be caliph, etc. Even among the madhahib, which reject certain caliphs as being tyrannical or illegitimate, there was not a rejection of the caliphate itself. The abolition meant that political thought could no longer be restricted to questions of individuals who would make good caliphs but became wider to include ideas such as what kind of government was legitimate and necessary for Muslims.

Islamism can then be seen in very broad terms as those movements and projects that seek to establish a political and social order centered on Islam. The caliphate represents the possibility of a legitimate political structure centered on Islam, which is able to act independently and not be a client of non-Muslim major powers. The appeal of the caliphate is that it is a symbol of the possibilities that Muslim can be agents rather than victims, that they can have governments that are just, accountable, and competent. Hence, the caliphate represents a great power that transcends the national, sectarian, and ethnic divides among Muslims. This is precisely the opposite of ISIL’s vision.  

This should not be that surprising because ISIL is not the culmination of Islamism but rather a development of late Ba’thism, the kind that saw Saddam Hussein inscribe “Allahu Akbar” on the Iraqi flag. Not only is ISIL staffed by Ba’thist cadre, but its modus operandi is decidedly Ba’thist, based as it is on the exemplary and continuous use of cruelty and fear to make-up for its deficit of legitimacy. ISIL declared the caliphate because of their dispute with al-Qa’ida and the desire to trump their establishment of emirates. ISIL made a virtue of its failure to capture an existing state. Its transnationalism is a function of military expediency, and its takfiri exclusivism restricts any genuine attempt to go beyond national and sectarian divisions.

JA: Turning to an important insight—and broader analysis—that emerged from your earlier work, A Fundamental Fear, can you briefly describe (for those not familiar with the arguments in that work) how you locate the rise of Islamism in Muslimistan? In particular, speak about this development in relation to the hegemony of Kemalist ideology for the better part of the twentieth century.

SS: A Fundamental Fear rejects the analysis which saw the rise of political Islam as automatically arising from a combination of factors including petro-dollars, rural-urban migration, the crushing of the Left. These factors do not explain why Islamism emerges. At most these factors could explain why a society was undergoing a crisis, but they cannot explain why Islamism would appear as a response to the crisis, without a prior move in which Islam is seen as the essence of these societies.

The alternative I presented saw Islamism as emerging in a political horizon dominated by the elaboration of Kemalism in the wake of the de facto abolition of the caliphate. Kemalism for me was not just set of ideas and values of Mustafa Kemal and leaders of the Turkish Republic. Rather it was a political discourse that transcended Turkey to embrace all the Muslim Ummah. The abolition of the caliphate was not a matter of local detail but rather an event that signaled the beginning of Islamicate political theory. This required me to see not so much an underlying Muslim essence but to detect a system of interactions and connections which could not and would not be framed within the boundaries of the nation-state. This was a challenge to the nationalist historiographies and methodologies that continue to plague the study of Islam and Muslims. (It is gratifying to see how recent scholarship has begun to uncover these lost interactions. I refer for example to the recent edited volume Global Muslims in the Age of Stream and Print ed. by James Gelvin and Nile Green). The argument I made was that Kemalism was an attempt to marginalize the Muslimness of various populations. Kemalism in my usage refers to a family of overlapping concepts and projects which displace Islam. Kemalism rejects the belief that Muslims constitute a viable collective identity capable of acting in the world. Kemalists build their political structures around national-ethnic identifications.

Islamists reject Kemalism and struggle to make Islam central to any social order and establish Muslim autonomy. These struggles are multi-faceted and include attempts to form governments, change cultures, reform societies and rewrite histories. Islamism is not just a manifestation of the manifestos of organizations such as Muslim Brotherhood, Hizballah, Jamat-Islami, and Hamas.

One way of telling the history of the Islamicate following the abolition of the caliphate is to see it as a struggle between Kemalism and Islamism. From 1924 until 1947 one could argue that Kemalism was dominant throughout Muslimistan.

The Pakistan Movements’ success in establishing the largest Muslim polity in 1947–containing one third of Muslims in the world–and mobilizing Muslimness as a political agency was a major interruption of the Kemalist order. As recent scholarship has begun to demonstrate, Pakistan was not just conjured out of thin air by the divide or rule machinations of the British raj or the play of vanities of Jinnah, Nehru, Mountbatten, and Gandhi but rather reflected an intellectual-moral struggle to establish a new Medina.  

The idea of Pakistan rejected Kemalism since it argued that Muslims did constitute a political community. The mobilization of Muslimness that propelled Pakistan into the world was abandoned and the ensuing state was recuperated into Kemalism. The second, more sustained challenge to Kemalism was the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which established the possibility that Muslimness was sufficient to constitute the overthrow of the second oldest Kemalist state and establish an Islamist political structure.

JA: Can you then go on to possibly locate the Arab Spring (and/or Arab Winter) within your analysis? Some may argue that the Arab Spring represented an attempt to usher in secular, Western-style liberalism, rather than anything particularly Islamic. What are your thoughts?

SS: The so-called Arab Spring has been most often described as a revolt of Westernized, secularized youth, the latest instance of the democratic wave which toppled authoritarian regimes in southern Europe in 1970s, southern cone in 1980s, Eastern Europe in 1990s. This explanation is very popular among Western and Westoxicated audiences. For them the pictures on CNN and BBC–showing young people in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, wearing jeans, using social media, seemingly captivated by the appeal of Western prosperity and democracy–was very seductive. This representation confirms for Westerners and the Westoxicated that the West is the ultimate source of liberation. Such beliefs are based on the assumption that liberation can only be achieved by imitating the West. Alas, for the rest of us on this planet, things are far-less clear-cut. Outside Eastern Europe, most of the people of the world have not experienced the West as the vanguard of emancipation; rather they have been the subjects of Western empires and exploitation. After all, almost ninety per cent of the people ruled by London, Paris, and Amsterdam had virtually no political rights.

The idea that the Arab Spring was secular is based on a rather confused idea about what Islamism is and what secularism is. Even Western coverage of protests would wonder aloud at how big the crowds would be after Jummah prayers. So clearly, the signifier of Islam was present in the Arab Spring. Wearing jeans or using social media are not very useful markers of working out the political orientation of those who opposed the tyrannies of Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and Bahrain. Like any popular eruption, the Arab Spring contained many disparate elements, who created a common front through opposition to what were Kemalist dictatorships. These mass gatherings included hundreds and thousands of people who then went on to vote for Islamist-type parties. They also included, in some cases, many liberals and secularists who cheered as the Kemalist deep state launched its coup in Egypt.

The Sisi regime has sought to liquidate the Muslim Brotherhood. In this endeavor it has been supported or at least not opposed by large swathes of so-called liberal and secular opinion in Egypt. The Arab Spring was not hijacked by Islamism rather it was crushed by the Kemalist reaction. The Arab Spring and continuing upheavals associated with it are a product of structural changes in the international system. These include the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Mukhabarat states, and the deepening decolonization within the Islamicate networks.

JA: What are some lessons we can learn from our non-Muslim counterparts engaged in the struggle to decolonize? For example, many Latin American perspectives blatantly reject Western liberal democracy which they argue reproduces class domination and neocolonial authoritarianism. What parallels can be drawn between decolonization in the non-Muslim as well as Muslim world? Does the difference in religion add a layer of complexity to decolonial reforms in Muslimistan?

SS: I think a proper decolonial understanding of Muslimistan would not be so quick to conclude that best way of understanding Islam is as a religion (whatever that may mean). I make this argument in Recalling the Caliphate. Therefore, I am not sure what weight to give, a priori, to religious differences with the non-Muslim global South. However, I think that the broader point is absolutely the way to go: we need to increase our literacy in the historical experiences of the countries of the global South in general. I think for Pakistan, the Latin American experience can provide comparative and relational insights (e.g. the role of the military as a “progressive” engine of social change, strategies of managing oligarchies, experiments in socioeconomic management, etc.).

JA: Muslim intellectuals such as Syed Naquib Al Attas, Ismail Al Faruqi, and others viewed the “Islamization of Knowledge” project as an epistemological and socio-political solution to Western secular hegemony in the Muslim world. Do you have any comments regarding the project? In particular, are there any parallels to be drawn between its epistemological framework and your view of decolonial reforms in Muslimistan? How can the Islamization of Knowledge connect to the broader goal of decolonization? 

SS: I briefly discuss the Islamization of Knowledge project in Recalling the Caliphate. I remain broadly sympathetic to the aims of the endeavor but somewhat skeptical about its ability to deliver meaningful transformations which would change practice. For me, epistemological questions cannot be easily divorced from broader cultural questions. In the end, politics trumps philosophy. I am not sure that an Islamization of knowledge (or for that matter anything else) is possible without prior decolonization. Having said that, I am open to a more sustained dialogue with such an approach.

JA: What do you think is the principal fault line that exists within the world of Muslimistan today? Do you think it is still between the forces of Kemalism and Islamism? Or is the main conflict perhaps between the forces calling for better—more transparent, accountable, and justgovernance as opposed to the standard tyrannical and corrupt setup that reigns supreme in large parts of Muslimistan? 

SS: I think the forces of Kemalism and Islamism do not represent two sets of political movements, let alone organizations, with clear membership and party programs. Rather than two contending blocs, I suggest Kemalism and Islamism are better understood as two antagonistic logics. Alas, this is a crucial distinction that many of the critics of A Fundamental Fear found difficult. For them my insistence that the Saudi clan ruled through a logic of Kemalism seemed to go against the grain of what they understood about rule from Riyadh. They were more comfortable with idea that Kemalism was to be found among the Ba’thists of Syria and Iraq, Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya, Suharto in Indonesia. The identity of a political project and its meaning is not merely a function of its content, but rather how the content is articulated in relation to other elements. So for example, the Pahlavi regime was dominated by the logic of Kemalism even though it was a monarchy. The elements of the logic of Kemalism (or Islamism) are not based on one essence but rather they share a family resemblance that is constituted by drawing the boundaries of the family so that it excludes some potential members and includes others. This why attempts to assert that Islamism is defined by the institutionalization of sharia miss the point, because the sharia itself sits in relation to other institutional arrangements, which transform its meaning.

Political logics are attempts to form collective formations. The type of logic determines the various articulations that go into forming this collective subject. Therefore, I would argue that the logics of Kemalism and Islamism are still structuring the major conflicts throughout the Ummah. Throughout the Muslim Ummah, there is a spiraling conflict between those who advocate autonomy for Muslims and those who oppose it. Given that these conflicts are divided in over many local contexts, it is inevitable that they are going to be expressed in different forms. These forms will be not be reducible to an essence, but a series of overlapping commonalities.

The view from realist and positivist accounts of international relations, however, would see political logics as little more than ideological fronts for the exercise of fundamental and permanent geopolitical interests. So that we have Riyadh and Tehran waging a regional cold war under the banner of sectarian conflict. While such a view is beloved of foreign policy apparatchiks, and a product of the Eurocentric power/knowledge complex that is one of the pillars of the Western global hegemony, it is inadequate for the world we are living in. Its popularity is a sign of general illiteracy in understanding the constitutive nature of the political.

I think the point you make about the conflict between those who want accountability and transparent government is key. I would reformulate it as the constitution of a collective formation in favor of Muslim autonomy. I would call this logic Islamism. Those who oppose the formation of such a constituency can be described as Kemalists. 


[Click here to read Part 1 of this interview]

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