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We are always trying to help our readers understand the nature and worldview of fundamentalist Islam. This Post article helps readers to understand the topic of the Caliphate to ordinary Muslims.
Reunified Islam: Unlikely but Not Entirely Radical
Restoration of Caliphate, Resonates With Mainstream Muslims
By Karl Vick
For the whole article, go to Washington Post

The goal of reuniting Muslims under a single flag stands at the heart of the radical Islamic ideology Bush has warned of repeatedly in recent major speeches on terrorism. In language evoking the Cold War, Bush has cast the conflict in Iraq as the pivotal battleground in a larger contest between advocates of freedom and those who seek to establish “a totalitarian Islamic empire reaching from Spain to Indonesia .”

The enthusiasm of the extremists for that vision is not disputed. However unlikely its realization, the ambition may help explain terrorist acts that often appear beyond understanding. Al Qaeda named its Internet newscast, which debuted in September, “The Voice of the Caliphate.”

Yet the caliphate is also esteemed by many ordinary Muslims. For most, its revival is not an urgent concern.

But Muslims regard themselves as members of the umma, or community of believers, that forms the heart of Islam. And as earthly head of that community, the caliph is cherished both as memory and ideal, interviews indicate.

Caliph, from the Arabic word khalifa , means successor to the prophet Muhammad. Competition for the title caused the schism between Shiite and Sunni lines of the faith, and the Shiites soon stopped selecting caliphs. But in the dominant Sunni tradition, the office embodied the ultimate religious and political authority, enabling Ottoman sultans to hold together an empire across three continents for more than 500 years. Ataturk appealed to Muslim solidarity in the battle to drive European powers off the Anatolian peninsula after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire .

But while Turks won self-rule, most of the former caliphate was divided among European colonial powers. One Arab scholar called it “the division of Muslim lands into measly pieces which call themselves nations.”

Al Qaeda thrived in Afghanistan when the Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar, was called “Commander of the Faithful,” a caliphic title. In his book published online shortly after Sept. 11, bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, declared that terror attacks would “be nothing more than disturbing acts, regardless of their magnitude” unless they led to a caliphate in the “heart of the Islamic world.”

The American-led invasion of Iraq provided an opportunity to do just that, Zawahiri apparently wrote last year to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who heads the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq. In the version of the letter posted on a U.S. government Web site, Zawahiri said only the presence of foreign occupiers had stirred “the Muslim masses” to action. He advised Zarqawi to use Iraq ‘s Sunni areas as the base for “an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate.”

The letter, which Bush has paraphrased at length, also calls for attacking Israel “because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.”

“This is something that is characteristic of our time, to reestablish an ideological empire,” said Serif Mardin, a leading Turkish scholar on political Islam. “A sweet caliph of ancient times is overwhelmed by this modern military idea. I mean, the caliph is supposed to be a nice guy.

“These are the terrible simplifiers of Islam,” Mardin added, “and I’m not sure this simplification of Islam really ‘takes’ on all social levels.”

A Single Voice

The notion of caliphate as coalescing institution endures even here in secular Turkey .

“I wish there was a caliphate again, because if there was a caliphate all the Muslims would unite,” said Ertugul Orel, in a sweater and tie at the sidewalk cafe he owns outside Istanbul ‘s vast Hagia Sophia, an iconic building to both Christians and Muslims. “There would be one voice. But I know neither the American nor the Europeans will ever allow it.”