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The Clash of the Caliphates: Understanding the Real War of Ideas

March 24, 2011

Small Wars Journal, 24 March 2011: There are plenty of reasons to view with skepticism the claim that the current turmoil in the Middle East constitutes a progressive “Arab Spring.” In Egypt alone, 82 percent of the population today support stoning for adultery, 84 percent are in favor of the death penalty for apostasy, and 79 percent would view the emergence of a nuclear Iran as a positive development. If that qualifies as an Arab Spring, one has to wonder what an Arab Fall would look like.

But the one issue that the West should not be unduly concerned with is the fact that 67 percent of Egyptians are in favor of the restoration of the Caliphate.

For one thing, within the global umma, there appears to be as many conceptions of the ideal Caliphate as there are Muslims. This grass-roots longing for a symbol of unity should be heard with the proverbial Freudian “third ear,” and seen for what it really is, i.e., a symptom rather than a disease. For another, by agreeing to establish diplomatic relations with the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), America and Europe have, in essence, already granted the OIC the status of a Quasi-Caliphate.

More important still, it is time for Western policy-makers to realize that the ideological rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has been going on since 1979 constitutes nothing less than a Clash of the Caliphates. Through a soft power strategy blurring the distinction between “public diplomacy” and “political warfare,” “humanitarian aid” and “religious propaganda,” the two states have been the main drivers of the re-Islamization process throughout the Muslim world. The one-upmanship dynamic generated by the rivalry between these two fundamentalist regimes is the main reason why, from the Balkans to Pakistan, the re-Islamization of the global umma has taken a radical, rather than moderate, dimension.

The bad news is that this Saudi-Iranian Cold War has the potential to escalate today into a hot war in the Gulf (Bahrain). The good news is that the Saudi-Iranian ideological duopoloy is being increasingly challenged by the return of Turkey on the Muslim stage. The global export of “Turkish Islam” has the potential to rollback Saudi and Iranian fundamentalisms and significantly alter the “theo-political balance of power” in the Muslim world.

Within the U.S. national security community, the Islamic Resurgence has so far been framed either in terms of a Leaderless Jihad (the CT approach) or of a Global Insurgency (the COIN approach). While useful at the tactical and operational levels, this approach gives too much importance to non-state actors at the expense of state actors. Reframing the Islamic Resurgence in terms of a Clash of the Caliphates is a necessary, if not sufficient, prerequisite for a better understanding of the strategic challenge ahead, and for the elaboration of an effective communication strategy.

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