TCS Daily

The Caliphate's Rebirth?

By Carroll Andrew Morse - March 2, 2006 12:00 AM

In a recent TCS Daily article, James Pinkerton encouraged people to consider a long view in the war-on-terror, particularly with respect to the enemy's goals. The Islamist goal is much more than boosting their sense of importance or driving the United States out of the Middle East. At bare minimum, the Islamist goal is restoration of the Caliphate -- a unified, earthly Muslim empire. Pinkerton describes a restored Caliphate in terms of a traditional "great power," an Islamist controlled super-state or federation stretching from Morocco to Central Asia.

But Islamists need not consolidate a great-power imperial core to exert influence and expand their reach. Instead of focusing on uniting a modern Caliphate in areas outside of the West, the more effective strategy for Islamists may be to nurture the growth of the Caliphate within the West. Demography, as Mark Steyn recently observed in an essay for the New Criterion (reprinted here), makes this strategy workable. Birthrates in many European countries are too low to replace the existing populations, yet Europe needs bodies to sustain its economies and its welfare states. The Muslim lands near Europe, where high birthrates are the norm, are the closest source available to Europe for replenishing its population, making real the possibility that immigration could transform Europe into a Muslim-dominated region long before the feudal monarchies, police states, and Islamist governments (and now democracies) of the Middle East resolve their differences.

Given these trends, the continuing uproar in the wake of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons depicting the image of the Prophet Mohammed could become the rule, and not the exception, for the expansion of Islamist influence. Instead of imposing Islamic law through formal control of governments, Islamists might envision expanding the Caliphate by imposing one Islamic law at a time in places where large enough populations are willing to ignore local civil law and take enforcement of Islamic law into their own hands.

The success of such a program depends on non-Muslims not putting up much of a fight as the societies around them become increasingly restrictive. Steyn believes that Europeans, overwhelmed by demographic trends and lacking what he labels the "civilizational confidence" to defend their principles, might eventually submit.

Contrary to Steyn's assertion, however, the problem for Western liberals tends not to be a lack of confidence, but an overabundance of confidence in the wrong places. The progressive West doesn't lack confidence in its culture as much as it doesn't really believe that its culture -- or anyone's culture -- matters much. Western progressivism, secular and rationalist, has become defined by its belief that a perfect society here on earth can be brought about through the proper manipulation of material factors. Traditions and ideas that have played key roles in the success of the West -- such as freedom of expression -- are considered to be secondary factors.

Radical Islamists also seek to actively create a perfect society here on earth, though their definition of perfection obviously differs from the progressive definition. Radical Islamism has its roots in movements, like the Wahhabi movement founded in eighteenth-century Arabia and the Salafi movement founded in nineteenth-century Egypt, that seek to restore Islam to an idealized seventh-century form. What Western observers tend to overlook is that these movements do not only reject modernity in a Western sense, but also reject much of Islamic tradition. But since no one at the founding of Wahhabism or Salafism was around to see what Islam was really like in the seventh century, what they are trying to restore is based upon idealized images of what should be, not anything that ever was. In this sense, radical Islam is as utopian as Western progressivism.

Thus, when progressives confront radical Islamists, the result is two sides, each -- for different reasons -- disinterested in the traditions and culture and habits that have shaped the West, each confident that their version of an idealized utopia will prevail over whatever exists now.

The problem -- for progressives -- is that Islamists are willing to fight to impose their beliefs, while progressives don't believe that they need to fight for theirs. Modern progressive secular faith includes a belief that history follows an inevitable path driving people away from ideologies and cultures that don't promise earthly rewards and towards a state-centric philosophy that promises to deliver material comfort. Eventually, everyone's cultural and ideological differences will fall to the side, because everyone will desire to work together in a system that delivers generous welfare and cradle-to-grave healthcare.

But what Western progressives and multicultural liberals view as sensitivity -- like calls for "self-restraint" on free expression -- that is intended to ease the transition of those from outside of the West into Western provider states, Islamists view as a sign of weakness. They see a willingness to accept practices incompatible with the concept of freedom as a willingness to surrender cherished principles when the demand for surrender is made forcefully enough. Ultimately, if the West is led by those unwilling to defend Western ideals because they believe that impersonal material forces are, by themselves, enough to sustain the vibrancy of the West, then liberal Western governance may find itself replaced from within by a restored Caliphate that rose to power because the rejection of important principles like the freedom of expression went unchallenged.

The author is a TCS contributing writer.


TCS Daily Archives