The return of the caliphate?

muslim worldThis morning's Washington Post contained an example of something I believe we need to see more in America's newspapers. Karl Vick of the Washington Post Foreign Service details in an A1 story a current hot issue in Muslim communities regarding the ground swelling of support for the return of a caliphate to unite believers of Islam. How often do Americans hear terms like caliphate or khalifa and names like Ataturk or Hizb ut-Tahrir? We're used to simpler terms like radical and extremist that do not come close to explaining the historical and religious background surrounding the United States' recent military actions in the Middle East. Part of this is due to the nation's leaders, but that does not absolve journalists and the organizations for which they work.

Here's what I'm talking about:

Yet the caliphate is also esteemed by many ordinary Muslims. For most, its revival is not an urgent concern. Public opinion polls show immediate issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and discrimination rank as more pressing. 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.

That reservoir of respect represents a risk for the Bush administration as it addresses an issue closely watched by a global Islamic population estimated at 1.2 billion. Already, many surveys show that since the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Muslims almost universally have seen the war against terrorism as a war on Islam.

"Why do you keep invading Muslim countries?" asked Kerem Acar, a tailor in central Istanbul. "I won't live to see it, and my children won't, but one day maybe my children's children will see someone declare himself the caliph, like the pope, and have an impact."

For news purposes, the article focuses on the "what if factor." The headline -- Reunified Islam: Unlikely but Not Entirely Radical -- is lame and doesn't represent the true nature of the story very well, but I should not complain as I am a less than average headline writer and the more appropriate "history of why Muslims are not united" would not draw many eyeballs.

Tmatt has for months called for newspapers to do this type of background story -- magazines tend to be a bit better -- and while this article is a good step in the right direction, it is limited by its narrow focus. Perhaps a series of articles is justified at this point? With key political events occurring in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan this month, Americans would be well served to know the historical backgrounds and the significance of the events.

The final paragraphs of the Post story point to the future and deserve a significant follow-up, somewhere:

"Bush is saying they would establish a caliphate from Spain to Indonesia," said Abdullatif, the group's spokesman in Copenhagen. "The establishment of the caliphate will come by those who work hard." He said Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Iraq were working to coax a united front with insurgent groups.

As the Hizb ut-Tahrir meeting in Copenhagen broke for evening prayers, Muziz Abdullah, an affable native of Lebanon, surveyed a hall still with standing-room only. "Ten years ago, when I started, it was totally unrealistic to think there could be a caliphate," he said. "But now, people believe it could happen in a few years."

Could there be a caliphate representing Muslims from Spain to Indonesia in the next few years? If it were somehow to happen, it would be the most significant event of the century so far. It's certainly something worth following.

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