Reunified Islam: Unlikely but Not Entirely Radical

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 14, 2006

ISTANBUL -- The plan was to fly a hijacked plane into a national landmark on live television. The year was 1998, the country was Turkey, and the rented plane ended up grounded by weather. Court records show the Islamic extremist who planned to commandeer the cockpit did not actually know how to fly.

But if the audacious scheme prefigured Sept. 11, 2001, it also highlighted a cause that, seven years later, President Bush has used to define the war against terrorism. What the ill-prepared Turkish plotters told investigators they aimed to do was strike a dramatic blow toward reviving Islam's caliphate, the institution that had nominally governed the world's Muslims for nearly all of the almost 1,400 years since the death of the prophet Muhammad.

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. When Osama bin Laden called the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "a very small thing compared to this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years," the reference was to the aftermath of World War I, when the last caliphate was suspended as European powers divided up the Middle East. 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. 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."

The issue comes into sharp relief in Turkey, which is often held up as a democratic model for other Muslim nations but where empathy with fellow believers runs deep -- as Karen Hughes, a presidential adviser and undersecretary of state, was reminded in September when angry complaints about civilian casualties in Iraq dominated a public appearance in Ankara, the capital.

Here, the last caliph, an urbane scholar, Abdulmecid Efendi, was unseated in March 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the charismatic military officer who conceived modern Turkey as an exemplar of the system that places sovereignty in the nation-state rather than faith. Importing from France the notion that religion had no place in public life, Ataturk decreed that Islamic religious law was second to "the rule of law" by the state.

Ataturk's mausoleum, on a hilltop where Turkish officials had gathered to honor his memory, was ground zero for the 1998 plot. Its ringleader, Metin Kaplan, was imprisoned in Turkey after being extradited from Germany, where he was known as the "Caliph of Cologne." Many Turks found the grandiloquent title less than amusing, said Husnu Tuna, his attorney.

"People called me when I took this case and asked, 'Why are you defending a person who lowers the value of an Islamic concept?' " Tuna said. "I heard that both from individuals and from officials, including police and security."

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.

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