Small Wars Journal

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

The Clash of the Caliphates:

Understanding the Real War of Ideas

by Tony Corn

Download The Full Article: The Clash of the Caliphates: Understanding the Real War of Ideas

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.

Download The Full Article: The Clash of the Caliphates: Understanding the Real War of Ideas

Dr. Tony Corn, a frequent contributor to SWJ, worked in public diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC and at the U.S. Missions to the EU and to NATO in Brussels. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of State.

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deborah (not verified)

Wed, 05/25/2011 - 2:54pm

At the end of the day, when these countries end up outing their monarchs and strong men the amount of infighting afterwards will be such that it could be ages before any caliphates could form. I hate to say it but given the sect problem and tribal rivalries these guys are just going to go to war with each other probably after a brief period when they band together to destroy Israel.

d (not verified)

Sun, 04/03/2011 - 3:31pm

Corn's views are paradigmatic. When paradigms shift many do not make the transition.

Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Secretary of Defense and Anne-Marie Slaughter, recently Director of Policy Planning at the State Department disagree with Corn and see the current expression of dissent as connected to the under 30 generation across different countries.

I hesitate to call it a digitzed Pan Arabism, but Corn's view of same same is ossified.


Sun, 03/27/2011 - 3:00pm

If you are a secularist, you take what opportunity you get to wave the flag!
about the caliphate:

You are welcome to your views. To me, its not a theoretical debate about how any idea may be valid. Its a practical debate about what ideas may work in the near future and what ideas passed their "sell-by" date a long time ago. If someone still claims to believe in them, sure, why not? but one can still have an opinion about how likely it is that the spruce goose will fly...

Ahmad (not verified)

Sun, 03/27/2011 - 7:09am


I just found it a bit strange that you would devalue looking at a topic like "caliphates" from a values/theological perspective. The caliphate is a bit of theological issue at the end of the day.

It was also a bit strange to see you indirectly affirm the existence of these "caliphates" while rejecting the "caliphate" as "a framework the world has left behind," and one which will never sprout its head ever again.

Moreover, despite the fact that this caliphate idea is simply "a dog that don't hunt", you feel that the caliphates will do more damage to one another than any infidel could. A lot of damage, but just minus the "hunting?"

With these contradictions, it's easy to get the impression that this was all an opportunity to take some stabs and do some flag waving for secularism.


Sun, 03/27/2011 - 12:55am

ahmed, I am not "dismissing values based politics". I am saying "caliphate" may have a role in some fashion but is still secondary to many other considerations here.
AQ may take the "caliphate" very seriously, but they are not ruling any of the countries mentioned. There is a reason why all the countries mentioned (even Pakistan) are not exactly rushing to hand power to AQ or Hizb ul Tahrir.
I am happy to take a bet that we will not see an actual functioning transnational caliphate based in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Egypt in the next whatever number of years. This dog don't hunt. Which does not mean nobody believes in the dog or even that the dog doesnt exist. But he ain't hunting..
Some parts of Pakistan may indeed declare themselves a caliphate someday (they already named themselves "emirate" a couple of times) but again, I am happy to bet that no other "Muslim nation" except Afghanistan will be found willing to join that blessed caliphate.

ahmad (not verified)

Sat, 03/26/2011 - 11:07am

Omar, why do you automatically dismiss values-based politics as useless?

When you are dealing with people who believe in values, realpolitik will make you confused.

The common adage that basing politics on interests is much simpler and easier to handle than basing them on values is a bit misleading when you are dealing with people who have clear and defined value systems.

When you deal with AQ, are you going to dismiss values and make them completely useless in determining how to deal with them and how to counter their next move?

Don't just buy into everything you hear.


Fri, 03/25/2011 - 2:49pm

Some quick comments after a very quick read:

1. Pakistan gets dissed in this post. ISI will not be happy. We have 200 nuclear bombs and vast ambitions and the only caliphates mentioned are Iranian, Turkish and Saudi? We object...

2. Iran as Chinese ally and Saudia as American...seems a bit of a stretch.

3. Turkish and Saudi versions are not as far apart as the writer thinks. Again, maybe too much emphasis on theology and not enough on realpolitik. Turkey and Saudia can cooperate in some cases down the line.

4. But overall, I do agree that the competing caliphates will fight each other more viciously than any infidel will fight them.

4. But having said that, I think this pays too much attention to frameworks the world has left behind. Lessons already learnt in Europe are not hermetically sealed off from the Middle East. The modern world will not see any of these caliphates get too far....


Thu, 03/24/2011 - 7:56pm

Dr. Corn,

Despite my fundamental disagreements with your underlying premise of the threat of Islam to the 'West' I nonetheless find this to be a very interesting and educational article and I appreciate the time required to research, write, and post it to SWJ.

"Good fences make good neighbors", simply put, the differences between the West and Islam are manageable.