The Magazine

A Sultan with Swat

Remembering Abdul Hamid II, a pro-American caliph.

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By MUSTAFA AKYOL
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Such acts of statesmanship make painfully obvious that if there are any religious leaders in the Muslim world today who walk in the footsteps of the great caliph, they are not the terrorist leaders of al Qaeda, but rather the peacemakers such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who have been trying to defuse the violence in Iraq by cooperating with coalition forces and calming fellow Muslims. When terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his big brother Osama bin Laden portray themselves as warriors for the caliphate, they totally misrepresent the historical meaning and function of this Islamic institution. What they do is "hijack" the caliphate--to borrow a term from President Bush--as much as the faith it represents.

The caliphate was abolished in March 1924 by that supreme secularizer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Young Turk hero of World War I and the Turkish war of independence. Despite strong opposition in the Turkish National Parliament, Ataturk dethroned and expelled the last caliph, Abdulmecid Efendi, a cousin of Abdul Hamid, and outlawed all Islamic institutions including the Sufi orders. The 1,300-year-old leadership of Islam was destroyed overnight.

Today many Turks see this act as a great leap forward in Turkey's modernization. Yet it also had terrible side effects. The religious Kurds, who had been loyal to the Ottoman state for centuries, mainly out of Islamic brotherhood, were shaken. In 1925, a group of them revolted against secular Turkey with the aim of reestablishing the caliphate. They were crushed, and this trauma was the source of Turkey's never-ending Kurdish question.

Indeed, the excesses of the Kemalist revolution poisoned the very notion of modernization for many devout Muslims all over the world. Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, inspired by Kemal, became an even more enthusiastic secularizer and tried to de-Islamicize his society by force--ordering police, for example, to rip the veils off women in the streets. The response, in the long run, would be Ayatollah Khomeini.

And in the Sunni Arab world, the end of the caliphate left a vacuum of authority that was filled by myriad radical, revolutionary, or fundamentalist movements. The worst was Wahhabism, the product of a revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century that the caliphs suppressed. In the post-caliphate disorder, Wahhabism found fertile ground for spreading its antimodern and inhumane distortion of Islam.

One antidote to that violent heresy is to recover the spirit of Islamic modernity personified by the piano-playing Sufi, Abdul Hamid II. There really is a third way between the spurning of all faith and militant Islamism, and that is what the Islamic world needs today.

Mustafa Akyol is a writer based in Istanbul.