Historian James Reston Jr.—yes, that's Scotty Reston’s son—has a questionable opinion piece on NPR’s Morning Edition program today. In “Bush Administration Misuses the Word ‘Caliphate,’” an NPR announcer mentions the alleged Ayman al-Zawahiri letter saying that one of Al-Qa’ida’s main goals after the U.S. leaves Iraq is the establishment of a “caliphate” in the Middle East, noting that Rumsfeld and others have invoked the term as a “warning to the West about terrorist designs.”
From here, Mr. Reston argues that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has misappropriated “caliphate”:
The secretary is putting this word out as a warning, saying that Americans must beware of a terrorist scheme to establish a totalitarian caliphate stretching all the way from Indonesia across the Middle East to Spain. This is nonsense. To be sure, the concept sounds menacing as it evokes scary images of bloodthirsty Oriental despots in black turbans and silk caftans. To the Islamic world, however, this will be seen as yet another slur on Arab history. The caliphates of Medina, Baghdad, Cairo, Istanbul and Cairo, Spain represent the height of Arab and Islamic achievement.
Reston continues by saying that the first four caliphs ruled with the political support of the vast majority of their populace and were also religious leaders:
It should not be forgotten that the defense of the faith is at the heart of the resistance to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. To slur the word “caliphate” is to insult the chief function of the caliph: To defend the lands of Islam against foreign invaders.
Reston then notes that we are involved in a “clash of civilizations” with the Arab world and says that insulting the glories of Arab history and linking them to “terrorist pipe dreams of worldwide Islamic domination” is not helpful.
It is a palpable absurdity to imagine the killers of Al-Qa’ida ruling a true caliphate from Indonesia to Spain. To say so only dignifies and gives weight to terrorist claptrap, and makes it harder for the leaders of mainstream Islam to take control of popular sentiment in the Middle East. ... Slurring the caliphates of Arab history is a gift to the terrorists.
Reston, author of Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade, should know better. Al-Qa’ida’s goals do not include world domination, but precisely the restoration of caliphates to their medieval high-water marks that he sees as a pipe dream. Since Al-Qa’ida can then claim its goals are limited—We only want what was ours, nothing more—other ideas, like using force to turn society's clock back to the time of the Prophet, sound quite reasonable to millions in the Islamic world. These citizens are then encouraged to see all of history after about 1450 AD as an encroachment on divinely Muslim lands. In this long-term perspective, the last half-millennium or so is categorized as a temporary setback.
The problem is not that Donald Rumsfeld is somehow dignifying Al-Qa’ida with a response; the problem is that Al-Qa’ida is successfully tapping into the long-held dream of a Muslim world again united and purified under a new caliphate. It is entirely legitimate that Rumsfeld discuss the “caliphate” idea to remind Americans, European allies and, yes, Muslims, of what is at stake in the fight against Al-Qa’ida.
Incidentally, the CIA has an interesting New Caliphate scenario, highlighting the idea that a caliphate need not be a physical Seville-to-Sulawesi empire to disturb the international order and cause major Sunni-Shi’a infighting. It is Al-Qa’ida’s ideas that are a menace, not its ability to directly control politics in dozens of Muslim countries.