By war and battles here, I do not mean actual armed conflicts. What I mean is a tussle between various Muslim-majority states for the title of being the leader of the Muslim world, or the ummah.
Ever since the United States helped its European allies in defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the Second World War (1939-45), it has enjoyed the status of being the “leader of the free world.” This status was further strengthened by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. And even though the debacles faced by US forces in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan have seen a gradual decline in US influence, various European powers still defer to the US on various issues.
This nature of leadership has to do with having the clout to shape the economics and politics of other countries in such a manner that they do not break away from the orbit of American interests. Of course, to earn this kind of clout, the US had to build a wealthy economy, military prowess, and a stable and consistent political system. Culture, too, played a role when American films, music and TV shows became one of its many exports, shaping and influencing modern popular culture around the world.
Whereas like European governments, a majority of Muslim-majority states, too, are in the orbit of American political and economic influence, there have been Muslim countries within this orbit that have tried to emerge as the main powers in the Muslim world. The purpose is similar: to gain enough influence to shape the politics and economics of all other Muslim countries that are suited to the global interests of a particular Muslim country. However, the usage of culture in this respect becomes somewhat complex.
Historian E. Kedourie wrote that Kemal was conscious of how the idea of the caliphate was deeply embedded in the minds of Muslims. According to Kedourie, at one point, Kemal actually wanted to name himself as the new caliph
There was a universality about US cultural products with the increasing adoption of the English language and fashions around the world. This is not the case when a leading Muslim country begins to export its cultural products to other Muslim regions. Most of these regions have their own languages, histories and cultures, and many Muslims are known to have reacted negatively when some other Muslim region has tried to impose its language and understanding of Islam on them.
The race to become the leader of the Muslim world began in 1919 after the collapse of the last major Muslim Empire, the Ottomans. In 1924, a year after declaring Turkey a republic and becoming its president, the former commander in the army of the shrinking Ottoman Empire, and a hero of the First World War, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, abolished the centuries-old office of the caliphate and drove the last Ottoman caliph into exile.
With this act, not only did Kemal launch his ambitious republican and secularisation project in Turkey, but he also triggered a race between Muslim leaders and monarchs to become recognised as the new (post-Ottoman) leaders of the Muslim world. Various Muslim groups in various regions had agitated against European powers who were at war with the Ottomans during the First World War. But after the defeat of the Ottomans, most Muslim political leaders and intellectuals began to hail Kemal’s coming to power. They saw him as a modern ‘redeemer of Islam.’
The British historian E. Kedourie, in a 1963 essay for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, wrote that Kemal was conscious of the fact that the idea of the caliphate was deeply embedded in the minds of Muslims. According to Kedourie, at one point, Kemal actually wanted to name himself as the new caliph. But since this would have contradicted and complicated his secularisation and republican project, he didn’t. However, Kedourie adds that Kemal then offered a much-weakened version of the caliphate to Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi, the Arab head of a Sufi order, as long as he would remain outside Turkey.
This suggests that, despite launching an aggressive project to secularise Turkey, Kemal was still interested in retaining the country’s role as the ‘spiritual and political leader of the Muslim world.’ But after the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate, two contenders rushed in to claim the title. One was King Fuad of Egypt, a country that was still being ruled by the British. The other was the ‘Wahabi’ Arab tribal leader Ibn Saud, who, with the help of the British, had conquered former Ottoman territories in what would become Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Jinnah and his colleagues needed to greatly trim the pan-Islamic aspects of Muslim nationalism, so as to root it more in the realities of South-Asian Muslims. But this did not deter Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan from declaring that Pakistan was a lot more than just another Muslim country
In 1926, Fuad organised an international Muslim conference in Cairo. It was not attended by Ibn Saud. Weeks later, Ibn Saud held a similar conference in Makkah. Turkey did not attend any of the two events and neither did the Shia-majority Iran.
In 1947, a much smaller player emerged in this race. It called itself Pakistan. It was founded in August 1947 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League. The party’s roots lay in an evolving idea which emerged in the 19th century. It took a ‘modernist’ approach to understanding Islam. This then progressed as a Muslim nationalism which was remoulded as Pakistani nationalism. The approach here relegated theological aspects of Islam to the private sphere and brought into public space Islam as a political-nationalist project.
Inspired by the writings of Muslim reformers such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, Jinnah and his party imagined a sovereign Muslim-majority country untainted by what Iqbal had lamented as ‘tribalism’ inherent in Arabian societies. Iqbal pleaded for a faith understood and articulated according to the needs of modern times. Jinnah and his colleagues needed to greatly trim the pan-Islamic aspects of Muslim nationalism, so as to root it more in the realities of South-Asian Muslims. But this did not deter Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan from declaring that Pakistan was a lot more than just another Muslim country. He held a World Muslim Conference in 1951 in Karachi. During the event, PM Liaquat Ali Khan highlighted the importance of retaining pan-Islamic ideas.
This did not please Saudi Arabia, which suspected that Pakistan was trying to undermine the kingdom’s (self-appointed) role as the leader of the post-colonial Muslim world. But this role was dramatically snatched away by Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Egyptian who came to power through a coup in 1952. Charismatic and articulate, Nasser was hailed as a hero by Muslims around the world when, in 1956, he managed to keep at bay an attack by British and Israeli forces on Egypt.
With his displays of ‘Arab socialism’ and a modernity suited to the needs of the evolving Muslim polities, Nasser mocked Saudi Arabia, accusing it of being retrogressive and rigid. For a decade after 1956, Nasser’s Egypt was the undisputed leader of the Muslim world, inspiring large numbers of Muslims in Arab and non-Arab regions alike. Stung by Nasser’s status, and also by his criticism of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi monarch King Faisal (who came to the throne in 1964) unfolded a series of modernisation projects in Saudi Arabia.
Whereas the conservative aspect of Saudi ideology was castigated by Nasser’s Egypt in the past, this time the Saudi monarchy is being challenged by Erdogan’s ‘neo-Ottomanism’
Nasser’s mystique and influence began to rapidly recede when Egyptian and Syrian forces were decimated by their Israeli counterparts in 1967. In 1970, Nasser passed away, and Saudi Arabia once again rushed in to pick up the status of the leader of the Muslim world. A windfall of profits made during (and because of) the 1973 oil crisis enhanced the influence of what became known as the “petro-dollar.” And Saudi Arabia had the most. Faisal cleverly used these to subdue (and win over) Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat. Faisal was also aware of the ambitions of Pakistani Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto, who fancied himself as a champion of the modern Muslim world. But since Pakistan had lost a war in 1971 and its economy was weak, Faisal brought Pakistan fully into the ever-expanding Saudi orbit.
By the 1980s, flush with petro-dollars and with a surge in the popularity of ‘political Islam’ in Muslim countries, Saudi political and religious influence witnessed a manifold increase. It was only challenged by the radical Shia theocracy in Iran. Both countries fought a brutal war of influence through sectarian proxies in countries such as Pakistan and Lebanon. However, in the new century, events such as the Arab Spring, the fall of dictatorships in Libya, Iraq and Tunisia, civil wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, the emergence of multiple violent anti-state Islamist outfits in most Muslim countries, along with the gradual retreat of the US and the rise of China, began to make various Muslim countries reconsider their strategic priorities and even reinvent their ideological character to strike new alliances.
Turkey, that had dropped out of the game of Muslim leadership decades ago, entered the fray again and is trying to lure non-Arab Muslim regions to break away from the Saudi orbit. It is an orbit that has already begun to decay. This is one reason why the new Saudi monarchs are trying to revive King Faisal’s reformist initiatives that were entirely sidelined after 1979. Whereas the conservative aspect of Saudi ideology was castigated by Nasser’s Egypt in the past, this time Saudi monarchy is being challenged by Erdogan’s ‘neo-Ottomanism,’ which is critical of Saudi Arabia for squandering the influence that it had enjoyed for decades as the leader of the Muslim world. Turkey sees itself as a more natural candidate for this role. But Turkey’s President Erdogan lacks the universal appeal that Nasser had. Turkey also doesn’t have the wealth that the Saudi monarchy is still in possession of. Erdogan is only left with exporting Ottoman-themed TV serials and films. He is thus playing out a fantasy.
Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan is also given to entertaining such fantasies. But being the head of a government of a country with multiple political and economic issues, and a Muslim community divided by sectarian and sub-sectarian tensions, he has only rhetoric to offer. Also, Pakistani cultural products have little or no value abroad, because they are being constantly regulated, shrunk and discouraged by his own regime. With these realities, Khan is trying to make space for himself as a Muslim leader who is most concerned by Islamophobia in Europe. This, too, has its limits because Pakistan’s reputation is anything but stellar when it comes to treating its own minority groups.
There is, therefore, no country at the moment which can claim to be the leader of the Muslim world.
Must read. I don’t always agree with NFP, but here, he appears spot-on. As for the future, the non-Arab axis should win, with Iran dithering whether to join or to go it alone. Why? The age of petro-dollars is passing by.