There is a massive struggle underway to lead the Muslim world, with three major powers contesting for leadership over the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims. The Quran teachers that Muslims are a nation (“umah” – the word has the same meaning in Hebrew and Arabic), and the Umah has traditionally been led by caliphs, the successors of Muhammad. The Caliphate existed continuously from Muhammad’s death until 1924. The last Caliph was based in Istanbul, Turkey; the Turks had been the dominant ethnicity in the Islamic world for centuries. With Turkey’s defeat in World War I, its leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, decided that Turkey would Westernize and become a secular European-style republic. He abolished the caliphate in 1924, and the Islamic world has been without an official religious leader ever since.
The term “caliphate” recently returned to international prominence with the Islamic State proclaiming that it had restored the caliphate. Most Muslims, however, did not seem to grant legitimacy to the neo-Caliphate.
Today, there are three powers that seek to assume religious leadership of the Islamic world. One seeks to officially reconstitute the Caliphate, while the other two seek to achieve hegemony and sway.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are often in the news for their proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The other power vying for dominance consists of an alliance between Turkey, Qatar and the Islamist organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Let’s examine each aspirant’s profile.
Saudi Arabia is the state which is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. The Saudi King’s official title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (The Great Mosque of Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina). This grants the Saudi government a certain “air of holiness” and measure of respect in the Islamic world. The Saudi government is Sunni, which places it in the camp of 85-90% of the world’s Muslims. While Saudi Islam has historically insisted on the strictest versions of Islamic law (shari’a), the greatest challenge for the non-Islamic world is that that Saudi religious influence promotes extreme enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Saudi regime has spent billions of dollars spreading its hostile doctrine of austere Islam. Around the world, from large Muslim countries like Pakistan and Indonesia to newer Muslim communities in Europe and North America, the Saudis have financed mosques and Islamic schools that teach Saudi-style Islam. Even a mosque in Iceland has received Saudi funds. The goal, in short, is to change the religious culture of other Muslim communities so that they resemble Saudi Arabia. This positions Saudi Arabia is the “cultural motherland” of hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide. Recently, the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has declared that he seeks to return Saudi Arabia to a “moderate” Islam. Whether Wahhabi or moderate, many Sunni Muslims see Saudi Arabia as the cradle, the heart and the leader of the Muslim world.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, with a population of about 80 million. As we read in the megillah, the Persians had an empire thousands of years ago that stretched from India to Ethiopia, and Iranians tend to see their country as an imperial power. The Islamic revolution in 1979 catapulted Iran’s status in the Muslim world when Iranians overthrew their Westernizing monarch, the Shah. The Iranian constitution calls for the exportation of the Islamic revolution, and that is exactly what Iran’s government works very hard to do. As the world’s only Shi’ite power, Iran is one of the few Islamic countries who can challenge Saudi Arabia’s status. While The Saudi clerical establishment views Shi’ites as renegade Muslims or even non-Muslims. To counter this, the Iranian clerical establishment does its best to delegitimize the Saudi regime and to gloss over the Sunni-Shi’ite divide because Shi’ites are such a small minority of the overall Muslim world and as mentioned, are deemed non-Muslims by some Sunnis. At the same time, Iran presents itself as the champion of oppressed Shi’ite minorities in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan and other countries with Shi’ite populations. This gives them a natural constituency that is marginalized and vulnerable. Since Shi’ites constitute only 10-15% of the world’s Muslims, how can Iran possibly seek leadership of the Islamic world? The Iranian approach has been to try to unite the Muslim world against common enemies. The Muslim world tends to respect those who stand up against the United States and Israel, which is why the Iranian government organizes rallies and brings in participants to chant “death to America, death to Israel.” This grants Iran status in the broader Sunni world, and the close relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia gives Iran an easy talking point with which to discredit the House of Saud.
The final contender is Turkey, formerly known as the Ottoman Empire. The Turks are mostly Sunnis, and they ruled over vast parts of both the Middle East and Europe and were the dominant ethnicity in Islam for centuries. As mentioned above, the Turks provided the Islamic world with its Caliphs for centuries until 1924. Turkey’s government is acting in cooperation with Qatar, a small, wealthy monarchy adjacent to Saudi Arabia that seeks to undermine Saudi leadership and promote Islamism by funding various militant organizations throughout the world, the most famous of which is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The Turkey-Qatar-MB group does not seek a “moderate” form of Islam. The Turkish president has stated that “there is no such thing as moderate Islam”, and the Emir of Qatar has funded al-Qaeda linked jihadist groups in Syria and Libya.
Turkey also has a huge diaspora in Western Europe, as well as ethno-linguistic links to Russia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Even in far off China, the Uighur Muslims speak a language similar to Turkish. This gives Turkey a huge natural constituency from Europe to East Asia. Just as Iran speaks the language of Shi’ite victimization, Turkey’s leadership weaves a narrative of Muslim victimization in Europe as well as conspiracies that the West is plotting to “weaken Islam.” Naturally, it also portrays Israel as a merciless oppressor of Muslims by accusing Israel of “barbarism that surpasses Hitler”. This victim-based populism and conspiracy mongering is a sure way to gain supporters from Morocco to Malaysia.
In addition to the ideological battle that each of the aspirants are waging, this leadership struggle is also very much a military conflict. The civil wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria, as well as the political strife in Egypt and Lebanon are very much proxy conflicts in which each of these powers plays a shadowy role.
Today, it is clear that both the US and Israel support Saudi aspirations to lead the Islamic world, as the Saudis have a long-standing relationship with the US and they are the only contender not expressing open hostility to Israel.
This power struggle leaves us with several important questions.
- First, who is likely to emerge as the leader of the Islamic world? Which aspirant is likely to promote peace and stability?
- How would each potential leader shape the direction of Islam?
- What are the implications for the United States, Israel the Islamic world and the world overall?
Exploring the answers to these broad questions merits an article in and of itself.