The 105th caliph?
It was quite intriguing - or maybe not - when, shortly before the Nov. 1 elections, a staunchly pro-President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan columnist for daily Yeni Akit claimed that Mr. Erdoğan would become the “new [‘ecumenical’] caliph” once he has won the executive presidential powers he much desires. Since then no one has denied Mr. Dilipak, one of Turkey’s Islamist rulers’ Islamist darlings of the press.
The last Ottoman sultan to have the honor, although it was a ceremonial title, was Abdulmecid II (in 1922-24), the 101st caliph in succession. Since then there have been no caliphs with universal recognition. The Sharifian Caliphate existed only briefly, between 1924 and 1931. But there are two contesters at the present time: The Ahmadiyya Muslim Caliphate (since 1908) and, neighboring Turkey, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Under the last Ottoman caliph’s rule the ailing empire allied with Germany during World War I. In 1924, when modern Turkey abolished the caliphate, Abdulmecid II, a gifted painter, was given 2,000 English Pounds in cash, then placed on the “Orient Express” with his wife, daughter, private secretary and two members of his harem, bound for Christian Europe – first stop Switzerland. He eventually settled in Paris where he would die in 1944. In Switzerland, he said: “My deposition and the abolition of the caliphate are fundamentally sacrilegious and void!”
While for millions of Muslims he was still “Commander of the Faithful” and “Vice-regent of Allah,” Abdulmecid II chose to live in a huge, sun-drenched Riviera villa, high above champagne-soused Nice – where he regularly corresponded with the grand mufti of Palestine.
Nearly a century ago, the Turkish government asked the British government not to allow the restoration of the caliphate anywhere in imperial British lands, particularly not in Jerusalem. Today, restoring the caliphate in the personality of an Ottomanist Turkish sultan sounds like music to many Turkish ears – especially if the throne should be restored in Turkish-controlled Jerusalem.
But Mr. Erdoğan should first negotiate with ISIL before claiming the throne. The problem is, he does not view ISIL’s caliphate-fetish jihadists as Muslims, and ISIL’s jihadists view him as an infidel. Dealing with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caliphate may be easier, though it may be hard to convince the Ahmadiyya Muslims to give up the holy seat. The final step before the restoration of the mantle would require diplomatic skills and some powers of persuasion: How to convince the world’s over one billion Sunni Muslims that they should unite under the caliphate of a descendant of the Ottomans.
Why should, say, the Indonesians and Malaysians - and all the Sunnis of the world - unite under the caliphate of a Turkish man who wants to be the sultan? That may be more difficult than finding 13 opposition deputies to vote in favor of constitutional amendments so that the executive presidential system he so much craves could be put to a referendum.
There is one important parallel between the last caliph and the future one: They both hate alcohol because it is not permissible in Islam. In an article he wrote in the 1920s, Abdulmecid II argued that the primary reason why the Ottoman Empire collapsed was the “drinking habits of his ancestors [former sultans].” There are differences, too. Unlike one of his predecessors, Sultan Abdulhamid, Abdulmecid II was not “feared.”
But a recent study found that only a quarter of Turks are “not afraid of President Erdoğan.” As many as 68.5 percent said they are afraid of him. Ironically, since Mr. Erdoğan’s popular support is rationally measured at 50 percent, 18.5 percent of his own supporters, too, are afraid of him. The emerging caliph is feared. The last official one was not. And the country is supposed to have progressed for about a century…
Turkey looks like the final days of the Ottoman Empire its leaders are so powerfully longing for: A near failed state whose leaders prefer to ignore and live in illusions of grandeur. Add the “palace fetish” and the picture would be more telling.