Rather than to its role towards the outside world, the inherent weakness of the Islamic world is due to its internal division. Except for the period following the death of the prophet Muhammad of the Rashidun Caliphate (632–661) and of the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), the Islamic world has never been able to unite into a single political entity. Already during the era of the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258), parallel Caliphates challenged the Abbasids rule and the primacy over Islam: the Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171), the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba (929–1031) and the Almohad Caliphate (1147–1269). At the same time, the Arab leadership of the Muslim world began to topple due to the rise of non-Arab Islamic polities such as the Turkic-Persian Ghaznavid Empire (977-1186), the Turkish Seljuk Empire (1037–1194), the Turkish Sultanate of Rum (1077–1307) and the Turkic-Mongol Timurid Empire (1370–1507). The final decay of the Arabic leadership within the Islamic world depended on the birth of the Persian national Shiite Safavid Empire (1501–1736) on one hand, and, mostly, on the rise and expansion of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (1299-1923). By the year 1683 the Ottoman Empire was at the peak of its territorial expansion, and by controlling most of the Arabic lands as well as the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Ottoman Sultan embodied the leader of all Sunnis. In fact, Suleiman the Magnificent bore, among others, the honorific titles of Caliph of Islam (i.e. a political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire Muslim community), Amir al-Mu'minin ("Commander of the Faithful") and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (al-Masjid al-Haram or “the Grand Mosque” in Mecca, and al-Masjid an-Nabawi or the Prophet's Mosque, in Medina). Briefly, during the Ottoman era, the Arab world had utterly lost a title role within Islam. After World War 1 and the dissolution of the Ottoman Sultanate, the British and French allies that helped the Arabs fighting against the Turks deceived them: instead of uniting the Arab lands under one ruler, they partitioned the Near East for their own benefits through the establishment of the mandate system of the League of Nations. Britain ruled over Mesopotamia and Palestine, and France over Syria and Lebanon. Moreover, the Balfour Declaration, approved by the English government, inaugurated the Zionist colonization of Palestine that would have led, thirty-one years later, to the birth of the Jewish State of Israel, right in the middle of the Arab Mashreq. Since then, the Islamic world suffered from a chronic lack of unity. The birth of the Arab League in 1945 and the pan-Arabist ideology backed by the Egyptian President Nasser and somewhat by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi could not recover the political reunification of Arab countries. Meanwhile, the development of Kemalist Turkey and the consolidation of Khomeini’s revolutionary Iran ultimately produced independent poles within the Islamic world.
|The Umayyad Caliphate (661-750)|
Consequently, the question that we would like to examine is the following: can a single Islamic country gain hegemony over the entire Muslim community today?
Indeed, there are six main potential candidates able to achieve this hegemony: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan: for various reasons, each of them possesses points in favor and against to rise to Muslim leadership. Let us consider their main features and then draw some considerations.
Saudi Arabia: It is an absolute monarchy, the surface is of 2,149,690 km2 and the population is of 30 million. It is an independent kingdom, born in 1932 through the unification of the Kingdoms of Najd and of Al-Hejaz and of the Emirates of ‘Asir, Najran and Al Hasa. After the death of the founder Abdul Aziz (1953), the sons inherited the throne in order of seniority following a traditional custom. According to the Fundamental Law (1992), the sovereign is the custodian of the holy places (Mecca and Medina) and holds all political powers: legislative, executive, judiciary. There is no difference between heritage of the royal family and State budget. An Advisory Council composed by 120 members appointed by the king attends him in governmental issues. The right of vote is limited to male citizens older than 21 and is used only for administrative elections. Sunni Islam is the State religion. The main language is Arab. In 2013, the GDP was worth 927.8 billion dollars (31,300 dollars per capita).
|The Ka'aba in Mecca|
Egypt: It is a republic, the surface is of 1,001,449 km2 and the population is of 86 million. A former British protectorate, Egypt became a semi-independent monarchy in 1922. In the year 1953, the country overthrew the monarchy and turned into a republic under the leadership of Colonel Nasser. According to the 1971 Constitution, amended several times, Egypt is an “Arab Republic with a democratic socialist system”. Almost 90% of the population professes Sunni Islam and 10% is Coptic-Christian. The main language is Arab. In 2013, the GDP was worth 551.4 billion dollars (6,600 dollars per capita).
Turkey: It is a republic, the surface is of 783,562 km2 and the population is of 81 million (Turks 70-75%, Kurd 18%, other minorities 7-12%). Mustafa Kemal Atatürk proclaimed the Turkish Republic in 1923 (Treaty of Lausanne) after victorious war against the Greeks. The dominant religion of Sunni Islam. The main spoken languages are Turkish (official language), Arab, Armenian, Kurdish and Greek. In 2013, the GDP was worth 1.167 trillion dollars (15,300 dollars per capita).
|Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini|
Iran: It is an Islamic republic, the surface is of 1,648,200 km2 and the population is of 80 million (Persian 61%, Azeri 16%, Kurd 10%, Lur 6%, Baloch 2%, Arab 2%, Turkmen and Turkic tribes 2%, other 1%). In January 1979, the shah Reza Pahlavi was exiled and through the guidance of the religious leader Khomeini Iran turned into an Islamic Republic. The 1979 Constitution decrees the subordination of the State to the authority of the Shiite clergy. The dominant religion is Shiite Islam (86% of the population). The main language is Persian (Farsi). In 2013, the GDP was worth 987.1 billion dollars (12,800 dollars per capita).
Pakistan: It is a republic, the surface is of 196,096 km2 and the population is of 196 million (Punjabi 44.68%, Pashtun 15.42%, Sindhi 14.1%, Sariaki 8.38%, Muhajirs 7.57%, Balochi 3.57%, other 6.28%). It proclaimed its independence in 1947 after the partition of the British Raj into Pakistan (with a Muslim majority) and the Indian Union (with a Hindu majority). Sunni Islam is the main religion (75% of the population). The official language is Urdu and English. In 2013, the GDP was worth 574.1 billion dollars (3,100 dollars per capita).
As we can see, the six countries have many different characteristics. Although often being considered as potential leaders of the Islamic Ummah, in fact none of them presents all the necessary requirements to incarnate this role.
Saudi Arabia is the early home of Islam. It guards the holy shrines of the Muslim faith and the Arab language is the language of Islam because the Quran was revealed and written down in this language. This country owns the greatest oil reserves of the world and has an utmost financial influence in international relations. The Saudi kings have shaped their government on top of the stark and austere Islamic canons of Wahhabism. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Saudi Arabia has been the most influent country of the Islamic world, spending billions of dollars in fostering the Muslim cause throughout the world by building mosques, publishing books, funding political parties, political organizations and fundamentalist groups. However, on the other hand, its population is relatively small, although scattered over a vast landscape. The small size of the population, the poverty of the land and of natural resources (except, of course, that of oil), the tarnished relations with the Shiites and the opportunistic friendship with the West compromise Saudi leadership over Islamic countries.
Egypt is an Arab country, densely populated, located in the heart of the Middle East in a strategic position equally distant from the Maghreb, the Mashreq and the Arabian Peninsula; it is also one of the cultural centers of Islam, with its famous universities. Still, Egypt is a poor country, economically dependent on foreign aid from the West and the oil-exporting Arab countries.
Turkey has an enviable heritage. Albeit not an Arab country, it possesses the history, the population, the average level of development, the national cohesion, the tradition and military competence to play the role of leading Islamic country. However, the Kemalist secularist tradition precluded Turkey to succeed to the Ottoman Empire as guide of the Muslims: laicism is avowed in the Turkish Constitution and unless a more religious-oriented government will provide its amendment Turkey will stay the laic “degenerate” of the Islamic world in the eyes of other Muslims. Amongst Islamic countries, Turkey is the only one that has deep historical links with the Muslims that dwell in the Balkans, in the Middle East, in Northern Africa, in Caucasia, in Central Asia, in Crimea and in Tatarstan. In order to gain the Islamic leadership, Turkey would have to repudiate Atatürk’s inheritance, likewise Russia repudiated Lenin’s one. Moreover, it would need a new statesman with the charisma and authority of Kemal, capable of conquering both the religious and political leadership to turn the country into a leading political force.
Iran has the demographic dimensions, the geographic position, the historical traditions, the oil reserves and the average economic development to become the leading Islamic State. However, the clear majority of its population is Shiite although the 90% of the Islamic world population is made of Sunnis. Moreover, the Persian language is much less influent than the Arab one. The relationships between Arabs and Persians have always been of mutual contempt. Finally, the Iranian theocratic government is openly contemptuous towards both laic Muslim countries and Sunni fundamentalist ones.
|The Ottoman Empire|
Indonesia is the country with the biggest Muslim population. Its economy is steadily growing. Notwithstanding, from a geographic point of view, it is located in the outskirts of Islam and far away from the Arabic epicenter. Despite the existence of fundamentalist groups, Indonesian Islam is moderate, as in most countries in South-Eastern Asia. Furthermore, the Indonesians are not homogenous: the population is the result of a blend of autochthone, Muslim, Hindu, Chinese and Christian-European influences.
Pakistan has the geographic dimensions, the demographic number and the military capacities (think of the nuclear weapon) to become a leader country. Still, it is extremely poor and torn by ethnic and religious inner divisions. The main Pakistani obsession is the issue of its security endangered by India, which explains why Pakistan decided to tighten relations with other countries outside the Islamic world like China or the USA.
To conclude, what weakens the Muslims is in fact their divisions. Muslims prefer fighting each other rather than coalescing. All of them believes to be in the righteous path and none wishes to understand the other. These misunderstandings are firstly due to religious divisions between the two main groups: Sunnis and Shiites; then, is due to the ethnic-linguistic diversities of Arabs, Turks and Persians; finally, it is due to a feeling of superiority, consolidated by a nostalgic remembrance of each proper historic grandeur, which each Islamic group perceives towards others. A separated Islamic world, and even a separated Arab world, from a geopolitical point of view is a greater good that all non-Islamic international actors desire. It is up to Muslims to accept this eternal fragmentation or to exit from a state of inferiority, which often implies a dependence with the outside world, which they chose for themselves.
S. P. Huntington, The Clash of Cilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 1996.
The World Factbook - CIA.