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Diplomatic Recognition

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Charli at Duck has an interesting notion:

One of the articles I read as I prepped for this trip suggested that either the Holy See should lose this status or, to be fair, other religions should be represented as well.

Interesting idea, eh? Suppose Saudi Arabia, for example, were to enter into a treaty with the city of Mecca similar to Italy’s treaty with what is now the Vatican City State, and Sunni Islam were to re-establish a caliphate centered in Mecca but territorially distinct from any Muslim majority state, with transnational moral authority over all Sunni Muslims, and then it sent diplomats throughout international society on the model of the Catholic church. Shia Islam could create a parallel Imamte perhaps centered on Tehran.

Would a dynamic like this make for a moderating political Islam, capable of integrating into international society and institutions as the Catholic Church has done, separate from the politics of Islamic governments, though sometimes allied with them; and able to represent Islamic perspectives on issues like the laws of war, family policy, human rights, etc, from outside the politics of the nation-state system? Would it constitute a space from within which the silent moderate Islamic majority could exercise a greater influence on political Islam? Or, would such an institution be vulnerable to capture by extremists and bode ill for a pluralistic international society?

I’ll confess to having no helpful input into these questions, other than to outsource them to Matt Duss and other individuals more knowledgeable of Islam than I.

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  • Bill Burns

    There’s no institution called “Sunni Islam” that would be capable of re-establishing or recognizing a caliphate. It would be up to Sunni believers, who would probably split on how they felt about the Saudis. (Any Mecca-based institution would be assumed to be a Saudi front until proven otherwise.) There’s also the question of the different schools of interpretation of Sharia. There are also profound differences within Shia Islam over the nature of the Imamate.
    Christianity, particularly Catholicism, is a far more institutional religion than most others, and trying to come up with analogies for the Papacy is ultimately futile. So cute thought,(and some kind of internationalization of Mecca among the governments of Muslim states might be a good idea) but no.

  • Bill Burns

    BTW, what’s the status of Salt Lake City under this proposal? They get to be independent?

  • Jon H

    The Shia place would probably be in Iraq.

  • djw

    I have nothing of interest to say, either, except to note that the wingnut hysteria would be pretty damned entertaining.

  • ploeg

    The Holy See’s diplomatic status is admittedly an anachronism (since the Pope has not been a worldly prince in any substantive sense since 1870). I could see continuing the anachronism, however, given that one-sixth of the world’s population are part of the hierarchy headed by the Bishop of Rome. (Notwithstanding that, when the Pope holds forth on any given topic, at least one solid third of said hierarchy will tell the Pope to stick it; this too is part of Catholicism.)

  • ploeg

    As for the proposed “caliphate”, the whole thing is a nonstarter. If the Saudis even allowed such a thing to go forward, the “caliphate” would lack the historical and institutional independence from Saudi Arabia that would be necessary for it to work on any level.

  • If by interesting, you mean “moronic,” then yes, I agree with you. Putting aside the latter day colonialism of non-muslims trying to set up a “transnational moral authority” over worldwide muslims (please imagine Al-Azhar reorganizing the national baptist convention), the idea such an initiative would do anything but pour gasoline on the fires is kind of, um, dubious. Consider how kindly Islamists tend to look on the Saudi family’s warm relations with the west (hint: they’re slightly peeved), and then try to guess how much moral authority such a transparent effort to control the world’s muslim population would have(especially given that people are quite open about why they’re considering this). I find it amazing that this isn’t just a wingnut idea or a casual kind of “what if” scenario; check out the comments section at the duck of minerva where there are multiple references to these kinds of projects being taken seriously.

  • Aaron, part of that is because this would have been a viable project into the first years of the 20th century; if the notion of a caliphate distinct from the sultanate of the Ottoman Empire hadn’t been explicitly disavowed by Ataturk (and subsequent events in the Middle East hadn’t shaken out how they did), it could very well have evolved in such a way. These guys in South Asia, for instance, were explicitly looking towards the Caliph as a symbol of religious (and ethnic) unity, despite the complete lack of secular influence that the Ottoman’s had in British India. If you think it would be a good thing, it’s almost tantalizingly close, so I imagine it occupies people’s imaginations.

  • The Shia place would probably be in Iraq.
    Najaf (in Iraq) or Qom (in Iran) are centers of Shia learning, but Shi’is would never accept any arrangement that ratified an exclusive Sunni claim to Mecca and Medina.
    I agree with Bill Burns that there’s “no institution called “Sunni Islam” that would be capable of re-establishing or recognizing a caliphate,” and thank goodness, though I do think that there’s probably a better arrangement for Mecca than as a Saudi-Wahabbi money-printing operation. At some point, the US will wake up to the fact that our closest Arab ally is also by far the biggest supporter and exporter of Islamic extremism.

  • Jon H

    Actually, it’d probably make sense to make Jerusalem an independent state / global cultural reserve governed by a neutral party.

  • It is apparently left to me to note that the fact of Vatican City and its “independent statehood” has been captured by extremists.
    Whether it bodes ill for a pluralistic society is left as an exercise to the reader, Rick Majerus, and John Kerry supporters in Colorado, among others.

  • Mike

    Actually, it’d probably make sense to make Jerusalem an independent state / global cultural reserve governed by a neutral party.
    After what happened during the Jordanian occupation, taking away control of the Old City would be awfully hard to sell to the Israelis.

  • Steve, that’s an interesting point. But while I understand how and why people in the early twentieth century might have seen it as both a good thing and a plausible option, I just want to reiterate that it’s frightening that almost a century later, with all that historical hindsight, people still want to make the mistakes of the first time around. Phrases like “it’d probably make sense to make Jerusalem an independent state / global cultural reserve governed by a neutral party” or the fact that we might note “control of the Old City would be awfully hard to sell to the Israelis” (but hardly address how radically skeptical most Muslims would be of a Western imposed Muslim vatican state) just illustrates how one sided the perspective is through which we tend to see these issues. What makes sense to us is not necessarily likely to make sense to the very people these proposals most concern, for very good and historically grounded reasons. And if people take their frame of reference from the days when white people divided up brown people’s countries for them, well, I just don’t know what to say about that.

  • Mike

    or the fact that we might note “control of the Old City would be awfully hard to sell to the Israelis” (but hardly address how radically skeptical most Muslims would be of a Western imposed Muslim vatican state) just illustrates how one sided the perspective is through which we tend to see these issues.
    The latter point was mentioned first and more often. I’d hesitate to describe LG&M as overly sympathetic to the Israeli point of view.

  • What do you think the king of Saudi Arabia is? He is first and foremost the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques

  • Charli at Duck simply ignores how and why the Holy See has the privileges it has, and expresses a profound ignorance of how Islam is structured (or not) and how Mecca fits into that.
    I was going to write more, but it’s like saying “wouldn’t it be cool if the Martians had an embassy on Earth?” Yeah, it would be cool, but, erm…

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