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Corn’s Caliphates in Wonderland

They Just Don’t Make Caliphates Like They Used To….

SWJ Blog featured a lengthy (30 page) essay by Dr. Tony Corn on….well….many things. Corn begins with caliphates and then sort of takes off much like a blown up balloon abruptly released by a child prior to tying a knot in the end.

The Clash of the Caliphates: Understanding the Real War of Ideas by Dr. Tony Corn

….For one thing, within the global umma, there appears to be as many conceptions of the ideal Caliphate as there are Muslims. This grass-roots longing for a symbol of unity should be heard with the proverbial Freudian -third ear,?? and seen for what it really is, i.e., a symptom rather than a disease. For another, by agreeing to establish diplomatic relations with the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), America and Europe have, in essence, already granted the OIC the status of a Quasi-Caliphate.

More important still, it is time for Western policy-makers to realize that the ideological rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has been going on since 1979 constitutes nothing less than a Clash of the Caliphates. Through a soft power strategy blurring the distinction between -public diplomacy?? and -political warfare,?? -humanitarian aid?? and -religious propaganda,?? the two states have been the main drivers of the re-Islamization process throughout the Muslim world. The one-upmanship dynamic generated by the rivalry between these two fundamentalist regimes is the main reason why, from the Balkans to Pakistan, the re-Islamization of the global umma has taken a radical, rather than moderate, dimension.

Ok, “caliphates” as a metaphor/analogy for geopolitical rivalry of Muslim states works but it is not really what Islamists or normal Muslims would mean by the term. It is a very odd usage. I’m not overly bothered by that because I tend to like analogies but Corn’s device here is apt to make the heads of area studies and Islamic history scholars explode. The whole essay is in this meandering, idiosyncratic, vein.

Now that is not to suggest that you should not read the piece. Dr. Corn held my attention all the way through and he has a number of excellent observations on many, loosely related, subjects. For example, after discussing the pernicious effects of Saudi donations and Edward Said’s agitprop theory of “Orientalism” on the intellectual objectivity of academia, Corn writes:

…The combined effect of the House of Saud and the House of Said is the first reason why the Ivory Tower has done such a poor job identifying the nature of Muslim Exceptionalism. A more indirect, yet more insidious, reason is that, unlike in the early days of the Cold War, American academics across the board today are trained in social sciences rather than educated in the humanities. For social scientists, Explanation (erklaren) and -theory-building?? take precedence over Understanding (verstehen) and -policy-making. The victory of the -numerates over the -literates in the 1970s has produced a generation of scholars who show a certain virtuosity when it comes to -research design, but display an amazing lack, not just of historical literacy, but of -historical empathy as well. Not to make too fine a point: the Long War is being waged by a generation of policy-makers who, however articulate, never learned anything about history in their college years

Corn is spot on here. Not only is it spot on, it is likely to get much worse. After a brief qualitative “bump” from Iraq-Afghan war  language trained vets, diplos, analysts and spooks peters out, we will have the Gen Y kids with K-12 educations scrubbed free of history, foreign languages and science graduating from college with communication and marketing degrees and entering government service. Hang on to your hat when that happens.

What Corn really requires to vault his essays to the next level are the services of an experienced editor because less would be more. The man is erudite and insightful. He writes forcefully and raises a number of points that are important and with which I agree. Corn, commendably, also makes more of an effort to connect the dots than most. But maybe, if you have an essay that references David Kilcullen, Trotsky, neo-Ottomanism, lawfare, Sam Huntington, neo-COIN, Nasser, Vatican II, the Comintern, the Hapsburgs, Ataturk, public diplomacy, al- Qaradawi, social media, Fascism, Marc Lynch, Youtube, network theory, the UN, hybrid wars and the Protestant Reformation, it might be time to up the Ritalin dosage a notch. Jesus, there’s either a book proposal or four different articles in that kitchen sink of an op-ed!

Read it and take what is useful.

12 Responses to “Corn’s Caliphates in Wonderland”

  1. historyguy99 Says:

     After a brief qualitative ”bump” from Iraq-Afghan war  language trained vets, diplos, analysts and spooks peters out, we will have the Gen Y kids with K-12 educations scrubbed free of history, foreign languages and science graduating from college with communication and marketing degrees and entering government service. Hang on to your hat when that happens.

    Mark your observation is so F-ing true that it causes me great dispair to think about such a future.

  2. zen Says:

    Gen X will have to cling to power like an elderly barnacle so America can skip a generation in order to avoid total state failure ( Kind of like with the Silents who never were allowed to run jack).

  3. Tony Corn Says:

    Dear Zenpundit:
    Thank you for your review.
    Background: a few years ago, a War College asked me to teach an interagency course on the War of Ideas. I could not come up with a satisfactory framework at the strategic level at the time, so I declined the offer.  The article is simply meant as a "primer" of sorts for interagency students; it is actually a quite short overview of some (though not all) of the issues involved – with an abundant bibliography for further reading. As you say, "read it and take what is useful" to you in your particular line of work.
    Tony Corn

  4. The Lounsbury Says:


    I have a very hard time taking as useful comments by someone who clearly has such a superficial understanding of what he’s referring to.

    Nevermind that besides misunderstanding and misusing the concept of Caliphate (OIC is hardly a stand in by even the most strained and tortured analogy, any more than the EU is a stand-in for the Papacy), He mistakes the Saudi – Iranian rivalry as something broadly of interest to the Islamic world. It is not. It is a very localized thing, relative to real interest and influence, of interest to the Middle East and to a lesser extent the AfPak neighbours of Iran, due to the 12er Shi’a in that area. Beyond there, of no actual real influence at all. The Hanafi of Bosnia, the Maleki of the Maghreb, the Shafa’i of south east Asia really don’t have any sympathy for Shi’ism nor dog in the Saudi-Iranian fight. Writing that conflict as something of "the Umma"  is frankly stupid, and like the rest of the article mistakes American FP concerns (legit as they are) regarding one part of the Islamic world as some over-arching narrative FOR the Islamic world. A strange form of myopia.

    The hand-wringing over American academics seems to be a constant chez Americans over the past 30 yrs so I have a hard time taking it seriously. Ed Said’s idiocy in re Orientalism seems to me to have peaked long-ago. But in any case, hardly of my concern as such however much I find this narrative constant overwrought.

  5. The Lounsbury Says:

    I’d add that among the core problems of this commentary is it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Caliphate (the analogy to the Papacy on p. 2 betrays that) as well as the actual state of the Ottoman claim to the Caliphate by the time of its abolition.  There are so many problems with the ‘ history’ given ….

    In any case, statements like one of the biggest errors of Attaturk was the abolition of the Caliphate, or that there has been a top-down islamisation of Turkish society, are sheer idiocies that betray an extremely superficial knowledge of Turkish society or for that matter the history involved.

    These systems people are the equivalent of the perfect market efficiency theorists in financial economics, elegant sophist wankers building useless castles in the sky.

  6. J. Scott Says:

    Zen, Your comment about the "bump" is spot-on, but already here. Jihad will not wait, and we will be engaged until one side is defeated. And I suspect this will transcend generations. We have been "at war" for 10 years, but our adversaries have been at war with us much longer (shooting from the hip—79 and the collapse of the Shah?). Ten years in military time is half a  traditional 20 year career, and there is no end in sight. As much as many would like this to be "over" and the troops home, the enemy will persist, and so will we. [new paragraph] The "gap" you mention is at play now in the macro military. We watched Restrepo on DVD a few weeks ago, and while I applaud the courage and sacrifice of the troops, their arrogance and ignorance with respect to locals was alarming. These troops were (I’d suspect) products of our failing public education system and our eroding culture. Let us resolve to equip our children with the tools needed to see Liberty through this storm—a storm which is far from over.

  7. dawud Says:

    I’m both Canadian-born and muslim, and have lived in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as travelling elsewhere throughout the muslim and Western world. I don’t recognize muslims in the rhetorical arguments above, not from Corn’s illusionary ‘Caliphates’ (as Zenpundit notes, there are limits to analogies, and Corn’s plea for sympathy for history fails if he himself doesn’t comprehend the history he’s talking about, see Lounsbury’s comments above re Ottoman and Turkish history)… I read all this as a plea for the kind of nationalist and ‘civilizational’ thinking that was popular in the Cold War era – and J. Scott above seems to recognize that strain. Not seeing al-Q or other movements as elements of the same ‘modern’ (alien to the Islamic tradition) current but as holistic expressions of Muslim rage at the West, generally – is how we arrived at this point, as if ‘Jihad’ and ‘Liberty’ were iconically warring… where is the simple recognition that the people of the Middle East and North Africa are seeking dignity, expression (of religion as well as personal freedoms) and prosperity – and that these are to be understood in the same way they are understood everywhere else in the world? And that the anger that many express towards the West is mostly because of the direct and indirect support of tyrants and oppression? Not terribly complicated or disturbing, unless the idea of removing the boot from the neck causes those who helped the tyrant worries about what those who are liberated might do in retaliation. Here’s a hint: waiting to remove the boot won’t cause them to be less angry.

  8. zen Says:

    Hmmm….the comment section has come alive since last night.
    Hi Dr. Corn,
    Welcome. Ok, I see how the article would be converted into a syllabus of lecture topics – that makes a whole lot more sense in terms of structure – SWJ should probably note that in the intro as I would have approached this post differently.  I understand the difficulty in trying to create an overarching strategic framework to embrace US interagency actions, policy and analysis of  state and Islamist non-state actor motivations. Moreover, I’d suggest that if you had done so it would never be used because top tier decision makers do not really want *any* strategic framework because that would force choices which, as primarily political animals rather than statesmen, they see as outcomes to be avoided or put off.
    Hi Lounsbury,
    I agree re: Ataturk – he would never have seen abolishing the caliphate as a mistake but as a required step in junking Pan-Islamic Ottomanist legacy so as to build a modernized, nationalist, secular, republican "European" style state in Turkey. I am not up to speed on the AKP beyond knowing it is somewhat factionalized, with some groups more Islamist (by Turkish standards) and others more interested in economic liberalization or "neo-Ottomanist" foreign policy (trying to raise Turkey’s regional and global diplo status). OTOH, I do know the Saudis have and are really spending large sums to Wahhabize Indonesia’s moderate Islamic customs by funding something around 15,000 "madrassa" style schools on the Pakistani model and it is producing a very different kind of activist from the old school fundamentalists who opposed Sukarno in the 60’s.
    Hi Scott,
    We are not good at longitudinal thinking as a culture and certainly not bureaucratically in terms of personnel systems. BTW I agree with you about RESTREPO – the soldiers were culturally out of their depth, insufficiently supported under near constant attacks and thought the difficulties I were aggravated by sending so small a unit to try to win over a valley as notoriously resistant to outsider (any outsider) control as Korengal
    Hi Dawud,
    The unrest and desire for freedom and autonomy among ordinary citizens in the Mideast is certainly understandable and has, to a large extent, my sympathies. I hope they succeed to have a better life.
    However the widespread inability of these same populations to accept some of the historic responsibility for the conditions of their countries does not. The tune of Arab public opinion is largely the same regardless of whether the state has been America’s client or enemy that all (or at least most) the misfortunes are due to outsiders – the West, US, Israel_ rather than problems inherent in the political-social culture of the Arab world with it’s casual acceptance of graft and cheery belief in the rightness of nepotism and statist economic policies (The views of a tiny, westernized, liberal, English or French speaking elite does not count here).
    The US definitely supported tyranical clients like Mubarak and the conservative monarchies quite lavishly but we did not create them. Nor did America did force illiberal economics on Egypt or Algeria or tyrants like Nasser, Assad, Saddam or Gaddafi on their countries. Millions of Egyptians cheered Nasser, dictator or not, he had genuine popularity for many years as he put his regime – Mubarak’s authoritarian regime – firmly into place. Egyptians got what they cheered for.
    If Arab societies are to be free and modern, they will have to come to grips with their own history in that process.

  9. david ronfeldt Says:

    zen — i’m glad you picked up on corn’s paper.  it, as well as this post and its comments, aid continuing to think about matters we’ve raised here before.  for me, that harks back to the discussion last year on “pondering the pasdaran” as a proto-caliphate (zenpundit.com/?p=3236).
    i’m only part way through corn’s paper, but since spotting it at the swj blog, i’ve thought his unusual thesis about a “clash of caliphates” was rather insightful, calling attention to a deep dynamic that can get overlooked by westerners like me.  the discussion here is educating me about the paper’s flaws and limitations, but i still find his thesis tantalizing.
    corn — if your still there and reading this, i would ask:  why so little about iran?  it would seem to deserve it’s own sub-section, including to clarify (as i was struck to learn in the zenp post above) that iran would mean building a shia imamate, not a sunni caliphate.  also, are there significant differences in play regarding political and organizational structures?
    dawud — you asked “where is the simple recognition that the people of the Middle East and North Africa are seeking dignity …”  excellent point.   and it opens a way for me to rant a bit below.
    for weeks, i’ve noticed, arab commentators have said that the uprisings are mainly about dignity:  say, identity and dignity, or dignity and freedom, or some other combination, but always dignity.  
    in contrast, american observers keep saying the uprisings are mainly about freedom and democracy.  only occasionally do they recognize the drive for dignity.  americans rarely think about dignity; we’re raised to assume it.  
    of course, dignity and democracy overlap and can reinforce each other.  but they are not identical impulses, nor based on identical grievances.  dignity (along with respect, honor, and pride) goes to the core of how people want to be treated; it’s an ancient tribal as well as personal principle.  and in these uprisings what people seem fed up with is more basic than a desire for democracy.  it’s the indignities inflicted by corrupt, rigged, biased patronage systems, bureaucracies, and other enterprises.  it’s about individuals but also tribes, clans, and more modern groupings being played by rulers and functionaries in predatory, contemptuous, divisive ways.  it’s about the abusive denial of rights and freedoms that render a daily sense of dignity.
    somewhere in all this, i’d suggest, are significant implications for u.s. policy and strategy.  i’m not sure what they are, but it seems to me that we ought to be analyzing and operating as much in terms of dignity as democracy.  
    this quest for dignity may act as a precondition for generating democracy, a benefit for our preferences here.  but the quest for dignity may have other implications too.  for example, in some places it might lead to a rebalancing of tribal and clan relations, to an enhanced appeal for islamic law to provide dignity, and/or to a manipulative, charismatic call for strong government devoid of foreign influence — without necessarily advancing in democratic directions.  
    so it’s not just the prospects for democracy that require sound strategic thinking.  it’s also the prospects for dignity, along with its meanings and roles, in these uprisings.

  10. dawud Says:

    Zenpundit, more than fair to say – I’ve lived in Sau’di, and been astounded at the willingness to accept nationalist pablum provided nepotism and patronage worked in one’s favour, and it was disturbing to correlate resistance to rule by which tribes were in or out of favour with the regime, rather than concerns for justice and fairness as governing principles. That said, that self-contented complacency and ‘I’ve got mine’ mentality is not unique to Arabs by any means… and many have pointed out to me that opposing a regime that never legitimized itself through any other means than forceful imposition (a children’s textbook I found thrown out on the street, used in Sau’di public schools, had the circular argument "God wants the clan of al-Sa’ud to rule over this land, or why would he have granted them power in this land?") is not one that can be rationally argued with… one can hardly disabuse through reason that which was never arrived at by reason. The Sufi poet Mevlana Jelaluddin al-Rumi (ks) had an apt line: "The intelligent person is persuaded by discourse and reason, while the only argument that the stiff-necked bedouin will accept is the sword."In as much as the Arabs haven’t had a choice in their regimes, have both willingly or unwillingly accepted the lies of the regimes for decades – see David Fromkin’s "A Peace to End all Peace" where he accurately says about Paris 1919 that "While the word conspiracy is overused in the Middle East… there is no better word to describe what the French and British did during the period of the first World War." Is the succession of regimes, from the Shah to Mubarek, that were incited or encouraged by Western policymakers, solely responsible for the conditions of the muslim world? Of course not. Have they played a negative role and perhaps burned the reputation of America in the region beyond conceivable repair? Stephen Kinzer and Robert Dreyfuss make powerful arguments that direct complicity in supporting both the tyrannical regimes and the Islamists led to the formation of ideologues… and Adam Curtis argues well in "the Power of Nightmares" that the Western acceptance of the military coup in Algeria, which led to a savage civil war — where both the ‘Islamist’ extremists and the secular regime were responsible for obscene atrocities — came from a misguided attempt to refuse relatively milder Islamists power. The argument that if Islamists came to power that there would be "one man, one vote, one time" rings a bit hollow if there can’t ever be fair elections where Arabs/Muslims can choose their leaders and have them accepted by the international community – and this perception, that their vote doesn’t count, strengthens the argument that the HT and other Islamists make against democratic movements, that "democracy is hypocrisy" and the West will only ever accept leaders made in it’s own image… witness Hamas in Gaza. I don’t want to belabour the point. And yes, absolutely dignity is the core issue – I’ve never heard people use the word ‘hurma’ more – but then you have to demand what isn’t immediately recognized as an innate right — in the resonant words which I could almost hear from Tahrir square: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

  11. The Lounsbury Says:

    Leaving aside the woe-is-American-schooling/culture items, I am at an utter loss as to see how Corn’s fundamentally mis-informed history (really quite ironic given his call, but his use of history is merely as window dressing to some half-informed understandings) is useful. The Caliphate never functioned in a papal sense, Sunni Caliphs were always secular figures in the sense of not being endowed with religious commentary roles (an idea absent in Sunni Islam). The idea that Attaturk could have used the Caliphate in his modernisation program is daft and unrealistic in the extreme. The lack of a Sunni Caliph is hardly a disaster.

    For the claims re Saudi funding, I see lots of claims about Saudi funding, and have learned to take them with more than just a pinch of salt (as to the actual funding first and as to the impact second). In any case, Saudi funding of overseas schools has fuck all to do with competition with Iran, and everything to do with the domestic religious scholars desire to promote their One True Vision. That exists as a social current entirely separate from Iran.

    Pakistani "madrasas" have had great influence in my opinon due to the confluence of (i) the domestic Deobandi movement (which is older than the Saudi sponsorship by centuries) with its own extreme Salaffiya tendencies, (ii) the fractured nature of Pakistani society, (iii) the decline or collapse of the government schooling system.

    None of these factors obtain in Indonesia, although again Saudi interest in promoting their vision in major Sunni countries really has fuck all to do with Iran.

    That rather leads me to an observation on Corn’s note: his note is what Islamic history, Islam and Islamic countries looks like seen through the fun house mirror of American military academy thinking and through the myopic lens of a PoliSci approach trying to see everything happening in terms of US FP obsessions.

    The only useful point – although like the call to know history, undermined by its own ignorance and navel gazing (committing the very sin criticized) – is the call to see the political currents as reactions to local developments responding to primarily local actors (e.g. a better point raised was the importance of Perso-Ottoman wars).

    As for AKP and the FP, I don’t think there is anything particularly Neo Ottoman in its FP (there is a notable lack of sending mamlouk armies for one). AKP was quite EU obsessed up to the point when it became obvious that France and Germany would keep moving the Ascension goal posts pretty much no matter what Turkey did.

    At that point, they naturally started looking to other neighbours. At the country can’t teleport out of its geographical neighbourhoo….

  12. J. Scott Says:

    This may be a restatement, but to assert that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."—assumes the dignity and value of every person. I’ve a notion that when this idea gains true purchase in a culture/civilization, behavior modifications won’t be far behind. [I realize in advance the duplicity of writing those words and practicing chattel slavery.] Rhetoric will will match reality and people won’t stand for anything short of the dignity of the individual. Tall order, but a game changer.

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